Brazil is a country with a rich musical history. The birthplace of samba and bossa nova, Brazil is well known for its contributions to jazz music and dance. Some of the most famous jazz standards were composed by Brazilian musicians.
Brazilian music is famous for much more than jazz. We’ve compiled a list of the 15 greatest and most famous Brazilian musicians of all time to showcase the diverse musical talents of this incredible country.
1. Antônio Carlos Jobim
Known as “the father of bossa nova”, Antônio Carlos Jobim was the driving force behind the creation of the bossa nova style and was responsible for internationalizing it and merging it with jazz in the 1960s.
His song “The Girl from Ipanema” is one of the most recorded songs of all time.
Jobim was born in Rio de Janeiro and earned money as a young man by playing piano in bars and nightclubs before becoming famous for his compositions and collaborations with prominent jazz figures like Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra.
Jobim is considered one of the most influential Latin artists of all time.
2. Carmen Miranda
Nicknamed “The Brazilian Bombshell” Carmen Miranda was a singer, dancer, Broadway actress, and film star, known as the world’s foremost interpreter of samba.
Miranda’s unforgettable performances and signature fruit hat helped to popularize Brazilian music around the world.
Before she was a singer, Miranda was a hatmaker.
She found fame in 1930 with her recording of “Taí (Pra Você Gostar de Mim).”
She made 14 Hollywood films between 1940 and 1953 and by 1945 she was Hollywood’s highest-paid entertainer and America’s top female taxpayer.
She is known as the most famous Brazilian woman of all time.
3. Jorge Ben
Jorge Ben, born Jorge Duílio Lima Menezes, is a popular musician famous for his blend of samba, funk, jazz, and rock, and is known as “the father of samba.”
He has been active in all of Brazil’s major musical movements, and his albums are said to define the sound of Tropicália.
Ben’s first public appearances were in festivals organized by his friends.
He first gained notoriety with his hit “Mas Que Nada”, which to this day remains the most-played Portuguese song in the United States.
It is the song most people think of when they think of “Brazilian music.”
4. Gilberto Gil
Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira, known by his stage name Gilberto Gil, is a singer-songwriter who is also famous for his political activism.
He has been active in politics since 1987 when he was elected to a local post in his hometown of Bahia.
He served as Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008.
Gil joined his first band, Os Desafinados (“The Out of Tunes”) in high school.
He earned money selling bananas before teaming up with Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso.
He was arrested in 1969 and exiled from Brazil.
When he returned in 1972 he vowed to focus on his musical career and environmental advocacy work, which he has done since.
5. João Gilberto
João Gilberto, born João Gilberto Prado Pereira de Oliveira, was a singer, songwrite and guitarist.
Around the world he is sometimes referred to as “the father of bossa nova”, but in his home country he is called “The Legend.”
Gilberto received his first guitar at age 14 as a gift from his grandfather.
His father disapproved of his pursuit of music, especially when Gilberto dropped out of school at 18 to become a crooner on Rádio Sociedade da Bahia.
Gilberto received three Grammys in 1965 for his album Getz/Gilberto, which is considered the record that popularized bossa nova worldwide.
6. Dorival Caymmi
Dorival Caymmi was a singer, songwriter, actor, and painter known for contributing to the birth of bossa nova.
He’s credited with helping to establish the Brazilian songbook of the 20th Century and is cited by famous contemporary artists like Gilberto Gil and Beth Carvalho as a significant influence.
Caymmi sang in choirs throughout his childhood in Salvador before dropping out of school at age 13 to earn money as a journalist for the newspaper O Imparcial.
He never received musical training but taught himself to play guitar before achieving fame in 1930 with a song he wrote for Carmen Miranda.
Caymmi has won multiple awards recognizing his contributions to Brazilian music, and there is a street named after him in Brazil.
7. Clara Nunes
Clara Nunes was the first female singer in Brazil to sell over a million copies of a record, with “Tristeza Pé No Chão.”
She is known as “the Queen of Samba.”
As well as being an enormously successful samba artist, she was also a music researcher and traveled to Africa many times to study the roots of black music.
Nunes won her first singing contest at the age of ten and worked as a weaver in the same factory as her father throughout her teenage years.
She began singing at Rádio Inconfidência in 1960 and became well known as a samba singer in the 70s.
She died tragically after having an allergic reaction to an anesthetic during surgery at age 40.
8. Sérgio Mendes
Sérgio Santos Mendes is a pianist from Rio de Janeiro who rose to fame with the group Brasil ‘66, who were notable because they sang primarily in English.
Mendes is unique in that he is a Brazilian musician who is more famous in the United States.
He recorded most of his albums in the states and has toured there extensively.
Mendes attended a musical conservatory as a child, with the hopes of becoming a classical pianist.
In the 1950s, he became interested in jazz and started playing in nightclubs.
He supported prominent artists like Antônio Carlos Jobim, who he considered a mentor, and the many US musicians who came through on tour.
Today he is best known for his contributions to the Rio soundtrack.
9. Gal Costa
Gal Costa is a pop singer from Bahia, best known as a principal figure of the tropicalia music scene in the 1960s.
Her performance of Gilberto Gil’s song “Divino Maravilhoso” became a defining record of the tropicalia movement and a classic pop album.
Costa became interested in music at the age of 14 after hearing bossa nova on the radio.
At 18 she befriended Caetano Veloso and began performing alongside him and Gilberto Gil in local concerts and festivals.
She became part of the tropicalia scene in 1968 and released her debut solo album in 1969, which is considered a Tropicalismo classic record.
10. Yara Bernette
Bernette Epstein, known by her stage name Yara Bernette, was a classical pianist considered one of Brazil’s foremost pianists of the 20th century.
She is renowned internationally for her interpretation of works by Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, and Chopin.
She chaired the Brazilian Academy of Music and was a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Epstein was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to São Paolo with her family at six months.
She began studying piano at six and made her US debut in 1942 at age 20.
Although reviewers initially wrote her off as a “glamor girl” because of her blonde hair, it quickly became clear that her talent far outshone her looks.
11. Max Cavalera
Max Cavalera, born Massimiliano Antonio Cavalera, is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist best known as a founding member of the metal/thrash band Sepultura.
Sepultura was a major force in the thrash metal and death metal genres during the late 80s and early 90s.
Cavalera founded Sepultura with his brother, Igor, and was the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist until 1996.
He is known for playing a guitar with only four strings—a gimmick he picked up when he broke two of the strings one day and didn’t have time to replace them.
After leaving Sepultura, he began writing and performing spiritual music with his band Soulfly.
12. Heitor Villa-Lobos
Heitor Villa-Lobos was born in Rio de Janeiro and has been described by some as “the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music.”
He was a prolific composer, conductor, cellist, and classical guitarist who wrote and performed over 2000 works in his lifetime.
He is known as the most famous South American composer of all time.
Villa-Lobos received very little formal training, learning music by illicit observation and by watching concerts at his father’s house.
During his lifetime he toured Paris and the United States and was regarded internationally as a maestro of the classical genre.
His death was a major civic event in the city of Rio.
13. Chiquinha Gonzaga
Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga, known by her stage name Chiquinha Gonzaga, was the first female conductor in Brazil.
She was a composer and pianist and wrote plays and operettas that gained popularity because she incorporated elements of Brazilian popular culture.
Brazil’s National Day of Brazilian Popular Music is celebrated on the day of her birthday, October 17.
Gonzaga was born in Rio. Her father was a marshal in the military, so unlike many girls of the time, she received a good formal education, part of which was learning to play the piano.
She married an officer of the Navy at 16 but left him to pursue a career as a musician (a scandal at the time.)
Despite rising to fame as a composer and pianist, she faced criticism from the masculine society of her time until the day she died.
Born Maria Odete Brito de Miranda de Souza, Gretchen is a singer, dancer, and porn star referred to by many as the Rainha do Bumbum (“Queen of Butt”.)
She sold over 15 million records during the 70s and 80s.
In 2017 she gained international attention after starring in a Katy Perry video, but she was well known as a pop culture icon and meme-worthy personality in Brazil before then.
In 1978, Gretchen recorded her debut single, and she gained fame in the early 80s for her dance moves and songs like “Freak Le Boom Boom” and “Conga Conga Conga.”
When stars like Carla Perez emerged at the end of the 90s, Gretchen finally gained recognition as a pioneer of hip-shaking.
15. Antônio Carlos Gomez
Antônio Carlos Gomez was a composer who became the first New World composer to be accepted in Europe.
He was the only non-European composer to find success in Italy during the “golden age of opera” alongside prominent figures like Verdi and Puccini.
He was the first non-European musician to be accepted into the classical music tradition.
Gomez was born into a musical family in Campinas.
His older brother was a composer and was a dedicated mentor and guide for Gomez’s career.
After graduating with honors from the Rio de Janeiro Musical Conservatory, he moved to Milan to study and found success with his opera O Guarani, which was based on a novel by Brazilian writer José de Alencar.
Verdi said the work was an expression of “true musical genius.”
The Final Word on Famous Brazilian Musicians
Brazil’s rich history of music is immortalized by not just these musicians but many others.
From jazz to samba and bossa nova, music has evolved with the help of the people of Brazil.
Don’t miss any more of their contributions to the art and follow these careers.