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The girl from Ipanema

The famous song, 50 years old, was inspired by a teacher from a conservative family

Preparations must already be afoot for the media specials on the birth, 50 years ago, of The Girl from Ipanema (Garota de Ipanema). Again we shall hear how the song was not really written in the bar Veloso, where the idlers whistled as they watched the heedless girl pass by. Heloisa Helô Pinheiro may have been the inspiration but, in 1962, Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote the music and Vinicius de Morães the lyrics, both working at home: professionals, not beach bums.

There was an element of mirage, of daydream. Helô was not exactly an Ipanema girl: not sexually liberated, not employed in a trendy job. She was a primary schoolteacher from a conservative family. Her father, an army officer, was to be press censor in the brutal years of military rule. Her mother kept an eye on her so she would reach the altar a virgin at her arranged marriage with a rich heir. The authors of Girl from Ipanema, being mature (and married) men, did not identify the object of their daydream, until later when Vinicius let it out in an interview.

A song engendered in a state of grace? Up to a point: in the first version, Menina que passa, the text accentuated the narrator’s state of existential weariness. The second attempt resulted in Garota de Ipanema. It was first heard in August, in Copacabana, in a musical review with Jobim, Vinicius, João Gilberto and Os Cariocas; the first recording, by Pery Ribeiro, came in 1963.

The song was born lucky (born with a flower up its ass, as they say). It might have drifted in the limbo of the bossa nova, caviar for the Brazilian upper-middle classes, but in March it was recorded in New York, suitably translated for international consumption: The Girl from Ipanema was born. The producer Creed Taylor added the silky saxophone of Stan Getz to the Brazilian sounds of Jobim, João and his then wife, Astrud — whose voice he enhanced at the expense of João’s, further feminizing the feel of the music.

Were it not so languid a song, you might say that it electrified the world. It made the bossa global, and sent the careers of everyone involved into orbit. It even changed the life of the object of desire, who was hyped as the archetype of the Brazilian Woman, and twice adorned the cover of Playboy.

Helô also ran a chain of beachwear shops, under the name of (you guessed it) Garota de Ipanema. In 2001 the heirs of the (deceased) authors tried to stop her from selling t-shirts with the original score. There was general indignation; the judge agreed and rejected the suit. From 1967 on, bar Veloso, the old hangout of Jobim and Vinicius, went by the name of Garota de Ipanema, a film of that name having been made the same year.

Even today, the Garota de Ipanema radiates grace, elegance, seduction, taking us back to a world as cool as it was aberrant. What do I mean by aberrant? Well, take a look at Ruy Castro’s excellent book, Ela é carioca, a dictionary whose 231 entries — people, places and establishments — cover the golden decades of Ipanema, from 1910 to 1970.

The tome evokes nostalgia for that quarter of Rio: cultured, hedonistic and low-priced. Until you notice the anomaly: are we really in Rio de Janeiro? In the book’s abundant photos you see no blacks, except a few taxi drivers, musicians and vendors. Ruy Castro also mentions the repeated predicaments of one of the few dark-skinned residents, the handsome actor Zózimo Bulbul. He was regularly stopped by the police, who could not believe that a negão lived in that neighborhood.

Even in the early seventies, Ipanema was a paradise for people of the arts and the liberal professions. White people, that is. Don’t call it apartheid — it was just a Brazil unaware of its racism.

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