Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound
eptember 15th, 1968: Caetano Veloso, head to toe in plastic clothing and gaudy necklaces, performs at the International Song Festival in São Paulo accompanied by Os Mutantes. As soon as “É Proibido Proibir” (“It’s Forbidden to Forbid”) starts, the crowd begins to groan, boo, and throw food at the stage. Gilberto Gil takes a bite of a deflated tomato. Audience and band turn their backs on each other. Caetano speaks: “But is this the youth who says they want to take power? … If your ideas of politics are the same you have of aesthetics, we are finished.” In 2005, Veloso is one of Latin America’s most venerated musicians; Gilberto Gil is the Culture Minister of Brazil. Once rebels, the leaders of the Tropicália movement have morphed into some of the country’s most cherished cultural treasures.
Like punk, like Bob Dylan, Tropicália was nakedly political music. Punk’s hippyish camaraderie—embrace your peers under the comfortable blanket of university or art school—broke into reality only to market itself or showboat: fuck the system slapped on a t-shirt; the Sex Pistols cuss on TV and eight years earlier, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had gone to jail for their art. No blame. Dylan too, might have inspired a generation to storm the rector’s office only to soak the whole gesture in light of go-your-own-way iconoclasm and the self-sufficiency of the loner genius, a subtly gross marriage of capitalist choice and poetic justice. The original Tropicália bunch featured here—Gil, Veloso, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and a pinch from Jorge Ben—were more collectivized than coincidentally like-minded; the movement’s first statement was the compilation Tropicália: Ou Panis Et Circensis, which, if uneven, is remarkable because it really sounds like an effective collaborative record, a document of musicians working in fluid combinations with similar goals; there’s harmony.
They revered bossa nova, but understood that its smoothed-over beauty was its best strength and its worst weakness, especially after the genre was condemned to cocktail parties and beach dreams by marketing wizards on the import end. So, story goes that Brazilian trad. develops an edge, gets mashed with psychedelia and wow, funky otherness reigns supreme in ass-shaking mindbenders. But that’s to belch the kind of reductive rhetoric that makes Tropicália easy to write off as a fetish. Yes, it managed to incorporate the avant-garde tactics of its time—tape loop experimentalism, DIY electronics, and psychedelic intention—but it did so without resorting to forced face-melting shenanigans or dated bloop-work that makes a lot of groundbreaking 60s music sound like period pieces today.
But arguments that stick only to a sound’s “importance” are the worst kind of big car/big dog :: big dick compensation gestures; cast down your bucket almost anywhere on this compilation and what you get is sheer heart-splitting joy of the highest order: Gal Costa sounding like she’s getting a thorough tickling on the effusive sperm-journey jitters of “Sebasiana,” the googly-eyed skank and fried doo-wop vocalizations of Os Mutantes’ “A Minha Menina,” or Gilberto Gil’s classic “Domingo No Parque,” which simmers and winds into a nap before bursting into one of the era’s most indelible climaxes, a brass band stomping through fuzz guitars and Gil’s soaring, echoed vocals. If you can keep a smile off your face, I swear, there is something seriously wrong with your face.
For those that approach with curious caution—overloaded consumers or just first-timers—there are things that need to be said, of course. Things like: no, not every classic song from the era is here, but yes, if you do choose to own only one Tropicália disc, then this should be the one (it’s got great liner notes, too). Of course, it’d be wrong to not say that there were other great artists during Tropicália’s time and the ensuing MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) Movement—Milton Nascimento, Lô Borges, and Joyce, to name a few. Tropicália, for all its recent focus, was a pivot point, part of a large, beautiful lineage.
In the end, it’s almost easy to forget that they were making an impact at all. The Fifth Institutional Act was passed in December 1968, effectively banning freedom of speech and partially condoning torture; on Christmas Eve, Veloso held a gun to his head and sang a traditional Brazilian song on the Tropicália show Divine, Marvellous, prompting his arrest very early the next morning. You see a threat, you get rid of it; nowadays, the closest thing we could imagine is only of the palest similarity, say, the blatantly conservative Fox News shitting on Late Registration after that whole Katrina Special stunt. Tropicália may be a museum piece or the realm of the modern-day music geek, but its position isn’t without a moral, and a ruthlessly uplifting one: music can actually make an impact on everyday political life. Tom Zé always considered himself a journalist; in a recent CNN interview, Gilberto Gil related a brief, beautiful story: "The other day I was walking with the guitar at my back and a man came and said 'look at your pen,' pointing to the guitar."