Culture 101: Tropicália

I try to avoid posting music that is commercially available in Europe (offensively overpriced items at eBay or Amazon Marketplace notwithstanding), but sometimes I observe a higher principle than intellectual property rights: education, edification, illumination, enlightenment! So from now on I'll occasionally post music that might still be in print, in condescending attempts at lecturing those who don't need it (and certainly not from me). The first cultural history lesson is on Tropicália, because it usually seems mired either in misleading buzzword media hype or in intellectually masturbatory art twaddle, and deserves better.

TROPICÁLISM, vol. 1—Yes, We Have No Manifestos [.zip file]
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In 2006, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago arranged a major retrospective tour revisiting the '60s Brazilian counter-cultural movement Tropicália, while Souljazz Records released a compilation—Tropicália—A Brazilian Revolution in Sound—to coincide with that exhibition. That album, which has since become definitive, had some odd omissions and inclusions, Souljazz perhaps falling for the temptation to pick soulful and jazzy stuff over what Tropicália was really about. I'm no Tropicália expert (I don't even understand Portuguese), but I know enough to collect the essential manifesto-type recordings, scattered across sometimes hard-to-find CDs or rare eBay vinyl, onto one playlist.

«What is this «Tropicália» business, anyway?» I hear you ask. It's the geohistorical, sociopolitical point at which traditional Brazilian music, British rock'n'roll, American imperialism, Brazilian nationalism, military dictatorship, hippie counter-culture, Concretism, Dada, Pop Art, industrialisation, globalisation, post-colonial economy, a bit of that Third World inferiority complex, a touch of middle class upbringing, a dash of humour, a smidge of psychedelic drugs and shiny, warm weather all converged in one glorious orgasm of colour and noise!

The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art defined «Tropicália» as a Brazilian movement spanning the arts, from high fashion through to architecture, lasting from about 1966 until 1972. But if you remove all the art that was only related to the Tropicálistas proper—their predecessors and the mutually sympathetic artists whose ideas overlapped a little—then strictly speaking, Tropicália is music made by a handful of people from the Brazilian state of Bahia (but working out of São Paulo), typically written by singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and/or Gilberto Gil, more often than not backed by the garage group os Mutantes, almost exclusively arranged by conductor-composer (and kiddie-fiddler lookalike) Rogério Duprat, from 1967 until sometime in '69. Although they liked to subsume others into their little clique—from conceptual artists, playwrights and filmmakers through to philosophers and other would-be opinion makers—the Tropicálistas were basically Veloso, Gil, Duprat, os Mutantes, inimitable singer-songwriter Tom Zé and chanteuse Gal Costa. (With bossa nova sympathisers like Nara Leão and Claudette Soares contributing now and then, plus a poet or two, such as lyricist Torquato Neto.) For a couple of years, these handful of people made some weird recordings that still sound so weird today that it actually overrides the glaringly dated quality of the music, some of which is gorgeously beautiful, some funny, some funky, all good…

1. Caetano Veloso & the Beat Boys: «Alegria, alegria»
«Alegria, alegria» (meaning «joy, joy») was a catchphrase used by eccentric, «vulgar» and hugely popular TV host Chacrinha, the Dadaist
Benny Hill of Brazil, whose show was dismissed as «tacky» by the cultural elite, but which the Tropicálistas identified with because of its surreal and colourful spectacle.

In 1967, with rock'n'roll threatening to become more popular with the masses than «authentically Brazilian» music, stuffy purists founded the Broad Front Of Brazilian Popular Music Against Rock(!). At the time, «TV festivals» were in vogue in Brazil, much like the Eurovision Song Contest is in Europe—only with considerably more talent (and costumes less loud). Apparently it was a conservative and rather complacent establishment affair, with mostly acoustic samba, bossa nova, tuxedos, short hair and Leftist politics. Enter Caetano Veloso, already established as a promising young lad in bossa nova circles (having won the Best Lyricist award the previous year), but who felt like starting a fire.

Not content to rehash a stagnating musical form, Veloso announced beforehand that he would set his submission to rock'n'roll accompaniment, a style then associated with American imperialist evil
(much like American and European folkies considered electric music a Capitalist evil). He picked this Argentine Beatles plagiarist bar band—Beat Boys—to back him, resulting in the electrified marcha of «Alegria, alegria».

But it was more than just a postmodern pick'n'mix of influences and pop culture references with the Tropicálistas, as Veloso notes:
The decision to use a group already active on the rock scene reveals a lot about the tropicalista strategy… Instead of working together to find a unified sound that would define the new style, we preferred to utilize one or more sounds that were already recognizable from commercial music, so that the arrangement would be an independent element that would enhance the song but also clash with it.
Now, reading Veloso's account of the song festival, you get the impression it's one of those Dylan-goes-electric scenarios, with the audience booing and generally poo-pooing those onstage. But if you take a look at the clip underneath, you'll see teenyboppers singing along as they giggle coyly at the apparently irresistable Caetano:

Seems rather pleasant to me. (Lucky bastard!) In all the accounts of Tropicália—from the pen of Veloso to the halls of the Barbican in London—the same story is told, about how a few individualists struggled against the crowd and the dictatorship. Veloso's colourful version of the above events, for instance, reads: «… [M]y frightening entrance conquered the silence: what had been a tumult of booing gave way to fixed attention.» And the artists, art historians, lazy hacks and record company marketing people will all tell you that Veloso going electric, although met with cheers, ushered in a ferocious cultural revolution in Brazil.

Yet, although some stuffy Leftist purists were upset, and the military surely must have taken note, talking of revolution is, as always, indulgent; there's not a revolution in history, whether in politics or in art, that has ever achieved what the «revolutionaries» proclaim it to have done. Strip it of the hype, however, and I think you'll find «Alegria, alegria» is a decent slice of '60s rock…
(Buy the album.)

2. Gilberto Gil & os Mutantes: «Domingo no parque»
While Veloso submitted an intellectual song for the TV festival that referenced Coca-Cola and icons such as Claudia Cardinale, Brigitte Bardot, Che Guevara, Jean-Paul Sartre and Chacrinha, Gilberto Gil submitted this song about a «crime of passion» in a Salvador park. Arranged by Rogério Duprat, the intro features found sound street noise, an ingredient surely lifted from musique concrète (concrete poetry being one of the Tropicálistas’ formative influences).

Duprat brought the teenage garage sensation os Mutantes into the mix, whose backing added the rock—the international ingredient—while the percussive berimbau represented traditional Brazil.

Although the mind strains to imagine it, there was a time when rock'n'roll was actually rebellious, rather than the commodity that it is today (which, ironically, Tropicália helped transform it into). According to Veloso, leading up to the presentation of his new song, Gil was wracked with anxiety, spending the entire day in bed, curled up in a foetal position… And the crowd does seem slightly less enamoured with Gil's performance than that of Veloso—although you'd never guess it from the joyous look on the angelic faces of the perpetually blue-eyed Mutantes:

(Buy the album.)

3. Caetano Veloso: «Tropicália»
The song that would give the movement its name had itself taken its title from an installation by conceptual artist Hélio Oiticica, whose motto—«FROM ADVERSITY WE LIVE!»—renders the often confusing Tropicália movement intelligible as a non-conformist stance more than anything, motivated by a desire to explore territory and to push boundaries through creativity.
Oiticica's installation consisted of a shack, some sand, a few potted plants, a couple of parrots and a TV set. You probably had to be there. (And by that I mean in Brazil in the 1960s; I walked through the installation in London in 2006, but might as well not have.) About the installation piece, Oiticica—who wrote of the «incomparable difference in the expressiveness of Blacks in relation to intellectualized Whites», even as he himself was a white conceptual artist prone to lofty art manifestos—said,
the myth of «tropicality» is much more than parrots and banana trees: it is the consciousness of not being conditioned by established structures, hence it is highly revolutionary in its entirety. Any conformity, be it intellectual, social, or existential, is contrary to its principal idea.
Faced with encroaching and ever-tightening cultural imperialism from without, Oiticica sought the
definitive overthrow of universalist culture among us, of that intellectuality which predominates over creativity—it is the proposition of maximum individual liberty as the only way to defeat this structure of alienated domination and cultural consumption.
Thus Oiticica—anticipating Veloso & Gil's Tropicálist project—envisaged a non-conformity that, in hindsight, perfectly conformed to the globally (and overwhelmingly) dominant artistic trends of the mid-to-late '60s: pretensions to unconditioning the mind, dreams of collectively expanding consciousness, allegiance to some kind of Leftist sentiment or other, quite banal notions of rebellion (or «revolution»), etc. Oiticica fancied himself an innovator making a break—both as a Brazilian from the clutches of Europe/the US and as a young Brazilian from the chokehold of old Brazil—whereas now it's easy to see that he really only fit into the global scheme of things—the general trend. (The situation is reminiscent of the «South Park» episode wherein a group of goths all wearing identical clothing and make-up berate anyone not dressed that way for being «conformist».)

Oiticica, typifying the obsession with a confused notion of total, utopian freedom so typical of the period, was in many ways a restless clautrophobe trapped inside his own skin and identity. Prompted by a cultural inferiority complex, he childishly sought a utopian (and so impossible) cultural identity by creating, inventing, and above all contriving this new identity, naïvely assuming that identity can exist without conditioning (and not quite realising that unconditioning is merely replacing one conditioning with another). Yet you can't outrun your own shadow, which is why Tropicália, from the very outset at Oiticica's 1967 exhibition, was doomed to ideological failure…

That said, Oiticica did succeed in criticising and overcoming the patronising and limiting stereotype cast by Europe and the US on the «exotic tropics», and managed to do so without rejecting everything in that stereotype (some of which really is beautiful and true). In hindsight, seeing past the intellectual yet confused bluster surrounding his awkward manifestos, this was an achievement. And above and beyond the dated '60s counter-culture rebellion, Oiticica did tackle the subject of cultural imperialism in a way his peers in the US and Europe never had to…

In any case, Veloso was convinced, and so inspired by Oiticica's installation that he named this alternately cinematic and quirky song after it. The lyrics contain so many references it'd make Quentin Tarantino blush. Let's just say the references deal (in classic Pop Art obsession) with icons and archetypes (Ipanema, Bahia, grass shacks, actress Carmen Miranda, songwriter Chico Buarque, token Brazilian rock'n'roller Roberto Carlos), often as double entendres or puns. And for the intro, session drummer Dirceu—apparently oblivious to the lyrics and to Veloso's project—was coincidentally taped as he recounted to the others the first written description of the Brazilian landscape, penned by Pêro Vaz de Caminha in a letter upon the country's discovery by the Portuguese in 1500: «everything one plants in it, everything grows and flourishes.» You could say that this was the seed of both a stereotype and a tribute, the ambiguity of which was never lost on the Tropicálistas, who sought to embrace ecstatic truths, even as they exposed stereotypes. (To their credit, the Tropicálistas never sought to resolve contradictions by reducing them to any of their one-sided, simplistic elements, but rather revelled in the contradiction as it was, toying with its parts.)

All this—plus the arrangements utilising bird song and Brazilian percussion—qualified «Tropicália» as a manifesto.
(Buy the album.)

4. Os Mutantes: «Panis et circenses»
This song, written by Veloso & Gil, is the title track on the various artists manifesto album that Veloso orchestrated in 1968: Tropicália—ou panis et circensis [sic].

Os Mutantes were singer Rita Lee and brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista (guitar and bass, respectively, plus vocal duties), with a third brother, Cláudio, helping out with DIY electronics. With this song, os Mutantes proved they were the South American equivalent to the Beatles. Not to be held back by underdeveloped Third World technology, os Mutantes had to have Cláudio construct make-shift
effects pedals, which is what I think is the coolest and most impressive thing about this track (the derivative Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Broken Hearts Club Band-era music hall arrangements at times being quite annoying).

Typical of Tropicália—which was always low on impulse control—the structure of this song is all over the place, with weird sound effects and, again, found sound samples, as well as small snippets of musical references, like kids just messing about. (At least they had spirit.)

The avant-garde has always borrowed and learnt from the aesthetics of marketing, even when it criticises or satirises it. So it's quite fitting, then, that would-be avant-gardists os Mutantes used their notoriety to exemplify the Tropicálistas' anticipation of globalisation, perhaps a bit ironically, by making five commercials for Shell Oil that combined pop music, avant-garde aesthetics and psychedelic visuals and structure (so trendy at the time) in a marriage of Pop Art, Dada and Capitalism. Like the Pop Art antics of Salvador Dalí, this is an instance of the avant-garde coming full circle, no longer posturing against the Capitalist forces, nor pretending to subvert it, but embracing it—for the love of money, one has to presume. (Where the Leftist leanings and anti-imperialism fit in, I don't know.)

(Buy the album.)

5. Gilberto Gil: «Geléia geral»
According to Caetano Veloso,
it was Torquato [Neto, Tropicália's resident poet] who would write… the lyrics of what would for many become… the manifesto of the movement… It begins with a direct allusion to the poet… («the poet strips the flag»), then goes on to enumerate various signs of the tropics (bananas in the wind, sunflower heat) and of Brazilian life (Jornal do Brasil, Miss Brazil, Chico Buarque's «Carolina»), literally quoting Oswald de Andrade [modernist poet and inspiration to the Tropicálistas]…
A pattern is emerging here where Tropicália is revealed as a classic postmodern enterprise, the manifesto-type lyrics overflowing with
reference upon reference. (This leaves the songs on this sampler rather contrived, however historically significant, which is why I'll be compiling another primer later on, consisting of the Tropicálist music that stands on its own two purely emotional feet.)
(Buy the album.)

6. Nara Leão: «Lindonéia»
Nara Leão was an already established bossa nova chanteuse and darling of the Leftist-nationalist crowd. By 1968, however, she was sick and tired of the stuffy old bossa novistas, so she approached the Tropicálistas for songs and arrangements. Inspired by a kind of Brazilian Pop Art work, Lindonéia, in which painter Rubens Gerchman placed a portrait of a girl inside a kitsch, suburban sitting room frame, Veloso & Gil wrote this song for Leão.
Veloso saw in the above painting a
representation, in distorted lines of painful purity, of what looked like a photographic blowup of a poor girl who had been given up for lost… Gerchman's painting, being a kind of melancholy chronicle of nameless loneliness done in pop tone with metalinguistic overtones, was directly akin to tropicalista music…
I don't see any «painful purity» or «nameless loneliness» in the painting (and certainly not in the song), but the cold and minimalistically delivered, somehow sad yet distant and almost toneless singing so typical of bossa nova chanteuses—the exact opposite of R&B wailing—is strangely comforting…
(Buy the album.)

7. Gal Costa & Caetano Veloso: «Baby»
Veloso's sister, singer Maria Bethânia, although too bright and perceptive to join any movement, nonetheless commissioned a song off her brother, asking only that the lyrics allude to a T-shirt that read, «I love you,» in English. This can be simultaneously viewed as a comment on the cultural imperialism of the English language and as an expression of love for language à la concrete poetry (the focus on the form and appearance of syllables, rather than on meaning).
One of the Tropicálists' sources of inspiration was the modernist poet Oswald de Andrade, who launched the concept of cannibalism in order to deal with the cultural dominance of old Europe over Brazil. An illustration of such «cannibalism» invoked the Tupi, one of Brazil's indigenous peoples, accused at one time of cannibalism. In a burst of cleverdick poetry, Andrade wrote, «Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question»—the idea being that through this poetic turn of phrase Shakespeare is «cannibalised». The central idea is neither to resist or reject cultural input nor to submit to it. Following his cue, the Tropicálistas weren't conservatively curating a stale, static and inflexible idea of Brazilian national identity as much as turning everything into something «Brazilian». (By incorporating rock'n'roll into their music, for instance, and so subsuming the foreign style into their culture, yet still maintaining the singularity of their own culture.)

As it turned out, Veloso's sister didn't want to be associated with his movement (perhaps she saw the inherent hypocrisy in a group of people trying to be non-conformist). And so she gave Veloso's composition to Gal Costa, a no less gifted chanteuse, and for an
intellectual art movement largely alien to the art of suggestion, this recording became one of the more subtle Tropicália recordings. Lush and beautiful, Duprat's rich and varied, yet unobtrusive arrangement combines the best of bossa nova without falling into the trap of maudlin toothlessness or escapist cheesiness.
(Buy the album.)

8. Tom Zé & os Versáteis: «Parque industrial»
«Porque é made made made / Made in Brazil.» Tom Zé lectures us about globalisation—in song format!—long before the term was in vogue. Penned by Zé, this song was initially recorded by core Tropicálistas Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and os Mutantes for the movement's manifesto album Tropicália—ou panis et circensis.

Zé was probably the only Tropicálista that didn't use the movement to break free from the confines of bossa nova, as he was already playing the rural Brazilian music of his upbringing as well as studying avant-garde composition. Probably for this reason, Veloso coaxed him into leaving Bahia and joining the movement in São Paulo. On the plane to the big city, Veloso reminisces,
it was not that he seemed nervous about flying, although his ostentatious unfamiliarity with everything happening on board made it seem… that he had never flown before—but his accent and his archaic expressions seemed to be an attack against the technological reality of aviation and the bourgeois comforts of consumer «services.» … He would refer to the plane as «this caravel…» When the stewardess approached to ask what he wanted to drink, he answered dryly: «Cachaça [a popular sugarcane brandy].»

… In response to the predictable answer of the stewardess—«I'm sorry, we don't have it»—Tom Zé started to take off his seat belt and, making as if to get up, said to me, not to her: «Then I'm leaving. Tell this caravel to stop.»
Later, during the '70s when all recordings had to pass government censors prior to release, Tom Zé made the album Todos os olhos (All the Eyes), the cover of which showed a photograph of what looked like an eye, but which was in actuality a marble stuck firmly into an anus. It took someone like Zé to bypass the censors with an image and title lampooning the very arseholes that had passed them, without them ever realising they'd suffered a grave insult, as ingenious as it was ridiculous…

But that came later. In 1968 the «elf» with the «lively eyes» (as Veloso describes him) was let loose in São Paulo. And for more proof that the caretaker historians of the Tropicálistas are doing a bit of revising—or at least indulging in some poetic licence so as to spin a better yarn—have a look at Tom Zé performing his song «São São Paulo» at one of those supposedly party-pooping and perpetually indignant song festivals:

(Buy the album? Good luck!)

9. Rogério Duprat: «Chega de saudade»
One of the main traits of Tropicália is irreverence. Of course, you might be forgiven for thinking that, in a language where the word «coração» (heart) appears in an estimated 92.37 per cent of its lyrics and poems (and where the speedo is still viewed as not only a perfectly acceptable fashion item, but a beach must), the word «corny» would be an entirely alien concept. And the kitsch of Catholicism is perhaps best appreciated by Protestants, or other cultures where gold-coloured plastic isn't embraced as the ultimate ingredient when making artwork venerating the divine entities you believe to have created the known universe. But it's this that makes Tropicália so refreshing! No self-conscious and «passionate» latinoisms here, as Duprat fucks with that most revered Brazilian music genre, bossa nova, by transforming
its slow and languid, sad and seductive staple melody «Chega de saudade» (generally considered the first-ever bossa nova tune) into an ompa ompa romp.

Well, not exactly, but the bizarre Dixieland plodding, with its tuba and comedy trombone, makes me imagine samba as played by a drunken German marching band. In any case, the utter lack of the suave subtlety so essential to bossa nova lampoons the Portuguese/Brazilian tendency to dramatically harp on and on about «saudade this» and «saudade that».

This was not the first time Duprat transgressed against the high brow in this way. In the early 1960s, Duprat recorded Os Imortais—Os Mestres de sempre, na «bossa» de hoje, an album of bossa nova renditions of Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Verdi, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. And like a double crosser double-crossing his accomplice, Duprat then went and recorded this travesty towards bossa nova.

And now, forty-one years later and a continent removed, I find it hard to tell whether a) Duprat sincerely tried to create beauty with this rape of bossa nova, b) was merely making a cultural statement, or c) if he was simply taking the piss. Whatever the case, on no other song is Tropicália's playfulness as evident as on this recording.
(Buy the album.)

10. Gilberto Gil & os Bichos: «Questão de ordem»
Wow. For TV Globo's Third International Song Festival, Veloso and Gil switched backing bands. Here, Gil has graduated from the pleasant music hall hippie variety of Sgt. Pepper's for a spot of American acid guitarisms inspired by Jimi Hendrix' blissed-out freak-outs. (A bandwagonesque psychedelia, as Gil hadn't started to throw back ayahuasca just yet.)

Anyway, backed by the Beat Boys—by now renamed os Bichos—Gil's song was (in the eyes of Veloso at least)
an anarchistic provocation, since Gil's song took as its title the cliché of all leftist political meetings, «questão de ordem» (point of order), although it was subverted into «point of disorder,» watered down and sugarcoated with a Beatlesy refrain, «in the name of love.»
The crowd was not amused, and the jury apparently couldn't get with the disorderly Hendrix arrangement, as it disqualified(!) Gil from the song contest.
(Buy it.)

11. Caetano Veloso & os Mutantes: «É proibido proibir»
Gil wasn't the only Tropicálista unhinging by mid-1968. Veloso's political (and, weirdly, erotic) song was inspired by a slogan rioting Parisian students borrowed off the Surrealists: «Prohibiting is prohibited.»

For the festival's qualification rounds(!), the dissonant and arhythmic intro caused Veloso to be booed, even before he stopped the song midway to recite a poem by Fernando Pessoa that dealt with crazed and inbred Portuguese King Sebastian I, who perished in a tragicomical crusade against Islam, presumably dying in battle in Morocco in an attempt at conquering Africa that proved incredibly shortlived:
Mad, yes, mad, because I wanted greatness
Such as Fate does not grant.
I could not live up to my certainties;
Thus, where the sandy expanse is,
I left who I was, not who I am.

My madness, let others take it up
Along with all that went with it.
Without madness what is man
But a healthy beast,
Postponed corpse that begets?
But the opening sexual moans and random recital of an (albeit brilliant) poem weren't the only bizarre elements to Veloso's performance, as Caetano began shouting, «God is on the loose!» (a blasphemous variation on «the Devil is on the loose») while John Danduran—some American choreographer—limped across the stage like a hunchbacked gentle giant, described by Veloso as
obviously a gringo, tall, very white, wrapped in a hippie poncho, and without a single hair anywhere on his body (he'd had I don't know what disease), who howled and grunted unintelligibly.
But Veloso's performance wasn't sufficiently provocative for «É proibido proibir» not to go on to the finals. This version of the track actually includes a snippet of the live recording from the finals at the end, where you can hear Veloso indomitably yelling at the mindless ingrates booing him.
Finally confrontational and antagonistic in full, this is Veloso's crowning artistic achievement: As the audience members literally turn their backs on the performers (with os Mutantes in turn turning their backs on the audience), and with Gilberto Gil joining the band onstage (only to be pelted with crunched up paper and plastic cups by the angry intellectuals!), a Veloso full of delightful bile and frothing hubris bellows:
So this is the youth who says it wants to take power? … You are the same youth that will always kill tomorrow the old enemy who died yesterday. You don't understand anything, anything, anything—nothing at all! … Gilberto Gil is here with me, so that we can put an end to this festival, to all of the idiocy that reigns in Brazil. To end it once and for all. … We, he and I, had the courage to go inside all the structures and leave them all. And you? … [I]f you are the same in politics as you are in aesthetics, we're done for! And as for you… the jury is very nice, but it is incompetent. God is free! [sings] «Give me a kiss, my love / they are waiting for us / the automobiles burn in flames / knock down the shelves / the bookshelves, the statues / the glass cases, the dishes, books yes / and I say yes / and I say no to no / and I say / it is forbidden to forbid.» Off key [«Desafinado,» a pun on the bossa nova classic of the same name], without melody. What do you think, jury? You didn't get it? Did Gilberto Gil's melody qualify? You're out of it. Gil melted your brains, huh? And that's the way I want to see it. Enough!
(Buy it? Good luck!)

12. Gal Costa: «Divino, maravilhoso»
Producer Guilherme Araújo was an influential figure for Tropicália, as he had a knack for marketing these somehow uncommercial media whores, the unpopular Pop Artistes Veloso et al. According to Veloso,
Guilherme's formula for expressing his highest praise was the expression «divino, maravilhoso,» divine, marvelous, which he not infrequently complemented with «International!» when his enthusiasm warranted it.
That cultural inferiority complex again. Anyway, Veloso & Gil used this phrase as a template to write a song for neglected Tropicálista Gal Costa, in an attempt to provide her with a hit. Veloso further flatters himself with having written a kind of protest song within the context of student resistance to the dictatorship, claiming that it «almost prefigured armed conflict in its violent imagery»:
You have to be strong and watch out
There is no time to be afraid to die

Watch out for the windows up above
Watch out, when you cross the street, the mud
Watch out for the blood on the ground
Watch out, everything is dangerous
Everything's divine, marvelous
Watch out for the refrain

Yet the song—and Tropicálism as a whole—wasn't so subversive that it didn't get its own show on TV—in the 1960s… in an underdeveloped country… during a military dictatorship. (As Veloso explains: «Few
homes had TV sets, and there were almost none among the poor or lower middle classes.») The programme on the now defunct station TV Tupi (it's interesting to note that the Tupis were cannibals, supposedly, and invoked by Oswald de Andrade, as mentioned above) took its name from this composition, and featured Veloso, Gil, Costa, Zé, Tropicália sympathiser Jorge Ben—and of course the Mutantes—as regulars.

One stunt on the «Divino, maravilhoso» TV show that I'd love to see on YouTube is said to have had the Tropicálistas spread and decked out as in the tableau of the Last Supper, but with only bananas on the dining table, while os Mutantes carry out a mock funeral procession stopping at a grave marked «Here lies Tropicalism».

Not long after, an internal coup within the military dictatorship led to Institutional Act No. 5, an act that replaced the previous period of martial law with that of a police state. To further thicken the plot, TV Tupi were receiving complaints from incensed Catholics. Veloso pressed on regardless, singing national treasure «Boas festas» (the Brazilian equivalent to «Jingle Bells») on the show's Christmas episode—while holding a gun to his head…

As for the song «Divino, maravilhoso», it came at a time when the Tropicálistas had discovered psychedelic drugs. Here's a clip of the song as it was premiered for rival station TV Record's song festival in 1968, with Gal Costa abandoning her bossa novista image to remodel herself—in full keeping with the psychedelic times—on Janis Joplin:

(Buy the album.)

13. Caetano Veloso: «Irene»
Two weeks after the coup's coup—and three days after the Christmas episode of «Divino, maravilhoso»—Veloso and Gil were detained by the military police and placed in solitary confinement.
Sometimes cerebral to a fault, the most captivating part of Veloso's memoir, Tropical Truth—A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, is the bit where Veloso chillingly recounts, in brilliant psychological prose, his experiences in solitary confinement.
… [I]n such circumstances it is the very paucity of occurrences and their regularity that end up eroding our usual perception of the passage of time… [A]t some point, inside the cell, one doubts the reality of that unfettered life that memory tells us exists outside. …

Sometimes I remember those days of solitary confinement as though they were a single day. After a long time—but what is «a long time»?—I started looking for myself in the person that slept and awoke in that loathsome place whose immutability imposed itself as proof that there wasn't, there had never been, any other. … The first effort to recognize me in myself took the form of trying to cry: if I was indeed in such an awful situation, if they had separated me so abruptly from my wife, whom I had married only a year ago, if I could not see the apartment we had barely begun to settle into, if they threw me on a rough blanket and old newspapers, if no one heard my questions, surely to concentrate my mind on these matters would be enough to bring tears streaming from my eyes, to rack me with sobs and spasms. Not so. This intimacy between body and spirit that weeping conjures was not available to me. …

I tried masturbation. … [A]fter some days in jail it occurred to me I would have to take on a deliberate attitude and make myself reach an orgasm quickly. It would be enough, I thought, to begin to think and then act. But I could not even get an erection. I remember how frightened I was by the neutrality with which my genitals reacted to my touch… The days would follow one another without bringing any hope that my body and mind could even approach the routine miracle of sex, any more than that of crying. And yet, what a blessing it would be, the capacity to be ravished by sadness or pleasure but also, and perhaps above all, to have the physical experience of tears or an ejaculation! I would be saved from the horror of my subjection, as though they were materializing in response to a momentary but overwhelming intensification of the life of the spirit. In fact, crying and coming are both, so to speak, experienced like an overflowing of the soul when it becomes denser and expands all at once, a paradox from which matter is exempt.
It hardly seems a coincidence, then, that another form of release—of simultaneously becoming denser and expanding—appeared to him. The one song Veloso composed in confinement was an ode to his then 14-year-old sister, Irene, whose happiness, Veloso writes, exploded «at every moment in sincere and spontaneous peals of laughter»:
I want to go, people
I'm not from here
I've got nothing
I want to see Irene laugh
I want to see her laughing
Laugh, Irene, laugh, Irene, laugh
Typically for the Tropicálist with the Concretist streak, «Laugh, Irene» in Portuguese reads like a palindrome: «Irene ri.»

After two months of political imprisonment, Veloso & Gil were «released», subject to a form of house arrest, and
when I walked out with Gil, I felt lost. … I didn't recognize the city, didn't know whether to consider myself free or not, or whether I would still know how to live.

… Freedom had come, but I was no longer there: I had waited too long.
By now it was early 1969. Veloso & Gil recorded each their album at a local studio (being prohibited from leaving their home town of Salvador). Not sufficiently proficient on guitar himself, Veloso had Gil play guitar as Veloso sang the song he wrote in prison—one of the most poignant of his career (and without a single cultural reference or contrived message). The tapes were then sent to Rogério Duprat for added instrumentation.

It would be their last studio recordings before going into exile in London, effectively ending the Tropicália momentum.
(Buy the album, and/or Gilberto Gil's «companion» album.)

14. Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil: «Atrás do trio elétrico»
Four months into their house arrest, Veloso & Gil were «offered» exile; to raise money for the plane ride, they were allowed to play one
fundraiser at a venue in Salvador.

Back in 1967, before premiering «Alegria, alegria» at that 1967 TV festival, Veloso warned, in the press, that he would be «going electric», and attempted to cast this decision within a Brazilian tradition by referring to the trios elétricos of the Salvador carnival.

Starting in the early '60s, groups consisting of one treble, one tenor and one bass electric guitar (plus a little percussive accompaniment) would ride the backs of trucks and play as they drove through the festive streets. This song is a celebration of that, the trio elétrico perfectly emblematic of the Tropicálist project, which seeks to «cannibalise» the foreign by making it its own.
(Buy the album.)

15. Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil: «País tropical»
With Gil & Veloso gone, Tropicália late bloomer Gal Costa had yet to release her two Tropicálist solo albums (both titled Gal Costa and
released in 1969).

Now, aside from Brazilian samba and bossa nova maestros Dorival Caymmi and João Gilberto, the Beatles, Brazil's token derivative rock'n'roller Roberto Carlos, Jimi Hendrix, and musique concrète, perhaps the biggest musical influence on the Tropicálistas was Jorge Ben (especially his eclectic 1967 album O Bidú—Silêncio no Brooklin, which appropriated American soul into his infectious brand of Brazilian samba). Recorded before Veloso's & Gil's incarceration, here the core members of Tropicália join forces to cover Ben's typically irrepressible «País tropical»—the lyrics to which got Ben in trouble with the military dictatorship (albeit not as grave as that suffered by Veloso & Gil).
(Buy the album.)

16. Jorge Ben & Trio Mocotó: «Descobri que eu sou um anjo»
Not really a Tropicálista, but sympathetic to the movement, by 1969 Jorge Ben finally teamed up with Rogério Duprat to craft some
space-age psychedelia. With its seminal influence joining the ranks, Tropicália kind of comes full circle with this. Which is another way of saying it marks a fitting end.

This wonderful Jorge Ben clip is from the same year but, perhaps significantly, has little or no Tropicálismo to it:

(Buy the album.)

By all intents and purposes, before the end of 1969 Tropicália was no more. Os Mutantes started playing… prog rock (pardon my French), Gil went on to help define the «world music» genre, while Veloso and the artists reliant on his songwriting skills (Costa) fumbled about as he tried to experiment in new ways (perhaps not fully realising how vulnerable to failure experiments are). Tom Zé was probably the only Tropicálista who managed to ride an upwards trajectory once the movement's delightfully dizzying burst of infantile creativity had died down, making albums that are acquired taste, most certainly, but more accomplished than what he did in the late '60s.

And now 'tis but a memory, curated, exaggerated and romanticised by hipsters, nostalgic revisionists and art historians. David Byrne, Kurt Cobain, Beck and Devendra Banhart have all hailed the movement in the American and European press, but I doubt anyone outside of that time and space really gets it, the parts not obscured by over-thinking academic papers just lost in translation. Still, there were some fascinating ideas, as well as an enthusiasm that's too infectious to stand in need of any translation.

Beneath the bluster and the yarns (and all the bandying about with that meaningless word, «revolution») there were some lasting achievements. As Tropicália janitor Veloso remarks,
One characteristic of tropicalia, perhaps its own indisputable historical success, was precisely the broadening and diversification of the market, achieved through a dismantling of the order of things, with a disregard for distinctions of class or level of education.
(Which is only one of the reasons rock'n'roll is no longer a rebellious art form.)

And let's not forget the wicked tunes.

Stay tuned for my next Tropicália post, with less writing and more groove…

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