From A to Zé – A Beginner’s Guide to Brazilian Music

To imagine the music of Brazil for many is to immediately hear the frantic battering of percussion almost drowned out by even louder carnival colours. It’s vibrant and upbeat but works best as a backdrop, right? Of course not. The music coming out of Brazil has long been some of the most varied and widely adopted across the musical spectrum and continues to cross geographical boundaries in a way few others can match. Here’s our quick guide to what you’re missing:

Heitor Villa-Lobos

Almost certainly Brazil’s most famous composer of classical music. Composing over an astonishing 2000 works, across chamber, orchestral, solo guitar and vocal styles, his combination of traditional folk rhythms with European-flavoured techniques can be heard in the work of Ennio Morricone and his music for film. Hugely nationalistic, he used his exoticism to promote his music across Europe.

Hans-Joachim Koellreutter

Though born in Germany in 1912, Koellreutter lived in Brazil from 1932 and became hugely influential around the world. Forming the Movimento Música Viva (Living Music Movement), he introduced Brazil to atonal,music, microtonal music and the avant garde, loosening the grip of the traditional folk sound and showing that the country could innovate with new methods as well as anywhere. See below, the bewildering use of a spherical score.

Gilberto Gil/Tom Zé

Who has greater importance? We couldn’t decide so have included both. Both were among the group of musicians who developed the Tropicália movement, an amalgamation of art, poetry, performance and music which embraced both the past and contemporary sounds around the world, from reggae to psychedelia. Elements of the style have since been adopted by the likes of Nelly Furtado, Beck and David Byrne

Antônio Carlos Jobim

The most successful Brazilian composer and musician ever? We reckon so. Introduced bossa nova to the world and acted as muse to both Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, Jobim was the breakout star who made Latin music palatable whether you could understand the language or not. His brand of laid-back jazz was strong enough to win over his genre contemporaries and mainstream audiences, his hit, “The Girl from Ipanema”, only bettered by The Beatles’ “Yesterday” in terms of the most-covered song in history.


Not all Brazilian music is so carefree and laid-back. Titãs are one of Brazil’s most successful ever rock bands, selling over 6.3 million albums over a nearly 40-year career. The band has featured anything from 4 to 9 members and has gone from poppy melodies to soaring Seattle-esque alt-rock, always managing to capture something of the zeitgeist in the country.


Without question, the most successful metal band from Brazil and one of the most successful of the 1990’s from anywhere. Formed in 1984 by brothers Max and Igor Cavalera, their early work was their heaviest, the thrash of Morbid Visions being heavily influenced by America thrash and metal bands. Later works saw them forging what became known as “groove metal” into their tracks, with bass-heavy rhythms dominating the album Chaos A.D. which became their biggest seller worldwide, narrowly missing the UK top ten, and the follow-up Roots, which featured traditional Brazilian tribal drumming.

Ricardo Bacelar

Perhaps the most successful and widely-praised Brazilian musician and composer currently working and touring, Bacelar has seemingly taken elements from every period of Brazilian musical history and managed to combine it all into something which still manages to sound brand new. Cinematic in style, the word ‘jazz’ does it no justice, with a range of sound from the lounge of smoky backstreet bars to lush sweeping orchestral works, all imbued with Bacelar’s staggering piano work. To wrap up the story nicely, his latest album, Sebastiana, employs artists from across Latin America to interpret not only his own compositions, but those of some of his illustrious countrymen, including Gilberto Gil.

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