Perfect Sound Forever

The Dark Side of Tropicália- Part 1

Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso
Gal Costa
Photos courtesy of the Tropicalia site

By Alexandre Matias
(March 2003)

It was less a countercultural act than a marketing coup and it would, by the years, retard the Brazilian cultural evolution. In this first article, we get to know the real story of this late '60's psychedelic third-world shack

Circuses and palm trees, vaudeville going bananas, Third World Disorder, artistic contradictions, electric guitars and laugh-out-loud psychedelics - a stunning beach party under the shadow of a military dictatorship. Tropicalia brings us paradisiacal images of a Latin Swinging London, a dystopian and exotic Haight-Ashbury, brought to public thankfully by gold-digging musical tastes from cool '90's cats such as Beck, the Beastie Boys and Stereolab. But just as Mr. Hansen, the Beasties and the 'Lab aren't so much trend setters as they really are underground mainstreamers, Tropicalia itself it is not some rarity that outgrew international commercial values and was outlived by its artistic power. Worst than that, the movement that shocked Brazilian middle-class culture in late '60's is the ground zero of an entertainment dictatorship that blocks the most outstanding legacy the country gave the world: its own music, rich and colorful. In this essay, I'll try to explain how one thing led to another. For length reasons, it's a two-part article: in this first, we'll see the Tropicalia agenda getting into action; in the second, how the ghost of a psychedelic year endorsed the standardization of Brazilian music that led to the cultural empoverishment the country went throughout the 1990's.

In this first article, I would like to tell the truth about Tropicalia in its heyday. It was not a musical revolution, it didn't happened in the streets and was something very middle-class minded. Its legacy is not to be understated: it was a vehicle for the release of a generation of new artists, but it has more to do with the Ziggy Stardust fad industry than to Sgt. Pepper's kind of psychedelic wonder. One example will give you the idea: the Tropicalia concept was created in the media and then worn by the "original tropicalists" as a way of getting into show business. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are great songwriters and interviewees, but the role they took as soon as they came back from their London exile, in the early '70's, put them in a position where they could judge whatever new movements should shake Brazilian waters. They mythified Tropicalia and themselves as popes of the new in a lot of cultural fields - movies, theater, television, journalism, radio, record companies - deciding what could have their blessings, and was worth to continue exist. But this is just part of the truth.

On the other hand, they have worked behind the scenes, made suspicious connections and demanded their own importance, with every instance and opportunity given. When the world rediscovered Tropicalia in the mid-'90's, Brazil was forced to face a harsh situation: to acknowledge the greatness of a generation that forced its country to cultural poverty through conspiration or to turn its back as the world finally realized one part of the history. Street dogs as we always were, we Brazilians bowed down our heads and said "yeah!" to Tropicalia. But to begin our story, we should go way back, to the starting point of the Brazil and USA deal in 20th century's first half, when pop culture "almost accidentally" discovered Brazil.

We can trace the early roots in the 1940's, when Uncle Sam offered retribution to Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas by producing some movies about Brazil. The country was already known as a tropical paradise, as Rio de Janeiro (then, Brazilian Capital City) paired with other idealistic exotic landscapes, as Acapulco, Cote D'Azur and Hawaii. But as Vargas started to look after Hitler and his practical (in dictator terms, please notice) display of power through nationalism, the American government started a campaign to bring the continental country under its wings. The motion pictures that made the US rediscover Brazil, Walt Disney's Saludo Amigos! and the Carmen Miranda flicks, were the proof that America and Brazil were living side by side. Just as WWII finished, Vargas was thrown out by a military coup that empowered Eurico Gaspar Dutra, a president that got into history by saying that "what is good to America, is good to Brazil." Vargas would come back six years later to Palácio do Catete (the presidential building) by popular vote and tuned to American concerns. But as these concerns started to demand more from him than he could give, Vargas quit his job the hard way - and committed suicide.


In the 1950's, American pop culture set the tone for its Brazilian counterpart. The strategy dealt in convincing Brazilian culture that it could be internationalized. "Modern" became the adjective of choice. By the middle of the decade, the scene proved that national artistic production were known and respected worldwide. President Juscelino Kubistchek preached about improving the country- "50 years in 5" was his motto. As a symbol of his contribution to the country, he built his new Capital City. Grown out of nowhere in the middle of the desert landscape of the Goiás state, he asked urbanist Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer to create a dream city for a new country. Brasília cool curves and clean designs put Brazil in the center of the architectural discussion and pictures of its alien-like buildings and urban structures appeared in newspapers and magazines worldwide. More than a great engineering and political effort, Brasília was taken as an example what Brazilian culture should be.

The message was delivered. The film industry recreated his folklorical appeal into super-productions signed by almost biblical Companhia Cinematográfica Vera Cruz. Author Nelson Rodrigues and dramatic company Teatro Brasileiro de Comédia reinvented Brazilian stage-drama. Television was introduced by the heavy hand of media mogul Assis Chateaubriand and music got cooler and softer as jazz records began to ship in Rio de Janeiro harbor. Brought to light by upper-middle-class lads and ladies, jazz began to mix itself with samba, shyly at first. But then João Gilberto got into the action and converge that zeitgeist into a weird, percussive way of hitting the strings of the acoustic guitar and a smooth, breathtaking crooning, creating the Brazilian modern sound of bossa nova.

Bossa nova taught Brazilian music to look at itself from the outside and as soon as Tom Jobim and João Gilberto gained world fame, a new generation of musicians, composers and singers found themselves part of the global music scenario. As the '60's began, Brazilian youth got bossa nova fever and soon discovered part of an international art scene. This changed a lot when a Beatlesque TV program called Jovem Guarda went on air in 1964. Lead by "The King" Roberto Carlos, this new breed of popstars would insult the current generation as being politically conservative and hailed American imperialism, as they played electric guitars. Soon bossa novists would gather themselves against Jovem Guarda, as their own TV program (O Fino da Bossa, hosted by Elis Regina) had been losing rates. There was even a bizarre Anti-Electric Guitar Street Demonstration, where musicians would stand against the capitalist music tool.

The baianos come in

In the lines of that demonstration was a shy Gilberto Gil, a young musician discovered by Elis Regina who had been thinking about pop music once in a while. Though he began as a folk artist, he soon realized the Beatles modus operandi and took them as his role models. Gil has been fascinating with the cool and natural way the Fab Four would pass their message on to their fans. He began to realize the power of "pop" in pop music: a charismatic appeal and a strong presence would count as much as good lyrics and smart musicianship. He would soon be joining the first team of the young Brazilian music in his own apartment, to explain to people about pop music and the Beatles. This cracked the bossa nova followers into two groups: one half would be interested in Gil's ideas, the others would yawn and run away from anything that's got "pop" in the middle.

By Gil's side were his friends from Bahia - Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Maria Bethânia. All them came to the Rio de Janeiro - São Paulo circuit after they saw in their hometown Salvador the same fuzz in culture that they'd seen people in Rio and São Paulo doing. After presenting a musical drama called Nós, Por Exemplo (For Instance, Us), they'd be soon flying to Rio and São Paulo, looking after their luck. One by one, they were accepted in the heart of the newly formed MPB.

(MPB is short for Música Popular Brasileira - Brazilian Popular Music -, three letters to label a genre, as vague as "country and western" or "rhythm and blues." But, from the beginning, the MPB set itself apart from a generation of musicians who were influenced by bossa nova- they were younger than the mainstream pop icons and they were up to samba and jazz, as well as down to rock and pop music. It defines the current status quo in Brazilian popular music.)

Maria Bethânia was the first to come, invited by bossa nova diva Nara Leão to replace herself in the Opinião concert. Leão was angry with all the cool and groovy mood that bossa nova was related to. Back in the late '50's, her huge apartment by the Ipanema beach was the informal head-quarters where the early bossanovists would meet and play. Sided by close friends such as Roberto Menescal, Carlos Lyra and Ronaldo Bôscoli, she was the first girl to get into bossa nova and her cool voice and exotic looks turned her into the scene's sex symbol. But as bossa nova would get popular, Nara became more and more uncomfortable with that situation. When all that idealistic imagery first took over Rio with the first three João Gilberto albums on the Odeon label, she decided to go her own way. The same year that Brazilian armies took over the government (1964), she released the Opinião (Opinion) concert, where she would perform folk songs besides real roots artists, such as northern trobador João do Vale and sleazy blues-like samba singer Zé Keti. That concert shook the show business basis, as it was the first great music event to get political, as cinema and theater were slowly becoming. She had known Maria Bethânia as she watched her concert back in Salvador, and Bethânia was the first and only name Nara would mention to replace her when she got sick, in early 1965.

But Bethânia was under age so her older brother, movie critic Caetano Veloso, came with her to watch her back. Gil came to São Paulo as an executive working for the Gessy Lever corporation, but as he was discovered by Elis, he decided to go into show business. As Opinião was a stage concert presented by the theater company Arena, the next show this stage company acted was Arena Canta Bahia, which introduced the baiano group as a whole new bunch. Besides Caetano, Gil and Bethânia, there were Gal Costa, Tom Zé and Torquato Neto (although Piauí-born, he studied in Salvador college, where he found his mates). Since Arena Canta Bahia, this group were together, trying to breakthrough, Bethânia less than the others as she already had a strong appeal, with her unique folk diva and skinny girl blend. But as the time went by, Caetano and Gil especially had a strong feelings that they had to take their own chances, instead of waiting for opportunities.

Pop music and mass media

Then Gil listened to Sgt. Pepper and got its message. He had to create a Brazilian twin to the Beatles' landmark, embracing pop music as the short cut to young peoples' hearts and minds. Caetano Veloso was aware of another revolution, when the grandchildren of Brazilian modernism turned Brazil on to the sixties swing.  Stage director José Celso Martinez Corrêa and his Oficina theater company revisited the phony paradise and tacky bureaucracy of Oswald de Andrade's O Rei da Vela in a chaotic way while film director Glauber Rocha, with his immortal Terra in Transe, managed to laugh off Brazilian historical underdevelopment as a crude parody to recreate the current political situation in the country. Both film and play would describe Brazil in non-linear way, using the Brazilian tropical imagery as a cultural salad where anything could be mixed. Brazilian culture could absorb anything and it did this all the time. This single idea is the basis of Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropofágico (Anthropofagy Manifesto). Published in 1928, the manifesto compiled a lot of slogans and expressions that were key to Tropicália understanding:

"The only thing that interests me it's not mine"
"We want the Caraiba Revolution. Greater than the French Revolution. The unity of all efficient revolts towards the man. Without us, Europe wouldn't have either its poor declaration of man rights"
"We were never baptized. We live in a numb righteousness. We made Christ be born in Bahia. Or at Belém (Bethelm), Pará"
"We never admitted the rise of logic between us"
"We were never baptized. We made the Carnival. The senator-dressed Indian from the Empire. Or acting in Alencar's operas full of goodwill Portuguese feelings"
"We've already had communism. And the surrealist language. The Golden Age"
"Where there's mystery, there's no determinism. But what do we have to do with it?"
"Let the taboo become totem"
"Before the Portuguese had discovered Brazil, Brazilians had already discovered happiness"
"We're against the social reality, dressed-up and oppressive, castrated by Freud - the no complex, sane, prostitution-and-jail-free matriarch society of Pindorama" (Pindorama is how Brazilian Indian would call their homeland before the Portuguese came)

This mixed-up imagery was in the air. As the Beatles worked as the pop revelation to Gil, Caetano would be shocked by two TV shows. As he didn't have TV set in his house, Caetano was not interested in television. But as friends started to tell him to watch Discoteca do Chacrinha and Jovem Guarda, the singer gave up and watched them. To his surprise, he totally understood the idea behind the two presentations. Discoteca do Chacrinha was a variety show hosted by the folklorical Abelardo Barbosa, a.k.a. Chacrinha. Wearing tacky glasses, funny outfits and a noisy honk, he would turn his own act into a wild people's riot, throwing food to the audience as semi-naked women would dance. Chacrinha was one the people who got this tropical zeitgeist from and created a decadent and low-brown oasis, bananas hanging from the ceiling and colourful guests. Jovem Guarda was Roberto Carlos' kingdom. Both shows told Caetano about the power of pop via television.

Both Caetano and Gil wanted to sound young, electric and smart, so they started to gather people who would think the same way. All baianos joined them (Tom Zé, Gal Costa, Torquato Neto).  All but Bethânia. Labeled as a folk diva, she got some trouble when people started to demand principles in her work. That was the final straw and she promised herself never to engage in artistic movements. Following the baianos was Nara Leão, called "betrayer" by her former fans, and Capinam, a young poet and lyricist who was a friend of the baianos. But there were something missing.

It was found when, almost at the same shot, Gilberto Gil met maestro Rogério Duprat. He belonged to a generation of classical musicians who were tired of the conformity, the formality and the strict rules from music schools. Embracing John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez's ideas, Duprat and fellow maestros Júlio Medaglia and Damiano Cozzella went to study in Europe in the beginning of the '60's, where they discovered 20th century classical music and avant-garde composition. They came back to Brazil and started chaos in the classical clique. Soon, they were threatening people with manifestos, electronic music, post-modern poetry (where they joined the concrete poets Décio Pignatari, Augusto and Harold de Campos) and other anarchic concepts. One reporter introduced Duprat to Gil, as the latter was looking for some wild classical stuff to enhance the production of his next single.

It was Duprat who suggested the Mutantes, a talented pop group he had been spying with artistic intentions. The Duprat/Mutantes partnership may be the single force behind the Tropicália musical revolution. It was Beatles' naivety from the Mutantes' kids and the post-modern chaotic vision that Duprat sought after that propelled the Tropicália's engine. Without them, they would sound like a bunch of traditionalists doing tongue-in-cheek numbers for college students. But they had visuals.

The whole visual thing started outside the Caetano and Gil circle. They were looking for what they would call a "free sound," a "universal sound," collapsing all of the whole world's cultures into a huge non-linear concept. It was great to conceive, but shit to make it happen.

Tropicália is born

But there was a night when movie people such as Arnaldo Jabor, Gustavo Dahl, Luís Carlos Barroso and Cacá Diegues started to wonder about a paradisiacal mood Brazil should evolve again for exportation. As directors, all of them had a very visual and colorful description of what the country should worship. And besides the hot-weathered and cool-tempered Latin elan, they would sell bad taste. That's how they would defy the older generation of singers and musicians, by faking their celebration as they were laughed-off. With no contribution from any baianos, this night would see the birth of Tropicalism. As the directors crafted their Third World heaven into rivers of alcohol, a music writer friend got ideas and took mental notes. In the next issue of his newspaper column called “Roda Viva,” Nelson Motta would hail the 'Tropicalist Cruzade,' as the article was aptly titled.

It was a manifesto read in third-person, a didactical call-to-arms which proceeded to endorse the baianos- namely cited on the article as part of this new revolution  and whatever they would like to do. The "Tropicália" name was taken from an Hélio Oiticica's art installation, which consisted on an apartment-tent, palm-trees in the halls and a turned-on TV set at the end of it. It was Luís Carlos Barreto (director of photography on Glauber Rocha's Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, 1967 western-meets-nouvelle-vague flick) who suggest Caetano to name his new song "Tropicália."

From 1968's second semester, Guilherme Araújo is hardly remembered but the baianos' manager played a Epsteinish/Odlhanite role working hard to get his accolades to be seen and heard. He would phone newspapers and press people to tell the faintest details his troupe would consider: wearing that designer's clothing, playing in that hyped nightclub and so on. They were presented as both musicians and stars, demanding their own place in the sun. Araújo was a key player in the Tropicália years whose marketing genius has vanished from history. Only Gil and Caetano got their crown.

Before the two baianos decided to use the Tropicalist label, the concept had been widely accepted within the mass media. As left-field artists, the bossa-novists who had split from the Tropicalist and pop music groups, would harness his their principles and sing stories about a poor and miserable country, far away and forgotten by people from the big city, who would struggle to continue standing. It was the rise of the protest song ('canção de protesto,' a label that was very similar to folk music scene where Bob Dylan came from), hailed by singers/songwriters such as Sérgio Ricardo, Geraldo Vandré, Edu Lobo and Chico Buarque and strong divas as Nara Leão and Elis Regina. Their songs were filled with political content and it would protest against the military coup in 1964.


But as the years went by, the Brazilian military government would get more and more tough with their opponents. In the first four years it would just prepare the scenario for the worst case: by December 1968, General Costa e Silva, then the current Brazilian President, would release AI-5 (Institucional Act Number 5). That was the dictatorship manifesto, its demands to society. It would close every level of the house of representatives (from senators to councilmen), jail anyone without having to give reasons, end the public rights - such as parliamentary immunity - and cease judiciary decisions. It would let Brazilian Armed Forces arrest anyone that was found suspicious. This led to a shadowy and brutal truth: torture dungeons, hidden in every military or police building, where all kind of people were submitted to pain by sadist executioners. Thousands of people disappeared each year and their relatives just would not know where to look to find their loved ones.

If ceasing peoples' life wasn't a problem to the government (who would obviously deny committing torture), the same could be said about art. Popular culture was seen as a perfect vehicle for subversive ideas and as such, it was censored and banned from public. A lot of artists were blacklisted, as others would prefer align themselves to the military system and some would be even called dictators within the art circle.

The government would ban negativist lyrics and subversive content (at least in their tacky opinion). Artworks were prohibited for ridiculous reasons, such as a book about Cubism because they thought it was about Cuba. Some cases are even more surreal, but that just proves how narrow-minded were the country's leadership during this period.

Meanwhile, the same government would praise artist that would sing of Brazil and its qualities, natural resources and continental power. The same government would invest in buildings such as the Transamazônia (the first road to cross the Rain Forest), the Rio-Niterói bridge (supposedly the world's biggest bridge), the Itaipu power plant (another "world's largest") and great efforts like that. It would invest in tourism, where they sold a paradisiacal country, beaches and jungle, bold and happy to welcome foreign people.

It's rarely told how the military government liked the Tropicalist concept. Even before Caetano, Gil and the others jumped on the bandwagon, the sunny imagery fit perfectly with the military ideal of the country. So, as it was a shock to the middle-class people who followed the protest singers or Jovem Guarda stars, it never really threatened the current government.

The Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis LP itself it's not that revolutionary. It's filled with old and old-fashioned tunes, such as "Coração Materno" (a tragic bolero composed by Vicente Celestino), "Lindonéia" (a maxixe - Caribbean rhythm --flavored song), "Três Caravelas" (a rhumba) and "Hino do Senhor do Bonfim" (a religious chant). Highlights are mostly Gil songs, such as "Miserere Nobis," "Geléia Geral" and "Batmacumba" but everyone has their share. Gil shines on the perfect pop of "Baby," Tom Zé rolls over "Parque Industrial," Caetano swoons lightly over "Enquanto Seu Lobo Não Vem" and Mutantes reigned supreme on "Panis et Circensis".

Two very different forces of the album are lost in the translation. Yes, it evokes the juxtaposition between different ends (city against country, rich against poor, Third World against First World, electrical against acoustic and so on), but this confrontation is enriched by irony and the use of bad-taste. All the songs flirt with the bad-taste Brazilian culture that bossa nova assumed had never existed. This is where the Latin influence and the mythological and pop cultural imagery collides with each other and probably the true values from the movement.

Jail and exile

But history just remembered it from the controversy and confusion that shook the cultural circuit in the late '60's. Much of this occurs because Caetano and Gilberto Gil were arrested in late 1968, and were exiled to England in mid-'69. Back in '68, they presented a tropicalist night-show which would provoke the audience in the same way Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable did a few years before that. But as Warhol's event was chaotic and nightmarish, the tropicalia event was a colorful and scandalous party. Part of the audience would be shocked by some slogans or attitudes (such as Caetano's girlish stance), but most of the goers would praise it as avant-garde.

But somebody told the Army that Gil, Caetano and the Mutantes were making fun of the Brazilian National Hymn on stage and setting the country's flag on fire, as they would hail criminal and political street-fighters. This was a twisted version of the show: Caetano would really sing “the Marselleise” (France's National Hymn) and there were flags that reproduces some slogans created by artist Hélio Oiticica, like "Be criminal, be a hero."

That was the reason for the soldier invasion and the two baianos' arrest then. In jail, they had their hair cut, but suffer no torture - although they lived with all kind of prisoners, most of them intellectuals, politicians and journalists. They were sent back to Salvador, in Bahia, where they would stay for half of 1969, before the Army asked them to move from Brazil. They went to London and both of them were transformed: Gil got hooked on the psychedelic/electric blues/jazz scene as Caetano became depressed. They would release two albums each when in England and then they came back to Brazil in 1972. Tropicália was over, MPB ruled the record industry, and Brazil had turned into a dark-clouded country, as the military power get tougher and tougher. Gil and Caetano had to start again from scratch, but now they had something they hadn't before: they were known names and they had created Tropicália.

Whatever that meant.

To Be Continued

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