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A Brief History of Tropicália
By Dylan de Thomas



Pay attention to the stanza, to the refrain
To the curse word, to the slogans
Pay attention to the exultant sambas
Attention, everything is dangerous
Everything is divine, marvelous
Pay attention to the refrain
You need to be alert and strong
We have no time to fear death


- "Divino Maravilhoso" (Divine Marvelous)
(Caetano Veloso - Gilberto Gil)

In 1928 Oswaldo de Andrade published the "Cannibalist Manifesto," a treatise with the idea to "devour" the Euro-centric metropolitan cultures abroad, being thought to be overwhelming the "native" culture of Brazil. This was to be done in the spirit of the (allegedly) cannibalist pre-Columbian Indian societies, to eat their enemies and gain their "power," and in so doing this metaphorically, making Brazil both culturally autonomous and internationally sophisticated.

In the late 1950's this model arguably began to bear fruit with the advent of Bossa Nova, and the attendant international notice being paid to the Brazilian musical scene. The poet Augusto de Campos commented that the arrival of the form had a "sensational impact on Brazilian music, allowing it to be influenced by jazz, just as jazz had been influenced by it. With [Bossa Nova,] Brazil began to export finished products and not just musical raw material (exotic rhythms), 'Macumba for tourists, 'to use the expression of Oswald de Andrade." This paradigm (Ooo! I said 'paradigm) of inverse relationship would be repeated by the next large musical movement to hit the scene - Tropicália.

In the mid-1960's a group of young musicians from the central Brazilian state of Bahia slowly received notice by the national music scene. Bahia was thought of, by the more developed south, as provincial, both economically and culturally, the people thought of as lazy and backwards. At the same time, however, the region was recognized as the focal point of Afro-Brazilian cultural life, being the birthplace of both capoiera and samba. As the 1960s reached a mid point and Bossa Nova reached its international apex (you know, with "Girl from Ipanima"), Bossa began to splinter so much that it no longer was the singular dominant popular musical form. The term Musica Popular Brasileira, MPB for short, began to be used to denote the overarching genre of urban popular music in Brazil.

Another musical form, iê-iê-iê, (yeah, yeah, yeah) a Brazilianized version of rock and roll (whose name referred to the refrain of the Beatles "She Loves You") was becoming immensely popular. The Jovem Guarda, (Young Guard) as the movement came to be known, placed itself in direct opposition to the second generation of Bossa Nova artists, who in turn, felt that iê-iê-iê lacked substance and sophistication. Young MPB artists, like Caetano Veloso, could look to the Jovem Guarda and assimilate the raw electric power of the form, marrying it to the poetic complexity of MPB. Just as the early Bossa Nova artists actively appropriated jazz, a new generation of artists could now assimilate and metamorphose rock.

As the late 1960s dawned, televised competitive musical festivals were fast becoming the primary mode of introduction to new music of the era. These festivals were immensely popular and were treated by audiences as almost a sport, with those attending waving flags and shouting during the "enemies" of their favorite performers as during a penalty kick in soccer. They were not just showcases but structured as song competitions, continuing the sport analogue with cash prizes to be awarded the artists in various fields - lyrics, songwriting, etc. In 1967, at the premier music festival sponsored by TV Record, the opening shots of the Tropicália revolution could be heard.

With his song "Alegria, Alegria" (Joy, Joy) Caetano Veloso burst onto the national consciousness. A young man whose first LP of Bossa Nova standards newly in the record stores appeared in a preliminary round with the Argentinean rock band Os Beat Boys. With the opening of the song being a wave of twin fuzzed-out guitars, the very sound was a statement, as the festivals were still primarily acoustic affairs. After the introductory guitars subside to a simple propulsive rhythm provided by a Hammond B-3 and a tambourine, Veloso starts setting the lyrical stage. The song itself is a kind of existentialist manifesto with the protagonist being bombarded by images of the:

"Sun scatter[ing]
Into Guerrillas, spaceships, crimes
Into lovely Claudia Cardinales, I'm on my way
Into Presidents' faces, big loving kisses
Into teeth, legs, flags, bombs and Brigitte Bardot."
Then responding with the exhortation that there's
"Nothing to tie me down, I'm on my way
Empty pockets, empty handed, I'm on my way
Why not?
Why not?
"

At the multi-tracked declaration of "Why Not?" repeats, the delightfully fuzzed-out guitars return, driving the song to its conclusion.

Later, at the same festival, Gilberto Gil presented a similarly radical song, "Domingo no Parque." (Sunday in the Park) The song featured the noted avant-garde composer Rogério Duprat's arrangement with a full orchestra, the seminal (ad rocking) Tropicálist band Os Mutantes, and a percussionist playing a berimbau, the traditional instrument used in demonstrations (or games) of capoiera. The song, a lyrically cinematic tune following the tale of the tragic end to a love triangle, it uses a capoieran rhythm and a typically Afro-Brazilian call and response structure. At the dawn of the movement, (still without a name) the synthesis that was of traditional Brazilian music and "cannibalized" Anglo-American music that was to become Tropicália was in place.

In 1967, the same year as the music festival, Hélio Oiticica, a famed innovator in the art world at this time, exhibited an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro titled "Tropicália." The piece was an amalgamation of images of city life, with structures made of vibrantly colored cloth covering wood structures reminiscent of shanties guiding the viewer through a labyrinth coupled with the tropical sand and pebble paths, live parrots squawking from cages, lush plants leading the spectator to a large area dominated by a glowing television set, overwhelming, aggressively, the viewer of the piece. It was from this exhibition that Caetano Veloso named his song and, with the press, the movement Tropicália.

"I organize the movement
I lead the carnival
I inaugurate the monument
In the high plains of the country.
"

With these words, Veloso opened the musical arm of the pan-artistic movement. The "cannibalism" of de Andrade was taken to heart with "refined parody, sociocultural allegory and structural experimentation." The closing refrain

"Long live 'A Banda' da-da/ Carmen Miranda da-da," couples Chico Barque's 1966 festival hit "A Banda" with the vulgar cultural icon Carmen Miranda. Then invoking the avant-garde, deconstructionist Dada movement with the last two syllables of each line. Evoking the specter of Miranda, Veloso was using her as an metaphor for Brazilian culture and perception in the rest of the world. De Andrade's Manifesto was being reflected through song as Veloso would later write that "the idea of cultural cannibalism fit us, the Tropicalists, like a glove. We were 'eating' the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix."

The movement, from that point on, coalesced quickly, with Veloso and his collaborator, Gilberto Gil, at the forefront. The group aimed to, basically, eat the rock from America and spit out something Brazilian, reflecting all of this back to their countrymen. In early 1968, Gil and Veloso, with fellow Bahian songwriter Tom Zé, vocalists Gal Costa and Nara Leão, and the psych-rock trio Os Mutantes would record the Tropicalists sole manifesto/concept album, "Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis." (Tropicália or Bread and Circuses) The title referred to the famous verse by the Roman satirical poet, "The people long eagerly for two things - bread and circuses," meaning that the "People" want only food and diversion. The lyrics of the title song echo this sentiment, describing a protagonist engaging in any number of outrageous actions up to and including murder, only to have the bourgeoisie audience not caring. Instead, "the people in the living room/are busy being born and dying." The fragment "Those people" is repeated monotonously to end the song,, driving home their judgment of those who would watch on with complacency.

According to Veloso, the concept of the album was dependant on bringing together disparate singers and songwriters like Zé and Costa as well as bands like Os Mutantes so "instead of working together as a group in order to develop a homogenous style that would define a new sound, we preferred to utilize several recognizable sounds from commercial music, making the arrangements an independent element that would clarify the song, but also clash with it. In a way, we sought to 'sample' musical scraps and we used the arrangements as ready-mades."

Many of the songs include either a direct or subtle satirical or critical touch. Tom Zé's "Parque Industrial," (Industrial Park) for instance, is a direct thumbing of the nose at the military regime and its economic policies. The music of the song is itself a mocking military march with the phrase "industrial progress/has brought our redemption" repeated throughout the song, mocking the idea of "progress" forced on a people or a region by the government.

Gilberto Gil's "Geléia Geral " was one of the most overtly political songs, reciting a list of clichés and references to Brazilian culture making a kind of register of everyday life. In this shopping list of items from Brazil and the interests of the various classes, an "LP of Sinatra" finds itself juxtaposed with "passion fruit in April." The final two lines of the song "Hospitable friendship/Brutality garden" truly evoke the contradictions of living in Brazil under a repressive military regime. That same regime wanting to portray Brazil to the world as a "peaceful 'garden'" while it crushed any dissent towards it.

The manifesto album was a controversial hit, inspiring much heated debate about the nature of Brazilian culture and the role of popular music in a functioning society. Once it was recorded, however, the collaboration ended. Though 1968 was a fertile time for the members of the group, Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and the rest all recording solo albums or, in the case of Os Mutantes, a group effort, they never again got together and recorded another album. Most had different versions of various songs on the Panis et Circensis reflected in their respective efforts. Os Mutantes recorded the definitive version of Veloso's "Baby" for their debut LP, taking the lovely melodies and satirical lyrics mocking unbridled middle-class consumption by repeating many advertising slogans of the day and using up to date youth lingo making another "shopping list" of things that one "needs" to live in contemporary society.

The summer of 1968, like in much of the rest of the world, was a tumultuous time with large protests in all of the major cities of Brazil and the violence that accompanied them. Of the Tropicalists, Veloso continued to be the most provocative, borrowing the motto of the May, 1968 student uprising in Paris, "É Proibido Proibir" (It's Forbidden to Forbid) as his central song for the 1968 TV Record festival. The song offered an anarchic attitude toward culture and politics, encouraging the listener to,

"Give me a kiss, my love
They are waiting for us
The cars are burning in flames
Let's demolish the shelves
The bookcases, the statues
The windows, the china, the books, yes
And I say yes
And I say no
And I say it's forbidden to forbid
It's forbidden to forbid…
"

When Veloso presented the song to audiences for the first time at the festival, it was reacted to with scorn, which was by design. By its next staging, Veloso wasn't satisfied with mere scorn, he wished to make a statement. To provoke the audience, the song opened with more than a minute of guitar feedback and vocal mutterings (composed by Os Mutantes) causing a hysterical reaction among the crowd. In the midst of the screaming multitudes, throwing garbage at the stage, Veloso launched into a famous rambling speech on Brazilian politics and culture:

"This is the youth that says it wants to take power? … You're the same youth that will always, always kill the old enemy who died yesterday. You understand nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing! … Today I came here to say that Gilberto Gil and I had the courage to confront the structure of the festival and explode it! … [We] are here to put an end to the festival and the imbecility that reigns in Brazil … We had the courage to enter all of the structures and leave them. And you? If you are the same in politics as you are in aesthetics we're done for! … God has been set free."

This screed was subsequently recorded and released as a single, betraying the supposed impromptu spirit of the rant and showed it for what it was: a planned diatribe, criticizing the both the popular and political right. The violent reaction to Veloso and the most of the other Tropicalists, it did not stop the television network, TV Tupi, from offering the Tropicalists their own TV show.

The show, named after the song "Divino Maravilhoso" (Divine Marvelous) was a collaborative affair with wildly varying musical and political guests. Initially very popular, the Tropicalist movement was starting to wane, so the group held a mock funeral for Tropicália, burying it once and for all. While the show was certainly inventive and provocative, it was also critical of the current military regime. The government was not as open to criticism as it had been in the past. After an "offensive" episode, the show was summarily cancelled.

From 1945 to 1964 Brazil was ruled by a democratic government that slowly leaned leftward. In the year of 1964, Bossa Nova was in full swing and communist party membership was neither frowned upon nor regarded with much surprise. Then, on April 1, 1964, a military coup meeting little popular resistance overthrew the democratically elected president, João Goulart, and took power. The military regime that took power gradually became more repressive, particularly to free speech. The government eventually felt that it was not able to contain dissent that it was facing in 1968 and it reacted by passing the Fifth Institutional Act (AI-5) in December. This Act effectively created a total dictatorship in Brazil and suspended civil liberties, including free speech. No longer could the Tropicalists or any other critics of the regime express dissent openly; the arts had been shut down. Two days after the passing of the Act, on December 27th, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested by military police in their apartments is São Paolo. As the two of them were hardly the most vocal or direct of critics, their imprisonment was questioned (though Veloso related that an interrogator "claimed that Tropicalist song was more subversive than protest music because it 'undermined the structure' of Brazilian culture and society.") Many other protest singers and critics escaped imprisonment, though many shared the fate of Gil and Veloso when they were released from prison after two months, being exiled from the country. Though the movement would die, its legacy would be heard for decades to come with its invention, satire and musical synthesis inspiring generations of musicians and artists. The two leaders of Tropicália left Brazil and moved to England for two and a half years, a damp, harsh fate for those from the sunny climes of Bahia.

END NOTES: First off, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the huge debt to Adam Dunn's Brutality Garden in writing this article. It's a great text that's packed with info, if you're at all interested in further study of this fine movement. In terms of the tunes, if you want a compilation, try out Tropicália Essentials from Hip-O records - it has most of the 'hits' of the movement and is a fine mix besides. Outside of that, I would recommend the first three Os Mutantes CDs firstly and then move on to the early recordings of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and Tom Zé.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture, University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Christopher Dunn.

Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB 1965 - 1985, University of Texas Press, 1989.
Charles A. Perrone.

Tropical Truth, Knopf, 2002.
Caetano Veloso.

The Brazilian Sound: Samba Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil, Billboard Books, 1991.
Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha.


 

 


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