The Story Of Tropicália In 11 Tracks (And One Film)

July 3, 2013

Authoritarian regimes have exerted power by shutting down their citizens’ capacity to think – at least that’s how political theorist Hannah Arendt diagnosed them. In late ’60s Brazil, a group of artists responded by trying to shock its audience into a reaction. Caetano Veloso sang a carol on TV the night before Christmas holding a gun to his head. Gilberto Gil dressed up as a member of the (all-white) Brazilian Academy of Literature on an album cover. Hélio Oiticica’s image of the notorious gangster, Horseface, was re-used, with the added slogan “Be A Hero, Be An Outcast.”

The movement was called Tropicália. And in a country anesthetized by military dictatorship, it was a Technicolor clarion call. Mixing up bossa nova, psychedelia, concrete poetry and electronic wizardry, Tropicália gave us discombobulated pop, direct from the Third World.

Its inner circle all hailed from Bahia, the old capital of the country, where colonial Portuguese architecture and Afro-Brazilian heritage came into contact with New Wave cinema and 7-inch records from America. Caetano Veloso, older brother of singer Maria Bethânia, was a philosophy student at the Federal University of Bahia. It was there that he met Gilberto Gil, a multi-instrumentalist from a solid middle-class family, as well as José Capinam and Tom Zé, the self-styled agent provocateur. From Bahia’s capital Salvador came poet Torquato Neto, and also Gal Costa, who took up singing after hearing João Gilberto on the radio.

If sleepy Bahia was the nest, then the concrete sprawl of São Paulo and the cosmopolitanism of Rio de Janeiro was were where Tropicália took flight. There’s a sea change between Veloso’s introspective first album, Domingo, a post-bossa nova record made in 1967 with Gal Costa, and his next album – the first properly tropicalist record, with tracks like “Alegria, Alegria,” “Superbacana,” and “Tropicália.” The shock of the big city, with its rampant consumerism, its stark inequalities and its restless energy, cast a powerful spell over the Bahian group.

Caetano Veloso - Tropicália

Caetano Veloso - Tropicália

Caetano Veloso became the icon of his generation, a kind of Bob Dylan from the tropics. But he didn’t come up with the title for this song-cum-manifesto. It was suggested to him by filmmaker Luiz Carlos Barreto, who said the lyrics reminded him of an installation piece by Hélio Oiticica. Oiticica’s artwork/environment combined tropical plants and macaws with tin-roofed pre-fabs and a dark room with a flickering television set, juxtaposing the picture postcard image of Brazil with its underbelly.

Veloso’s song, set to a carnival march, also flashes with sharp juxtapositions and wordplay to talk about the worsening situation in the country, but in terms subtle enough to pass under the noses of the censors.

Caetano Veloso became the icon of his generation, a kind of Bob Dylan from the tropics.

Unlike the slick bossa nova of João Gilberto that Veloso had grown up with in the '50s (which for him symbolised the epitome of the country’s musical sophistication), by the 1960s Brazilian music was largely MPB (musica popular brasileira), a catch-all term that encompassed everything from polished bossa singers like Elis Regina and Wilson Simonal to a young set of protest singers like Chico Buarque.

“Tropicália” pointed towards a new Brazilian idiom that went beyond the protest song, a type of art that might actually be able to challenge the status quo. In this undertaking he could count on the support of people like filmmaker Glauber Rocha (“Terra Em Transe”), concrete poet Augusto de Campos and other artists who were all working in their own way against the grain of the military dictatorship and its backward-looking agenda for Brazil.

Gilberto Gil - Domingo no Parque

Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes - Domingo No Parque

Despite being a movement that’s often accompanied by adjectives like “revolutionary” or “avant-garde,” it’s important to remember that Tropicália owed much of its success to prime-time slots on national TV. Above you can see the fourth edition of the TV Record festival in 1967, broadcast from its São Paulo studios, in which they welcomed Veloso and close friend Gilberto Gil.

Gil, whose first instrument was an accordion, had played in a rock ‘n’ roll band as a teenager before taking up the guitar and turning his hand to bossa nova. His entry in that year’s TV Record festival was “Domingo No Parque” (“Sunday in the Park”). Gil was joined by Os Mutantes on stage. This three-piece group from São Paulo, named after an American comic, was fronted by musical brothers Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias, with the elfin Rita Lee on vocals. Heavily influenced by The Beatles, rocking homemade electric guitars, they gave “Domingo No Parque” a shimmery pop appeal. In the process, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes mixed two rival genres, MPB and yeah-yeah-yeah (Brazilian rock ‘n’ roll). For MPB purists, this was tantamount to heresy, but it was only the beginning...

Gal Costa - Baby

Gal Costa - Baby

In May 1968, as Russian troops invaded Prague and French students and workers were building barricades in the streets, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil went into the studio with Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, poets Capinam and Torquato Neto and bossa nova sophisticate Nara Leão.

The concept album, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, released later that year, would be the most comprehensive artistic statement to come from the Tropicálists, with a magical mix of psychedelia, tango, bossa, twelve-tone music and military marches. Though only 38 minutes in length, it birthed enduring classics like “Bat Macumba” and “Panis Et Circensis,” and its experimentalist ambition was evident in everything from the Rogério Duarte-designed cover to the tropicálist movie script printed on the back of the record.

The Beatles had shown that you could make art out of pop music, and the Tropicálists didn’t need a second invitation.

That it was influenced by Sgt. Pepper, released the previous year, was obvious. The Beatles had shown that you could make art out of pop music, and the Tropicálists didn’t need a second invitation. Os Mutantes brought their sonic experimentalism to the record, while the horn and string arrangements of Rogerio Duprat have the hallmarks of George Martin’s sessions at Abbey Road.

There were hints, for those who could see, about the degenerating situation in the country. The album’s title, Panis Et Circensis, or “bread and circuses,” was borrowed from Juvenal’s description of the Roman Republic, but it was an apt description of the troubled times. Even a track like “Baby,” sung by the kittenish Gal Costa, superficially a song about a young girl deliriously in love, was feeding the minds of the kids under a dictatorship with its lyrics, giving them the clues to understand their era – a point Tom Zé makes in Marcelo Machado’s comprehensive Tropicália documentary.

Os Mutantes - A Minha Menina

Os Mutantes, being somewhat younger than the Bahian group, and raised in São Paulo, had a sensibility for international pop that the Bahian contingency never would. As Rita Lee told Raygun Magazine:

“When Gil first heard Os Mutantes during a record session he was really impressed with our home-made instruments and our sane insanity. Os Mutantes gave the Tropicália movement a new dimension by using electronic instruments for the first time in the Brazilian music scene, like clowns in a crowd of reactionaries. In doing so, we accentuated the powerful and beautiful lyrics, the strong, daring messages of the Tropicália movement. We had to reach lots of desperate people longing for some enlightenment at the end of Darth Vader’s tunnels.”

The fourth Mutantes, Claudio, built the fuzz pedals himself.

The fourth Mutantes, Claudio, brother of Sergio and Arnaldo, built the fuzz pedals himself. The other effects that weren’t possible at the time in Brazil, he replicated. As Sergio Dias told interviewer Frederick Moehn, “We used to hear The Beatles, those reverse tapes, they had like those – ‘pht pht pht’ – sounds. How the hell did they do that? Because we didn’t have the technology, we’d say, well, that resembles a can of Flit [insect repellent], and that’s how we did it!”

Several tracks on the debut Mutantes album are cover versions from Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, but “A Minha Meninha” was written by Jorge Ben, a regular Tropicália collaborator. It’s about as raucous and exuberant as anything you’re likely to hear from that period.

Rogério Duprat (& Os Mutantes) - Canção Pra Inglês Ver / Chiquita Bacana

Composer and arranger Rogério Duprat sometimes gets forgotten, even if he’s on the cover of Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis. It was Duprat who introduced Gilberto Gil to Os Mutantes, accompanied the pop trio from São Paulo around the world and whose his fingerprints are all over albums from Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Jorge Ben, Tom Zé and Chico Buarque.

Duprat’s role in Tropicália is often compared to the Fifth Beatle, George Martin.

In Germany, Duprat studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen, finding himself in the same class as Frank Zappa. Returning to São Paulo, he taught at the University of Brasilia and in the mid-’60s, was part of the vanguard Música Nova collective, but settled on a career in pop music after he was forced out of the university by the military dictatorship.

Duprat’s role in Tropicália is often compared to the Fifth Beatle, George Martin. His lush arrangements totally make tracks like Veloso’s “Irene,” Costa’s “Baby,” and the collective album Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis. Despite his classical training, Duprat, like the younger artists he worked with, was also interested in the subversive power of mixing high and low art. He would go on to compose soundtracks and released The Brazilian Suite on KPM in 1970, but his greatest solo moment was 1968’s A Banda Tropicalista do Rogerio Duprat, which features Os Mutantes on a couple of cuts.

Caetano Veloso - É Proibido proibir

Caetano Veloso - E Proibido Proibir

Another Caetano Veloso song, and another title that wasn’t his own. “E Proibido Proibir” was suggested by producer and impresario, Guilherme Araújo, who had seen the slogan “It’s forbidden to forbid” scrawled on the walls by student demonstrators in Paris. Araújo, a kind of Brazilian Malcolm McLaren, was always pushing Veloso and Gil to court controversy, probably counting all the cruzeiros that this would bring in the cash registers.

Things had already begun to degenerate rapidly by the time Veloso performed the song at the TV Globo festival in September 1968. The police’s murder of student Edson Luis de Lima Soto during a protest in the university canteen over meal prices led to spiralling protests, culminating in the March of the One Hundred Thousand in June 1968.

Veloso appeared on stage, in a green and black plastic outfit, macumba beads and a necklace of animal teeth, winding his hips provocatively.

During this festival appearance, Veloso was booed off stage by the audience of left-wing students, who probably wanted to hear protest songs played with pandeiro and violão. Anticipating their reaction, he let Os Mutantes open up with a minute of atonal music. By the time he appeared on stage, in a green and black plastic outfit, macumba beads and a necklace of animal teeth, winding his hips provocatively, objects started to fly from the audience. Veloso launched into a tirade against the audience that has gone down in legend.

The artist later distanced himself from the song, which didn't sell well despite the furore, and in 1972 wrote that he’d hate to think it was reflective of tropicália or of his work in general. The 1969 White album, and the 1972 comeback record, Transa, are probably better introductions to his work.

Gilberto Gil - Aquele Abraço

Gilberto Gil - Aquele Abraco

On 27 December 1968, police raided Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil’s apartments in São Paulo, and took the pair to Rio de Janeiro. They were later jailed without charge. The exact reason for their arrest was unclear – apparently they had mocked the national anthem during a show at the Sucata nightclub, although Veloso denied this.

That same month, the government passed AI-5, a repressive law instituting state censorship of music, films and the media (with a blanket ban on all images of student demonstrations) and removing basic civil liberties such as habeas corpus for political crimes.

After two months in jail, but still under house arrest, Veloso and Gil were “encouraged” to leave the country.

After two months in jail, but still under house arrest, Veloso and Gil were “encouraged” to leave the country, and got on a plane to England. Gilberto Gil’s leaving gift to his country was the song “Aquele Abraco” (“That Embrace”), a summery samba dedicated to João Gilberto, Dori Caymmi and Veloso. The song gives shout outs to familiar sights from Rio de Janeiro – the girl from the favela, the carnival group Portela and the Flamengo football fans. There’s even a verse for Chacrinha, the clownish host of a youth TV programme.

The Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo awarded Gil the prestigious Golden Dolphin for the song. From his “Sixteen Chapel” address in London, Gil flatly refused the award, explaining in a letter printed in O Pasquim how he was in “no doubt that the Museum thinks that ‘Aquele Abraco’ was a samba written to repent for my sins against ‘the sacred church of Brazilian music’. I’ll have nothing to do with any such notion, and have three LPs that prove as much.”

Os Brazões - Gotham City

Os Brazões - Gotham City

In October 1968, two months before the police swooped in on Veloso and Gil, the Tropicálists had secured their own weekly TV programme, called Divino Maravilhoso. On the final episode, they staged a mock burial of the Tropicália movement, and performed behind bars – an indication of how artistic statements were becoming impossible in the political climate. By mid-1969, with Veloso and Gil out of the country, Tropicália had lost its head, but other artists carried on the struggle.

“Gotham City” is a pretty unambiguous state of the nation address.

Os Brazões were the backing band for Gal Costa and steered Tom Zé to success at the 1968 TV Record festival with the song “São São Paulo.” At the IV International Festival of Popular Song in 1969, Os Brazões performed “Gotham City” with Jards Macalé. It’s a pretty unambiguous state of the nation address: “I’d be free if I left Gotham City, I get by as best I can in Gotham City, But I’m going away with my baby from Gotham City.” It features on their hard-to-find, self-titled album of fuzz guitar, percussion and violão. The record also includes a cover of “Carolina, Carol Bela” by Jorge Ben and a couple of Gilberto Gil numbers.

Os Brazões continued to perform with Gal Costa, who in 1969 released the essential album Gal Costa (“Baby,” “Lost In Paradise,” “Que Pena”). On the cover, Gal looks askance, wrapped in a feather boa, with heavy black eyeliner and thick brown curls. Later that same year came Gal, an album that took a more experimental approach with the souk-funk of “Tuareg” and the out-there “Objeto Sim, Objeto Não.” Gal was pretty much steering the Tropicália rocketship single-handedly, absorbing the influences of Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, and even today is still producing interesting music.

Liverpool - Impressões Digitais

Liverpool - Impressões Digitais

Hailing from Porto Alegre in the south of the country, this five-man outfit might not have described itself as “tropicálist” even if it took some of the genre’s gleeful irreverence and put it on top of a sound that owed much to the Rolling Stones and to Californian psych. Their 1969 album Por Favor, Successo is one of the great undiscovered gems of the period. Singer Fughetti Luz would go on to be a legendary figure in the gaucho rock movement, and Mimi Lessa is, alongside Os Mutantes’ Sergio Dias, one of the country’s finest guitarists. You could pick out any of a number of tracks on this album but “Impressões Digitais” (“Fingerprints”) gets the nod for a great solo from Mimi Lessa and the drum and bass combo which, to these ears at least, like David Axelrod’s “Holy Thursday,” recorded a year earlier.

Novos Baianos - De Vera

Novos Baianos - De Vera

Another band clearly influenced by the tropicálists was Novos Baianos – the “new Bahians.” In 1969, they entered this song, “De Vera,” in the last ever TV Record festival (the competition was marred by three fires at the studios, either arson attacks by leftist guerrillas or from rival TV stations). Novos Baianos didn’t qualify for the festival, but the track did make it on to their psych-y debut album that same year, É Ferro Na Boneca. When the band returned in 1972 with Acabou Chorare, under the supervision of bossa nova lynchpin João Gilberto, they created one of the landmark albums in the history of Brazilian music. Its brand of stoned bossa nova was recorded while they were living together in a hippie commune in Jacarepagua, a neighbourhood of Rio. The 1972 recording might have been less confrontational than those of their Tropicálist peers but it maintained that chameleon approach that was the movement’s hallmark. This particular track was featured on Andy Votel’s Brazilika compilation from 2008.

Tom Zé - Menina, Amanhã de Manhã

Tom Zé - Menina, Amanhã de Manhã

The dada agitator of the Bahian circle (and the only one to actually study music at the conservatory at the University of Bahia), Tom Zé didn't follow his friends into exile, and kept a low profile in São Paulo through the ’70s, releasing sporadic and largely unnoticed albums. It wasn’t until David Byrne re-issued his work in the ’90s that Zé finally got some of the acclaim he richly deserved. Notorious for his logical non-sequiturs, during a Red Bull Music Academy lecture in Madrid in 2011, when asked to talk about bossa nova, replied: “Bossa nova was really overwhelming, like a girl with three pussies.”

Zé’s wordplay has always been his strong suit, and he kept close ties to concrete poet, Augusto de Campos, who was one of the early champions of Tropicália. On this track from the 1972 album, Se o Caso e Chorar, he gradually breaks down a song into its vowels – a, e, i, o – like some sort of Eugène Ionesco absurdist play.

Jorge Mautner - O Demiurgo

Never a card-carrying member of the Tropicálists, writer/musician/filmmaker Jorge Mautner still had a moon-like influence on Caetano Veloso and is mentioned in the same breath as artist Hélio Oiticica, poet Augusto de Campos, director Glauber Rocha and designer Rogerio Duarte as one of the movement’s spiritual forefathers.

It was Mautner’s trilogy of novels, the Mythology of Kaos, as well as his song “Radioatividade,” about the Third World War, which caused Mautner to be labelled a dangerous Trotskyist subversive and his name included in the National Security Law. He went into political exile and in London met up with Veloso and Gil, where he filmed O Demiurgo, a low-budget feature film starring Veloso in the title role and Gil as Pan.

Tropicália managed to bequeath an image of Brazil that embedded all the contradictions of its era.

London became the centre of the Tropicálists in exile. This rain-soaked town was, however, a creative low-point for Veloso, who failed to produce much of note until 1972 when, anticipating his return, he brought over Jards Macalé, Tutti Moreno, Moacyr Albuquerque and Áureo de Sousa from Brazil, and recorded the album Transa in a church in Chalk Farm. For Gil it was more productive, and as well as collaborating with bands like Hawkwind, he even helped organised the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970.

By the time Veloso and Gil were allowed to return to Brazil in 1972, the game had moved on. Os Mutantes were moving towards progressive rock, leading Rita Lee to leave the band. The poet Torquato Neto, who had been tortured by the police, committed suicide in 1972. And Tom Zé had “buried himself alive” in anti-commercialism.

What Tropicália had managed, though, in the space of just a few years, was to not only to blow wide open the minds of young Brazilians, but to bequeath an image of Brazil that embedded all the contradictions of its era. They were very much, like Godard said, the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.

Header image © Collection Iconographia / Disclosure

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