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‘Girl from Ipanema’: Re-imagining a classic for today’s Rio de Janeiro

“Let me tell you ‘bout a different Rio / The one I’m from, but not the one that you know,” Brazil’s biggest pop star, Anitta, sings over a trap beat.

In this Oct. 5, 2019 file photo, Brazilian singer Anitta performs at the Rock in Rio music festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In this Oct. 5, 2019 file photo, Brazilian singer Anitta performs at the Rock in Rio music festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
AP

RIO DE JANEIRO — Chauffeured in a classic Porsche, the Brazilian beauty steps out into 1960s Rio de Janeiro. The pastel pastiche is easy on the eyes, and so is the pin-up girl tracing twirls as a guitar strums the city’s hymn: “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Then the bass drops, and the viewer is whisked ahead to the present day — and the decidedly B-side of town.

“Let me tell you ‘bout a different Rio / The one I’m from, but not the one that you know,” Brazil’s biggest pop star, Anitta, sings over a trap beat. The music video has her descending, bikini-clad, from a bus to an artificial pool beside Rio’s international airport.

It’s the latest twist on the placid Bossa Nova song that, more than a half-century after its creation by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, still isn’t played out — and continues to feed foreigners’ captivation. The girl from Ipanema’s journey – from Rio to the United States and back to Rio again – shows what can change, and also what endures, as culture crosses borders in an age of globalization.

Anitta’s “Girl from Rio” retains only the melody from the original track. Her lyrics convey reality: that the city’s women have fuller figures than the tall and tan one about whom Frank Sinatra crooned. Its video features a beach barbecue and bleached body hair, plus no shortage of booties and deep kissing, and mostly casts Black stand-ins for the original muse.

The new take is a long way from Rio’s golden age of glamour, an era when Brazil was churning out Volkswagen Beetles and on track to its second straight World Cup title.

‘IPANEMA’ THEN

It was the early 1960s. Rio had just lost its status as the nation’s capital, but nobody could steal the picturesque Copacabana and Ipanema beaches that served as backdrop for the Bossa Nova music movement — and the locale where Jobim and de Moraes, a composer and a poet respectively, often saw their muse walking while they sat by a bar’s window.

“There really is a secret — an enchantment,” says de Moraes’ daughter Georgiana, a singer who often performs “The Girl from Ipanema.” She’s heard it countless times, she says, yet somehow it never spoils.

Trouble arose when it came time to translate the song to English. Lyricist Norman Gimbel strongly opposed the word “Ipanema,” which he thought called to mind Ipana, the now-forgotten toothpaste brand. In comments published in Jobim’s biography, “Cancioneiro Jobim,″ the Brazilian recalled arguing with Gimbel in a Manhattan taxi. Even the cabbie whirled around to take Gimbel’s side.

Helo Pinheiro poses for a portrait in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in May. Pinheiro is the original muse for the Bossa Nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes in the the 1960s.
Helo Pinheiro poses for a portrait in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in May. Pinheiro is the original muse for the Bossa Nova song “The Girl from Ipanema” by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes in the the 1960s.
AP

“All I wanted was to pass along the spirit of the girl from Ipanema, that poetic Rio thing. I think we managed a little, but it was an ugly fight,” Jobim wrote. “Americans will never understand our ‘beach civilization.’”

Translating from a Romance language, whose words end in soft vowels, saps some of the soothing sway, according to Jobim’s son Paulinho, a musician.

But the English lyrics tweak the scene, too, said Sérgio Augusto, who wrote “Cancioneiro Jobim” with access to the artist’s writings. In Portuguese, a passing girl lifts the spirits of a lonely man admiring the fleeting beauty she brings to the world. In English, a pining man bemoans unrequited love from a girl who won’t give him so much as a glance.

“There’s a big difference,” says Augusto, “between indifference and disdain.”

And the English lyrics, especially, could be received as unseemly by a modern audience more attuned to unwanted male attention. Brazilian guitarist Toquinho, who played alongside de Moraes for years, in 2019 questioned whether even the original would’ve been rejected today.

Ruy Castro, who wrote the authoritative history of Bossa Nova, said Gimbel’s work was — unfortunately — necessary.

Gimbel was one of many “professional American lyricists who put English lyrics to foreign songs without knowing what they meant, and wound up earning more than the original authors,” Castro said in an email.

“But,” he added, “that’s how the system worked, and it’s clear that, without English lyrics, those songs never would have broken through American provincialism.”