Many tourists who land in Brazil think that bossa nova, the country’s most renowned musical export, is still wafting through the palm trees and pulsing from oceanside boîtes. The truth is that by the time bossa had made its American splash in the ’60s, its six-year Brazilian heyday had begun to fade. The music’s blithe, breezy elegance, redolent of the middle-class good life, had grown trivial with the dawn of a military dictatorship, which squelched free speech and tortured dissenters.
Today in Rio, bossa is almost nowhere to be heard. But on a posh, tree-lined street in Ipanema lives one of the music’s last surviving pioneers: composer and singer Carlos Lyra, 86. Lyra’s trademark songs—“Você e Eu,” “Minha Namorada,” “Coisa Mais Linda,” “Primavera”—are so ingrained in the national psyche that audiences of a certain age sing along without prompting. Drawing on the cool, meticulous swing of ’50s West Coast jazz and the harmonies of the French impressionists, his music is exceptionally refined, and tuneful as anything bossa produced.