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10 Apr

A History of Tropicália

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Rise of the Counter-culture

It would be near impossible to recreate the circumstances that resulted in tropicália. In 1967, Brazil's repressive military government had been in charge for three years and Brazilian music was in status quo. The authorities were happy that samba was the favourite music of the nation – they saw it as the perfect marketing tool – and didn't see the need for change. This was a climate in which João Gilberto's beautiful hybridisation of samba into bossa nova drew stinging criticisms from those who thought it was un-Brazilian.


Thankfully, the counter-culture was on the rise, swinging dramatically to the left in response to the Nationalistic stance of the government.

The Cinema Novo style of film-making, which began in 1964 with Glauber Rocha's “Black God, White Devil”, had become a platform for alternative thought and renegade ideas, as had art (the Neo-Concrete movement of the 1950s would rise to prominence thanks to the presence of Hélio Oiticica) and theatre would follow (“O Rei da Vela” was an extremely important production in 1967). It was now time for music to follow suit.

Two men from Bahia led the charge; Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Both had a deep connection with traditional Brazilian culture but they also loved The Beatles, Italian cinema, European philosophy and João Gilberto's radical new music. They had become relatively well-known in Bahia, and had released an album each, highlighting Veloso's ability as a singer and songwriter, and Gil as a performer, musician and flamboyant vocalist. However, they would need to move to São Paulo before tropicália could really begin.

The Birth of Tropicália

In 1967, at São Paulo's annual TV Record Festival, Veloso premièred “Alegria, Alegria” with the backing of Argentinian rock group The Beat Boys, and Gil would be joined by Os Mutantes to perform “Domingo No Parque.” These were both forward-thinking songs that used traditional rhythms and instruments but were also amplified and included modern cultural references. This idea of referencing pop culture, and especially Western pop culture, was alien to many Brazilians who saw their music as a pure expression. The event sparked similar outrage to Dylan's electric performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

The idea of fusing modern and traditional, local The idea of cultural cannibalism fits tropicalistas like a gloveand global, high art and low art, came from a manifesto, written by Oswald de Andrade in 1928. Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto) suggests that Brazil is at its best when it's cannibalising other cultures and that this can ultimately result in something superior and uniquely Brazilian. Veloso, in particular, cites Manifesto Antropófago as a huge influence: “The idea of cultural cannibalism fits tropicalistas like a glove. We were “eating” the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.” de Andrade had also written the theatre production “O Rei da Vela,” which, under the direction of Zé Celso, made a huge impact in 1967.

In 1968 tropicália created it's own manifesto of sorts. Veloso and Gil, along with Os Mutantes, were joined by vocalist Nara Leão, eccentric singer/songwriter Tom Zé and the writers Torquato Neto and José Capinam to record Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis. It's mix of lyrical and musical invention, along with a gift for pop melodicism, have seen it become, for many, the best introduction to the movement.

Crucial to the sound of the album was the work of producer Rogério Duprat, who was working on film scores before meeting Veloso and Gil. His training, which included time spent in Europe with avant-garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, gave a gravitas to the work that belied the young age of the musicians involved.

It was during 1968 and 1969 that many of the movement's defining albums were created. One of the first was the self-titled Caetano Veloso, which became known as “Tropicália” due to its opening track. Thanks to the journalists of the day, it was also the name of this song that stuck itself to the movement. Other albums released in this period included two self-titled efforts by Gilberto Gil, now commonly known as Frevo Rasgado and Cérebro Eletrônico, the first two Os Mutantes albums, two incredibly psychedelic and unfairly out-of-print albums by Gal Costa (also self-titled), Tom Zé's Grande Liquidacão and some more-conventional efforts by Nara Leão and Marília Medalha.

It was Duprat's production, along with the untamed musical abilities of Os Mutantes (who also designed their own amplifiers and effects pedals) and the songs of Veloso and Gil that featured on many of these albums and came to represent what we now recognise as the tropicália sound.

The Beginning of the End

The military coup d'etat in 1964 had brought with it a new level of censorship, pushing many radicals and communists into exile. Worse came in December 1968 when the government revoked the right to habeas corpus meaning that the police could enter anyone's home at will. Within two weeks both Veloso and Gil had been arrested. The reason for their arrest has never been officially given though it is thought to be less to do with the music than their stage shows, which were becoming more and more provocative. A show in late 1968 had been shut-down due to its use of a poster by Hélio Oiticica featuring a famous slum bandit who had been shot dead by the police above the caption “Be a criminal, be a hero.”

Veloso and Gil both spent two months in prison without ever being told how long they would be there or for what reason they were arrested. Many other artists and radicals who were seen as anti-nationalistic were also arrested and incarcerated around this time, with many suffering worse fates than these.

After prison, the two musicians were put under house arrest in Salvador, and unable to perform and earn a living, they were eventually exiled to London, where Gil would become hugely influenced by Hendrix and reggae music, and Veloso would write material for a number of albums using English lyrics. They would return to Brazil in 1972, where they have both continued to work, becoming two of the most successful singer/songwriters in Brazilian history.

Life After Tropicália

Their arrest in 1969 signals the end of tropicália for many. Certainly, it marks the end of their presence in São Paulo and the revolutionary shows that they were an integral part of, but musicians including Os Mutantes and Tom Zé continued to produce records with the same level of subversion and integrity. In fact, it's Tom Zé with his singular aesthetic, who, after a successful reissue campaign has found himself being hailed as one of the true innovators in the movement.

Thankfully, the legacy of tropicália will never die. International musicians including Beck, Devandra Banhart, Kurt Cobain and Nelly Furtado have all labelled tropicália as an influence. This is in addition to the musicians of Brazil, who have continued to use the idea of cultural cannibalism, so effectively convicted by the tropicalistas, as an important milestone. It's safe to say that subsequent movements such as mangue-bit may never have existed without tropicália.

Interest continues to grow. Red Hot + Rio 2, a compilation produced to support HIV/AIDS charities, will be released on June 28th this year. The album will feature covers of tropicália songs by artists including Beirut, Aloe Blacc, Bebel Gilberto, Jose Gonzalez, Angelique Kidjo, Seu Jorge and many other Brazilian and international acts. 2011 will also be the year that tropicália finally stars in its own self-titled documentary with Bossa Nova Films currently working on the project, due later this year.


Russ Slater

Russ Slater

Russell Slater is a journalist specialising in music from South America. He is the online editor for Sounds and Colours and JungleDrums Online, and regularly contributes to Time Out Sao Paulo, PopMatters and Drowned In Sound. He keeps a personal website atwhatslater.com where you can find out about his latest work.

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