Why “The Girl from Ipanema“ ‘ Is a Richer & Weirder Song Than You Ever Realized

Say what you want about YouTube’s neg­a­tive effects (end­less soy faces, influ­encers, its devi­ous and fas­cist-lean­ing algo­rithms) but it has offered to cre­ators a space in which to indulge. And that’s one of the rea­sons I’ve been a fan of Adam Neely’s work. A jazz musi­cian and a for­mer stu­dent at both the Berklee Col­lege of Music and the Man­hat­tan School of Music, his YouTube chan­nel is a must for those with an inter­est in the how and why of music the­o­ry. If not for Neely’s tal­ent and YouTube’s plat­form we wouldn’t have the above: a 30 minute (!) explo­ration of the bossa nova stan­dard, “The Girl from Ipane­ma.” And it is worth every sin­gle minute. (Even the com­pos­er Anto­nio Car­los Jobim him­self could not have con­vinced tra­di­tion­al tele­vi­sion execs to give him that long an indul­gence.)

See­ings we haven’t fea­tured Neely on Open Cul­ture before, let this be a great intro­duc­tion, because this is one of his bet­ter videos. (Being stuck inside with no jazz venues has giv­en him more time to cre­ate con­tent, no doubt). It also helps that the sub­ject mat­ter just hap­pens to be one of the most cov­ered stan­dards in pop his­to­ry.

Its lega­cy is one of lounge lizards and kitsch. Neely shows it being used as a punch­line in The Blues Broth­ers and as mood music in V for Vendet­ta. I remem­ber it being hummed by two pep­per­pots (Gra­ham Chap­man and John Cleese) in a Mon­ty Python skit (about 3:20 in). And Neely gives us the “tl;dw” (“too long, did­n’t watch”) sum­ma­ry up front: the song’s his­to­ry con­cerns blues music, Amer­i­can cul­tur­al hege­mo­ny, and the influ­ence of the Berklee College’s “The Real Book.” There’s also loads of music the­o­ry thrown in too, so it helps to know just a lit­tle going in.

Neely first peels back decades of ele­va­tor music cov­ers to get to the birth of the song, and its mul­ti­ple par­ents: the Afro-Brazil­ian music called Sam­ba, the hip night­clubs of Rio de Janeiro dur­ing the 1950s, the hit film Black Orpheus which brought both sam­ba and bossa nova (the “new wave”) to an inter­na­tion­al audi­ence, Jobim and oth­er musi­cians inter­est in Amer­i­can blues and jazz chords, and Amer­i­can inter­est from musi­cians like Stan Getz. All this is a back and forth cir­cuit of influ­ences that result in this song, which bor­rows its struc­ture from Tin Pan Alley com­posers like Cole Porter and Irv­ing Berlin, and inserts a sad, self-pity­ing B sec­tion after two A sec­tion lyrics about a young woman pass­ing by on a beach (lyrics by Vini­cius de Moraes, who also wrote the screen­play to Black Orpheus).

The key in which you play the song also reveals the cul­tur­al divide. Play it in F and you are tak­ing sides with the Amer­i­cans; play it in Db and you are keep­ing it real, Brazil­ian style. Neely breaks apart the melody and the chord sequences, point­ing out its rep­e­ti­tion (which makes it so catchy) but also its ambi­gu­i­ty, which explains end­less YouTube videos of musi­cians get­ting the chord sequence wrong. And, what exact­ly *is* the true chord sequence? And how is it a riff on, of all things, Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train”? Neely also shows the pro­gres­sion of var­i­ous cov­ers of the song, and what’s been added and what’s been delet­ed. Leav­ing things out, as he illus­trates with a clip from Leonard Bernstein’s 1973 Har­vard lec­tures, is what gives art its mag­ic.

There’s so much more to this 30 minute clip, but you real­ly should watch the whole thing (and then hit sub­scribe to his chan­nel). This essay is exact­ly what YouTube does best, and Neely is the best of teach­ers, a smart, self-dep­re­cat­ing guy who mix­es intel­lect with humor. Plus, you’ll be hum­ming the song for the rest of the day, just a bit more aware of the rea­son behind the ear worm.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Girl from Ipane­ma” Turns 50; Hear Its Bossa Nova Sound Cov­ered by Sina­tra, Krall, Methe­ny & Oth­ers

David Sedaris Cre­ates a List of His 10 Favorite Jazz Tracks: Stream Them Online

Remem­ber­ing the “Father of Bossa Nova” João Gilber­to (RIP) with Four Clas­sic Live Per­for­mances: “The Girl From Ipane­ma,” “Cor­co­v­a­do” & More

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (27)
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  • Ifabunmi says:

    Please change your arti­cle to read Afro-Brazil­ian, rather than Afro-Cuban. I am 1000% sure Sam­ba is from Brazil and not Cuba.

    Have a great day!

  • Jonah says:

    The ini­tial par­en­thet­i­cal state­ment uses offen­sive alt-right terms (soy faces) and detracts from what could have been an insight­ful arti­cle.

    Take care and be kind to each oth­er.

  • Bronqueado says:

    The author has unwit­ting­ly offend­ed over 212 mil­lion Brazil­ians and count­less fans of Bossa Nova around the world by refer­ring to this unique­ly Brazil­ian music genre as “Afro/Cuban”. Please right this wrong in your arti­cle!

  • Gigi DSouza says:

    Hey ass­holes. Pro­nounce Ipane­ma cor­rect. It is nev­er to be pro­nounced as Ipa­neema.

  • Anne Brace says:

    Fun arti­cle. Small cor­rec­tion, Sam­ba is not Afro-Cuban. It’s Afro-Brazil­ian.

  • Garry Franks says:

    There is also the thought pro­vok­ing short sto­ry by haru­ki muraka­mi which turns her into a woman of meta­phys­i­cal long­ing

  • Gabriel says:

    Sam­ba “Afro-Cuban”? And in the next sen­tence you men­tion Rio de Janeiro, you guys think that’s in Cuba? Hooon­est­ly.…

  • Lola says:

    Pro­nun­ci­a­tion of Joao Gilber­to — Stan Getz intro­duc­ing Joao Gilber­to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6OL-eM1faE

  • Gerson M Valle says:

    But Tom Jobim had a great admi­ra­tion also to Claude Debussy and Heitor Vil­la-Lobos, from where he had the influ­ance of his har­mo­ny, besides jazz.

  • Ron Todd says:

    The singer gets almost no cred­it. Has she per­formed else­where? Does she have an album? How can I find her work?

    Won­ders, Ron

  • Scotty Wright says:

    Agreed. Such edi­to­r­i­al asides are com­plete­ly off-top­ic and unnec­es­sary. It was an effort to con­cen­trate on Adam Neely’s excel­lent pre­sen­ta­tion, with­out won­der­ing “will Neely bonk out, and start rag­ging on Asians, in the mid­dle of his har­mon­ic analy­sis?”

    You do Adam Neely and Open Culture.com a grave dis­ser­vice with such a com­ment.

    ‘Open Cul­ture’, indeed…

  • Scotty Wright says:

    Please: name-call­ing is not called for. Yes, hear­ing Ipane­ma mis­pro­nounced is annoy­ing, but when words enter the lex­i­con of anoth­er cul­ture, mod­i­fi­ca­tion occurs, such as BraZil instead of Brasil, Rome instead of Roma, Paris instead of ‘Pa-ree’.
    A bit of patience is need­ed, not insults.

  • Jean Maby says:

    That’s a huge cor­rec­tion, not a small one. To call sam­ba Cuban shows an aston­ish­ing depth of stu­pid­i­ty: this is THE music of Brazil.

  • Jean Maby says:

    Actu­al­ly Brasil is pro­nounced as BraZil, except you have to sort of swal­low the “il” — the last L is hard­ly there.

  • George says:

    It’s almost Bra-zee-oo…

  • John says:

    See­ings??? That’s not cor­rect Eng­lish — are you real­ly a Writer!!! You mean Seen as I think.

  • Roger in DHS says:

    Wow, I am sur­prised they omit­ted Wal­ter Wan­der­ley from the arti­cle.

  • A Einstoss says:

    I viewed a live inter­view with Jobim when he said he
    Lived near Ipane­ma beach and would watch women walk by Is that goo enough?

  • Karen Backstein says:

    That is not a “small” error. It is cru­cial and deeply insult­ing to Brazil­ians.

  • Dr Detroit says:

    I guess that depends where in Brazil/Brazil you are from! It is a huge coun­try with numer­ous dif­fer­ent cul­tures who will have dif­fer­ent lin­guis­tic takes on bas­tardised Por­tuguese!

  • Kevin Patterson says:

    Mar­ti­na DaSil­va, and yes, she’s incred­i­ble.

  • Winslow says:

    The girl that sings it the video. Is there a full ver­sion of her singing it?

  • Winslow says:

    Thank you!

  • Winslow says:

    I wish they had done an entire inter­rupt­ed ver­sion for YouTube. It’s very dreamy.

  • Jennifer says:

    Hel­lo how’s your day s going as u may no I would like to learn as much off all that is there my mind likes to learn as much as it may so if u may please do respond how I may 👍. Thank u

  • To Lola: says:

    Rather rude and harsh to call peo­ple out on their fail­ure to cor­rect­ly pro­nounce words that are of a lan­guage oth­er than their first lan­guage. At least they tried.

  • Daria says:

    Jao Gilber­to’s wife’s name is Astrud, sounds like Astrood, not Astrid. Astrud was actu­al­ly more famous than her hus­band, so call­ing it this way seemed kind of dumb, she was prob­a­bly cho­sen for her clout as much as for her abil­i­ty to singe in Eng­lish. She was a guest star, and noth­ing less.

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