Ary Barroso wrote "Aquarela do Brasil" in early 1939, when he was prevented from leaving his home one rainy night due to a heavy storm. Its title, a reference to watercolor painting, is a clear reference to the rain. He also wrote "Três Lágrimas" (Three teardrops) on that same night, before the rain ended.
Describing the song in an interview to Marisa Lira, of the newspaper Diário de Notícias, Barroso said that he wanted to "free the samba away from the tragedies of life, of the sensual scenario already so explored". According to the composer, he "felt all the greatness, the value and the wealth of our land", reliving "the tradition of the national panels".
Initially, he wrote the first chords, which he defined as "vibrant", and a "plangent of emotions". The original beat "sang on [his] imagination, highlighting the sound of the rain, on syncope beats of fantastic tambourins". According to him, "the rest came naturally, music and lyrics at once". He declared to have felt like another person after writing the song.
Before being recorded, "Aquarela Do Brasil", initially named "Aquarela Brasileira", was performed by the baritone Cândido Botelho on Joujoux e Balangandans, a benefit concert sponsored by Darci Vargas, then First Lady of Brazil. It was then recorded by Francisco de Morais Alves, arranged by Radamés Gnattali and his orchestra, and released by Odeon Records on August 1939. It was also recorded by pt:Araci Cortes, and despite the singer's huge popularity at the time, the song was not a success, perhaps because the song was not adjusted to her tenor voice.
"Aquarela do Brasil" took a while to succeed. In 1940, it was not among the top three songs of that year's Carnival in Rio. The president of the jury was Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Barroso, offended that his masterpiece was not on the list, ended his relationship with him. The two men would only speak to each other again fifteen years later, when both received the National Order of Merit.
The song only became famous after it was included in Walt Disney's 1942 animated film Saludos Amigos. After that, the song became known not only in Brazil, but worldwide, becoming the first Brazilian song to be played over a million times on American radio. Due to the huge popularity achieved in the United States, it received an English version by songwriter Bob Russell.
It was voted by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone as the 12th greatest Brazilian song.
This song, because of its exaltation of Brazil's great qualities, marked the creation of a new genre within samba, known as samba-exaltação (exaltation samba). This musical movement, with its extremely patriotic nature, was seen by many as being favorable to the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, which generated criticism towards Barroso and his work, as if he were kowtowing to the regime. The Barroso family, however, strongly denies these claims, pointing out that he also wrote an anti-fascist song named "Salada Mista" (Mixed salad), recorded by Carmen Miranda in October 1938. Vargas, although not a fascist himself, was sympathetic to such regimes in the early years of his presidency.
The Department of Press and Propaganda, the official censorship body of the regime, wanted to censor the verse "terra do samba e do pandeiro" ("land of samba and the pandeiro"), which was seen as being "derogatory" for Brazil's image. Barroso persuaded the censors to keep the line.
Some criticism to the song, at the time, was that it used expressions little known by the general public, such as "inzoneiro", "merencória", and "trigueiro" (intriguing, melancholic, and swarthy), and that he was too redundant in the verses "meu Brasil brasileiro" ("my Brazilian Brazil") and "esse coqueiro que dá coco" ("this coconut palm that produces coconut"). The composer defended his work, saying that these expressions were poetic effects inseparable of the original composition. On the original recording, Alves sung "mulato risoneiro" (laughing mulatto) instead of "inzoneiro" because he was unable to understand Barroso's illegible handwriting.Black Mother refers to Our Lady of Aparecida – which is a statue known in Brazil for being black. Our Lady of Aparecida is also The Patroness of Brazil.
The song has received many successful recordings through the years, being played in many different genres, ranging from its original samba genre to disco. It is one of the 20 most recorded songs of all time.
In 1943, Spanish-born bandleader Xavier Cugat reached number two on the Best Sellers List and number nine on the Harlem Hit Parade with his version of "Brazil". In 1957, Frank Sinatra recorded the song in Come Fly With Me. He was followed by other successful artists of the time such as Bing Crosby, Ray Conniff, and Paul Anka.
During the Brazilian military dictatorship, MPB singer Elis Regina performed what is perhaps the darkest version ever of "Aquarela do Brasil", accompanied by a chorus of men reproducing chants of the Native Brazilians. In 1975, American band The Ritchie Family reached number-one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart for seven weeks with their disco version of the song.
Other successful Brazilian singers such as Antônio Carlos Jobim, Erasmo Carlos, João Gilberto, Gal Costa, and Simone also recorded versions of the song at the same period.
The song was featured prominently in Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil, which was named after it. It was recorded by Geoff Muldaur in the soundtrack, but parts of the song was incorporated in the orchestral score by Michael Kamen. Afterwards, in the 1990s, it was recorded by both Harry Belafonte and Dionne Warwick.
In 2007, singer-songwriter Daniela Mercury, which recorded the most recent cover of the song by a Brazilian artist, was invited to perform the song at the end of the opening ceremony of the XV Pan American Games, held in Rio de Janeiro.
In 2009, the Recording Academy added the 1942 recording of "Brazil (Aquarela do Brasil)" by Jimmy Dorsey & His Orchestra, released as Decca 18460B, to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Jimmy Dorsey was the first to record the song on July 14, 1942 and release it with the English lyrics by Bob Russell sung by Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell.
Also in 2009, American band Beirut performed "Brazil" for their live DVD Beirut: Live At The Music Hall Of Williamsburg.
ITV used a cover of this song by Thiago Thomé as the theme song for their coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup which took place in Brazil in June and July 2014. During the tournament's opening ceremony, its first verses were performed live by Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte before being joined onstage by Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez to sing "We Are One (Ole Ola)".