Bandleader Sérgio Mendes, the godfather of bossa nova, was Brazil’s most celebrated artist in the Sixties. His most popular recording, “Mas Que Nada,” was originally penned and performed by singer-guitarist Jorge Ben, a former member of Mendes’ band. According to Ruy Castro’s 1990 book Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music That Seduced the World, Ben went out for a haircut before a show in Los Angeles and, under America’s pervasive Jim Crow laws, the Afro-Brazilian was turned away. It was then that Ben allegedly dropped off the tour and bought a one-way ticket back to South America — his song, however, remained with Mendes.
That same year, a military junta took over Brazil, employing a fierce nationalism and anti-imperialism that eschewed all Western cultural influence. It was then that Mendes made a home in the United States where, with the help of Herb Alpert and his home label A&M Records, Mendes would assemble a band of Americans and Brazilian exiles called Brasil ’66. In their rendition of “Mas Que Nada,” Ben’s throaty wails are replaced by the discreet chirps of Lani Hall and Bibi Vogel, trailing after a brisk samba rhythm. Here, they are introduced by Eartha Kitt on her 1967 “Something Special” — in which she opened with a performance of “I’m a Different Kind of Cat” — praising them for offering “a new look, a new sound, a new approach” to entertainment.
Their debut record, Herb Alpert Presents: Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66, hit gold in the United States and ascend to the Top Ten of the Billboard 200. Meanwhile in Brazil, the anti-authoritarian, countercultural movement known as Tropicália was beginning to take shape, leaving the apolitical bossa nova era in the dust. The song remains a staple of Brazilian music history to this day. Mendes later re-recorded his hit in 2006 with the Black Eyed Peas, but the 1966 version only gets better with age.