Tropicalia at 50: Mingling Music & Myth

    The Music: Tropicalia is undeniably one of the most misunderstood and misidentified forms of Brazilian pop music.

    Tropicalia (aka Tropicália or Tropicálismo) is undeniably one of the most misunderstood and misidentified forms of Brazilian pop music. Much of the confusion comes from the seeds of its creation and from the mostly unstructured desire of Brazil’s youth generation of the late 60s to make an indelible cultural statement of its own.

    Beyond the impetus of artistic drive, the music of Tropicália remains an enigma: Ignited by Gilberto Gil’s exuberance and buttressed by Caetano Veloso’s vision, it took on the movement’s most public and most controversial face. Today, nearly 40 years on, many view it as a defining moment in Brazilian song, while others wonder if the results were the ones envisioned.

    Tropicalia’s musical movement lasted less than two years, from early 1967 to the Brazilian spring of 1968. Only a handful of true Tropicalia albums were ever recorded but its legacy is a lasting one.

    Tropicalia gave birth to a peculiar form of Brazilian Rock, it challenged the future of MPB (‘Musical Popular do Brasil’ or Brazilian popular music) and skyrocketed the careers of several top Brazilian musicians, including Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, and Tom Zé. It also precipitated the Brazilian protest song, somewhat mirroring the social upheaval found in many other parts of the world during this time.

    But Tropicalia was much more than a short-lived musical trend. In fact, the movement’s beginnings can be traced to a single event: Hélio Oiticica’s art exhibition, ‘Tropicália’ which debuted at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio in April of 1967.

    Tropicalia was rebellion. Its theme of cultural nonconformity was strengthened by the artistic notion that Brazil had lost its way. It quickly spread throughout the arts world to include poetry, painting and sculpture, and the theater. Its generational appeal soon led to media, marketing and advertising usage.

    Today, the term ‘Tropicalia’ has been distilled to nothing more than a catchy phrase for many in the music industry wanting to trade on the emotional appeal of the word itself – particularly outside of Brazil. There seems to be a general lack of understanding about this period of Brazilian music and art and this has been further compounded by the media in general, often as a result of a reporter’s own personal social agenda, or from a desire to categorize or streamline Tropicalia’s story.

    And maybe that’s part of Tropicalia’s legacy, too. The movement took a stand against the closely held traditions of Brazilian society (and Brazil’s musical hierarchy in particular) by fusing the nation’s musical styles with outside, international influences including the Beatles and Iê, Iê, Iê, the Bolero and even American Top 40 to confront the status quo, and the art world was quick to embrace Tropicália’s concept of counter-culturalism.

    The problem was that the Brazilian people weren’t ready to join the revolution. They were still dealing with the ‘real’ revolution – the one that had plunged their nation into Military dictatorship less than three years earlier.

    Background

    More so than just about any other style of Brazilian song, including Bossa Nova or Brazilian Jazz, an understanding of Tropicália and its place in the country’s musical mainstream requires a bit more cultural and political background for proper context.

    Most reports on the Tropicalia ‘movement’ ignore this facet, and subsequently tend to paint an inadequate picture of it. We’ll be brief.

    The Political Climate

    Tropicalia began its life in the 3rd year of a 21-year military dictatorship: This action overthrew the democratically elected government of Brazil’s leftist President, João Belchior Marques Goulart in March 1964. Many saw Goulart as a weak and ineffective leader who struggled to reform Brazil’s cascading economic woes through the communist tactic of the redistribution of wealth, and stronger control over its citizens by government edict.

    With the memory of the Cuban missile crisis still fresh in the minds of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the CIA was directed by US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to observe Goulart’s ties to Communist organizations. Subsequently, the US offered to assist Brazil’s military leaders in staging a coup as a final option to preserve the democracy.

    This coup was defined as a ‘democratic rebellion’ by the U.S. ambassador to Brazil, because the fear was that Goulart would install a Communist government in the most populous country of Latin America.

    Regardless, Brazil – a nation that had never known civil war, has had but a single conflict with Paraguay over its borders, and which became independent from the Portuguese Empire without spilling a drop of blood, was overnight, instantly transformed. Its democracy was cast away by a faction of its own government.

    But it wasn’t the first time.

    Similar events occurred in 1930, when a Brazilian governor named Getúlio Vargas overthrew the elected President of Brazil, proclaimed himself Dictator and turned Brazil from a democratic Republic into a Fascist state until 1945, when he was forced out by the Brazilian military.

    Consequently, many Brazilian adults in 1964 accepted the military’s role as a legitimate step in protecting their country. However, this view was not universally shared, especially by members of the creative community.

    The Cultural Climate

    1922’s ‘Week Of Modern Art’ focused Brazil’s attention on the art world and accelerated its role in creating a contemporary cultural identity. But what was intended to be a statement against the status quo became a definition for a newly found sense of Brazilian nationalism.

    Based in part on the writings of Brazilian philosopher Oswaldo de Andrade, whose ideas of cultural cannibalism (i.e. ‘borrowing’ facets of foreign influence to create a uniquely ‘Brazilian’ culture) quickly fueled the imagination of the country, it would also serve as a blueprint for Tropicalia and its role in the country’s cultural rebellion in the late 60s. But it wasn’t the only factor.

    On October 12th, 1930 Guglielmo Marconi, the ‘father of the radio’ was set to illuminate the statue of Christ atop the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro for the very first time. Marconi was nowhere near Brazil for this historic moment and in fact, this history-making moment never occured. He flipped a switch and a radio signal transmitted half way around the world from his yacht in Rome, Italy, failed to do its job. The famous statue was lit by local workers instead.

    Three years later, the Pan-Am clipper began its regular service to Rio de Janeiro from Miami. Brazil was changing – from “that sleepy South American country” that Walt Disney referred to when he sent Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse to play with their new Brazilian parrot friend José Carioca on Brazilian movie screens in 1942 – part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Good Neighborhood’ wartime policy.

    During this time the United States partnered with Brazil to help grow its infrastructure – from the roads and highways and the cars that used them, to electrical power plants and telephone networks. US retailers soon followed.

    And when Brazil decided to relocate its nation’s capitol from Rio de Janeiro to the newly constructed city of Brasilia in the late 50s, it turned to a New York-based engineering firm to search out and help finalize the location.

    Over the years, Brazil’s connections to the US began to influence its culture, and many Brazilians objected. They decried the strong presence of our American culture mingling with their own – a far cry from Brazil’s early cultural connectedness to France in the 1800’s, when fashionable Cariocas and Paulistas would sport the latest full length Paris fashions in the heat and humidity of the tropical night.

    Brazilian music was not spared from this growing sense of nationalism: Today, you can still find critics who believe firmly that Bossa Nova was nothing more than a bastardized version of American jazz. For Brazilian parents of teenage children it was even worse: Cauby Peixoto recorded the first original Brazilian Rock single, ‘Rock n’ Roll em Copacabana’ in 1957 and soon Portuguese language versions of American and European rock tunes were popping up everywhere.

    The Roots of Tropicália

    Bossa Nova’s innocent views of the world quickly faded in the face of the military coup in 1964. At the same time, the Beatles landed in Brazilian record stores and radio stations, and the fascination with Iê, Iê, Iê (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah) gave way to the creation of the Jovem Guarda (Young Guard), a Brazilian youth movement pop style similar to American Top 40.

    The lyrics of these songs focused not on the reality of Brazilian life and issues like poverty and repression, but rather on the promise of a better one: Fancy cars, school days, romance and the latest clothing fads. Just like the USA.

    The popularity of the Jovem Guarda grew quickly with Brazilian teens, who idealized this notion. One song, ‘Quiera Que Tudo Mais Vá Pára O Inferno’ became their rallying cry against the conventional thinking of Brazilians, including musicians and critics who believed that pop influences from the US and England were diluting the cultural integrity of Brazilian music. Translated, the song’s title means ‘I Want All The Rest To Go To Hell’.

    Music

    By the mid-60s, the decline of Bossa Nova’s popularity, coupled with the exodus of many of its star performers had created a void in Brazilian songwriting and the ‘old guard’ of long established songwriters stepped up to fill it. New voices (including Elis Regina and Nara Leão), and established songwriters (a group led by Chico Buarque, Dori Caymmi, Edu Lobo, Sérgio Ricardo and Paulinho da Viola) viewed this time as an opportunity to reassert their influence on the fledgling MPB sound. But a group of young musicians from Bahia argued for a ‘musical expansion’ to include the dynamic influences of international styles which were rising up from the US and Europe. Leading the way were a pair of rising stars – Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

    Bahia had become the hotbed of new music for Brazil, and these two mapped out a plan to advance their ideas by combining the traditions of Brazilian music with a distilled blend of the Beatles and American Top 40, classical music, the psychedelia sunshine sound and electronic rock to create a musical scene that became a two-sided carnival mirror. One side distorted the Brazilian establishment in comic relief while the other reflected an outward vision of worldly integration.

    They needed a name, and ‘Tropicalia’ seemed to fit perfectly.

    Joining these two were a disparate list of musicians, each with a distinctive sound: Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Rita Lee and the group Os Mutantes, Torquato Neto, José Carlos Capinam and Rogério Duarte, a classical arranger and plastics artist, who brought his production talents to many in the group.

    Tropicalia yielded few hit records, but if an anthem could be named, it might be Gilberto Gil’s ‘Geléia Geral’ or Caetano Veloso’s ‘Baby’ which launched Gal Costa’s rise to become Tropicalia’s muse. Gil’s ‘Domingo No Parque’ (Sunday in the Park) has become a classic, as have Veloso’s ‘Alegria Alegria’, (Joy, Joy), ‘Soy Loco Por Ti, America’, ‘Superbacana’ and ‘Tropicália’.

    Most of Tropicalia’s songs are a kaleidoscopic view of musical reality, drawing heavily on the Beatles’ early years (up to the Sgt. Pepper album), Latin American styles, American Top 40 and a healthy dose of pop flavoring from Brazil. But the music is always intrinsically Brazilian: witness the capoeira rhythms in Gilberto Gil’s ‘Domingo No Parque’ layered into an arrangement carried over from the Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’.

    There’s also a comic sense of cultural parody in Tropicalia, too. The lyrics, often witty and illogical, were meant to challenge conformity and Brazilian complacency. Covers of English lyric songs, like ‘Summer Rain’ are played ‘straight’, to illustrate Tropicalia’s mission to author cultural differences by including the banality of cultural sameness found in other countries.

    These musical creations went far beyond cultural mischief, however.

    While other Brazilian songwriters (including Chico Buarque) fled the country to hide behind their words in the face of censorship and the threat of imprisonment by the military dictatorship, the Tropicálistas remained in Brazil. And as personal freedoms and human rights were eroded by governmental edict, many of the musicians ratcheted up their rhetoric, couched in fragmented imagery and double meaning.

    In late 1968, Caetano Veloso took to the stage with Rita Lee and Os Mutantes to sing his new song ‘É Proibido Proibir’ (It’s Forbidden to Forbid) at the Third MPB Music Festival competition in São Paulo. Dressed only in plastic suits and backed by electric guitars, his challenge for the audience to question the status quo of ruling authority was met with catcalls and jeers – he was booed off the stage. Gilberto Gil’s song ‘Questão de Ordem’ (Question of Order) was disqualified due to its political content.

    In December of that year, the Brazilian government enacted a series of laws which virtually eliminated free speech, and the democratic constitution that the military had stepped in to protect four years earlier was nullified. A few short weeks later, both Veloso and Gil were imprisoned and then exiled from their country for a time.

    Rogério Duarte was detained and tortured by the regime, and it proved to be too much for the artist to cope with. He was committed to a hospital for the insane. Torquato Neto eventually committed suicide as a result of his involvement and persecution. The rest went underground, or were jailed and later released.

    Tropicalia came to an abrupt end.

    Aftermath

    What would Brazilian pop (MPB) sound like today without Tropicalia’s role? We can only imagine, but there is no doubt that its legacy is a lasting one, and the influence of the movement affected the future of Brazilian pop. What happened on that stage with Caetano Veloso in São Paulo in 1968 played its part in the growing Brazilian protest movement of the 70’s which led to the Military’s loosening of its dictatorial grip on the nation, and ultimately the establishment of free elections and a new democratic constitution in 1985.

    Brazilian music continues to invite and involve outside influences into its music by absorbing new ideas into the Brazilian sound, so perhaps a case could be made that, as Veloso has stated, “Tropicalia was only a marketing exercise”, just yet another example of Brazil looking over its shoulder at the rest of the world’s achievements. To this day, Brazilian rock remains an unfulfilled aspect of the nation’s panorama of music, with only few exceptions.

    Perhaps it’s fair to say that Tropicalia exists with greater force in legend as opposed to the cold light of its reality. After all, in 1968 Brazil experienced riots in the face of military force in the streets of Rio, while we Americans endured the riotous, misplaced notions of the Democratic convention in Chicago. American protest songs made the Top 40 charts – Brazilian protest singers were arrested. This contrast in shared realities is telling.

    20 years ago, as part of Tropicalia’s 30th Anniversary, Brazilian Television aired a retrospective during which Gal Costa observed “Tropicálismo remains a reference for its generation. It’s important that these songs are remembered.”

    Just as we remember those songs from the late 60’s which shaped our young lives on this side of the equator.