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times of gall

times of gall

Foreign views

Bruce Gilman
Brazzil Magazine, 01 December 2002

It all started in 1967. But for all the hoopla around the 30th anniversary of Tropicalismo it looks more like a centennial. Special stories have appeared on TV, newspapers and magazines. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, two of the leaders of the movement, have just released new CDs. Is it all just repeated hype and overkilling by a culture suffering from an inferiority complex? Brazzil tries to answer this and many other questions.

“I’m a tropicalista, I always doubt the criteria used to evaluate art. That’s why many times I have preferred the chaff to the wheat.”
Caetano Veloso

Thirty years after Tropicália, the Municipal City Hall in Salvador, Bahia, announced that the theme for their Carnaval next year will be Tropicalismo. Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa will be playing outstanding roles as special reverence is paid to Osmar Macedo, father of the trio elétrico, who died recently. The event will provide an opportunity to recall a turning point in Brazilian culture and summarize not only the work of the three legendary Bahian musicians, but other Baianos as well, especially poet Torquato Neto, who in partnership with Gil wrote what became the hymn of the Tropicália movement, “Geléia Geral”:

A poet unfurls the flag

And the tropical morn begins to beat

Resplendent, cascading, gracious

A joyous sunflower heat

In the general jam of Brazil

That the Jornal do Brasil will greet

And the celebration has started already with the release of Tropicália 30 Anos on the Natasha Records label. Paying homage to the movement spearheaded by Caetano, Gil, and company, the disc (see listing of titles and performers below) features new versions of Tropicália classics and unites tropicalistas Caetano, Gil, Tom Zé, and Gal Costa with new generation Baianos like Margareth Menezes, Daniela Mercury, Carlinhos Brown, and the Banda Eva.

Additional commemorations of the movement include TV and radio specials; the publication of avant-guard film maker Gláuber Rocha’s correspondence; the third edition of the assembled work of poet Torquato Neto; the book Tropicália: A História de Uma Revolução Musical by journalist Carlos Calado; an exhibit in Germany of the works of plastic artist Hélio Oiticica; and a retrospective of the works of Lygia Clark in Barcelona. Why all this hoopla? Just five years ago there were celebrations for “25 Years of Tropicália”!

The movement has been lauded, flaunted, and studied by the artistic and academic community for years. Much has been written about it, even outside Brazil. One begins to suspect that all this about Tropicália is just repeated hype, another ramification of Brazil’s cultural inferiority complex. Wasn’t Tropicália more a reprocessing of several things than the start of a new genre? In interviews during the Som Brasil TV special, Gal Costa asserted, “Tropicalismo is still a reference for a generation. It is important that these songs are remembered.” Gilberto Gil affirmed, “Tropicália brought a new attitude, a new way of looking at music within the culture, a feeling of plurality and democracy.” What is appearing now, after thirty years, are influential works and testimonies of people who actually lived Tropicália.

Over the past three decades, Tropicália has become a legend. Typically, its ideas have become overgrown and obscured by fiction. Divergent evaluations of a movement are not uncommon, but in the case of Tropicália there is still controversy about what the movement stood for. Its admirers are as much at odds as its critics. This situation has led to the assumption that Tropicália lacked any coherent philosophy. Any attempt to refute this assumption would lack historical perspective without at least a brief account of the legend’s origins.


Tropicália was the last great Brazilian cultural movement, a movement to end all movements, and an insight into Brazilian reality. Not only was it a musical movement, but an acknowledged arts movement that manifested itself in sculpture, literature, painting, film, theater, poetry, and the plastic arts. The name itself came from the April 1967 ambient-art exhibition, “Tropicália,” at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio by Hélio Oiticica. Artists dreaming of a new aesthetic for Brazil and struggling to dispel the absurd fantasy images of Brazil, brought issues to the fore such as the consumer mentality and the impact of mass media while at the same time urging the destruction of the political right and the concept of Brazil as solely Carioca.

It is curious that the kindling of this movement came not from the main cultural centers of Rio and São Paulo, but from Bahia and the context of Bahia’s turbulent culture in the 1960s. There was a distinct petulance that existed in Bahia at that time. Artists had the freedom to create, to be ambitious, to be daring. To a large extent, this attitude stemmed from work done by the dean of the University of Bahia, Edgar Santos, who opened the schools of theater, dance, and music there. Universidade da Bahia (UFBA) was a factory of ideas where young Baianos formulated the vision of an artistic vanguard and strove to create works that would appear advanced even to the “First World.” Professors like instrument inventor Walter Smetak and author/theater director Luis Carlos Maciel taught pioneering concepts about art that influenced an entire generation. Encouraged by this attitude and by the presence of these innovative minds, the stage was set for a cultural boiling over. If the public didn’t understand, damn them!

Tropicália had the same intention to modernize Brazilian culture as the Semana de Arte Moderna movement of 1922, which was a revolt against the conservative tradition that took place in São Paulo. Semana de Arte advocated a liberation from precepts and preconceived notions; it rebelled against the exaggerated eloquence and false reverence for the fine arts. Metaphors of cannibalism were employed to encourage the creative adaptation and integration of European aesthetic ideas. Artists devoured the classical art that was considered passé and infused it with their personal vision reconstituting it in original new forms. Semana de Arte moved toward a Brazilian view of the world under a cannibalistic banner, toward a critical assimilation of the foreign experience and its reconstitution in terms and circumstances Brazilian. The movement of 1922 was marked by a rebellious, anti-establishment spirit, but in terms of ideology it developed as dynamic nationalism.

The roots of Tropicália lie in the Semana de Arte Moderna movement, but its flowering was connected to something completely new to Brazil, a phenomenon the government and public was not prepared for: a counterculture. This was something “first world,” and at the same time genuinely Brazilian. It was a counterculture that was dazzled by what was happening in the United States and England where the artist was placed in front of reality, free and unconditionally. A sense of exhilaration developed, manifesting an uncontrollable urge to absorb everything. Perceptions of art were stripped down to their barest components, then rearranged, recycled, and recombined into new patterns and new relationships until only distant fragments of the original concept remained. Everything was fair game.

In 1964, with its rampant inflation and massive foreign debt, Brazil was in a state of financial chaos. Convinced that the country had become ungovernable and that the leftward swing of politics had gone far enough, a group of army generals took control and embarked on a campaign of widespread physical violence. Fire hoses were turned repeatedly on the country’s citizens, and political opponents were tortured and murdered. Repression after the 1964 military coup turned Brazil into a creative desert. Ironically, these deplorable measures nurtured artists’ creativity. Having courage became fashionable. All disciplines exhibited imaginative and agile solutions in order to “co-exist” with the regime’s grim prohibitions. Artists became specialists in metaphor as politics and art walked side by side.

Tropicália’s musical profile was its most controversial side. In the evolutionary chain of musical protest movements, Tropicalismo was the next major development after bossa nova. Challenging accepted artistic custom, tropicalistas attempted to overcome what they felt was Brazil’s musical under-development. They built a neo-cannibalistic strategy by drawing liberally from the radical literary Modernism of the 1920s, the concrete poets of the 1950s, as well as from samba, indigenous music, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles. Emphasis was placed on uniting the most advanced musical ideas.

Compositions were perceptive, humorous, and often paradoxical blends that created controversies, critically assessed cultural traditions, or focused on the incongruities in society. Many examined the country’s contradictory socio-economic structure, an edifice battered by inflation where the archaic and the modern coexisted and collided. In their effort to “turn-on” Brazilian popular music, Tropicalistas wore radically long hair and psychedelic clothing and used electric guitars as tactics in their cultural guerrilla warfare.

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, two Bahian musicians who advocated creative openness and a critical revision of Brazilian popular music in general, propelled this brief but tremendously influential movement. Gil is a musician with an incredible rhythmic feel, an artistic temperament, and deep emotional perception. Caetano, an intellectual and philosopher, an irrational person fascinated with reason is often considered the movement’s central figure, both as a songwriter and a cultural agitator. Caetano recently affirmed, however, that Gil was the one who was ahead of everybody, that it was Gil who was the most courageous, and that Gil was leading and opened up what Caetano, coming from behind, would later organize and frame. Notwithstanding, the strength of Tropicalismo lay in their unique differences.

In 1965 both Gil and Veloso were in São Paulo and had been exposed to the thriving arts scene there. It was in São Paulo that they developed the hot sound mixture concept and foreshadowed today’s “mixologists.” Their idea was to create music where everything had its place: Luiz Gonzaga, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, João Gilberto, where guitar and the pandeiro were children of the same mother.

Joining Caetano and Gil were poet-lyricists Torquato Neto and José Carlos Capinam, songwriter Tom Zé, vocalists Gal Costa and Nara Leão, the rock trio Os Mutantes, and composer-arranger Rogério Duprat. The group placed particular value on the interplay of music and text, and drew special inspiration from the most radical of the Brazilian Modernists, Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954). With Oswald de Andrade as their beacon, their objective was to retake the evolutionary line of Brazilian music.

The group’s creative energies resulted in the collective album Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis (Tropicália or Bread and Diversion), a public declaration of motives and a realization of the movement’s aesthetic principles. The title, a mixture of languages, was extracted from the poet Juvenal who voiced contempt for Roman citizens who lived like cattle, asking for nothing more than food and entertainment. Several tracks on the Tropicália album address social issues, but rather than denouncing injustices or the plight of the rural poor, the collective pokes fun at the country’s developmental furor and focuses on personal alienation in Brazilian society.

Tom Zé’s “Parque Industrial” (Industrial Park) satirizes the enthusiasm with which industrialization and the implantation of an export economy were viewed as solutions to Brazil’s problems. The song also criticizes stereotyping in advertising and challenges the period’s pro-development hypothesis. “Baby” by Caetano Veloso unveils the exaggerated importance placed on English in formulas of success, youth’s concern with being up-to-date, and the creation of false needs by consumerism. It effectively raises questions about super-power nations tampering in foreign affairs—suspicions ran deep that the CIA had masterminded the 1964 coup.

“Geléia Geral” (General Jam)1 by Gil and Torquato Neto synthesizes the objectives of the Bahian group in music and text by juxtaposing the rustic with the industrial. The traditional northeastern folk genre bumba-meu-boi is used as a rhythmic foundation, but contrasts sharply with the electric rock instrumentation, while the tune’s lyrics mock unbridled patriotism and the pompous stature of traditional fine arts. A collective concept album, Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis stirred heated controversy and stimulated discussions of musical history and the role of popular music in society. The LP has maintained a position as one of the most important documents of contemporary Brazilian culture.

Gil and Caetano decided to use the third MPB festival (October 1967) as forum to kick off their radical new musical movement. Annual pop music festivals were one of the most important developments on the music scene at this time. They were as much a national craze as soccer games. Caetano performed “Alegria, Alegria” (Joy, Joy) backed by the Beat Boys, a rock group from Argentina. The tune was a march with an interesting relationship to Chico Buarque’s “A Banda.” Chico Buarque and Caetano were great rivals at that time. You can actually sing the lyrics of one of these tunes over the melody of the other. The intensely nationalistic audience revered “authentically” Brazilian music. When they heard “Alegria, Alegria,” an anti-nationalist rock song, Caetano was booed. Many of the listeners could not relate to its fragmented imagery:

Walking against the wind

Without handkerchief, without documents

In the almost December sun, I go

The sun scatters into spaceships, guerrillas

…teeth, legs, flags, the bomb, and Brigitte Bardot.

Gil’s entry, “Domingo no Parque” (Sunday at the Park), included the Bahian capoeira rhythm, electric instrumentation, and cinematic lyrics. The song’s arrangement by Rogério Duprat, an orchestral conductor with a solid background in experimental music, was strongly influenced by the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” from their 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s album.

The next year, at the Third International Song Festival in São Paulo, Gil outraged the jury and audience with the clamorous “Questão de Ordem” (Question of Order). The composition was disqualified shortly before Caetano presented his latest affront, “É Proibido Proibir” (It’s Forbidden to Forbid). Veloso appeared with the rock group Os Mutantes (The Mutants)—Sérgio Dias Baptista (guitar and vocals), his brother Arnaldo Dias Baptista (bass, keyboards, and vocals) and Rita Lee (flute and vocals)—who were dressed in plastic clothes for the event. Veloso was booed even more loudly than he had been for “Alegria, Alegria” and was unable to finish the song. He did, however, deliver a now famous off-the-cuff discourse chastising his intolerant audience.

This confrontation of deadly purism with excessive freedom seemed marketable, and soon commercial interests were attempting to exploit the anti-establishment sentiment of Tropicália to create a fad. But Caetano and Gil had been living too close to the edge. They had irritated the authorities with their tropicalista “chaos.” The military regime feared the movement might induce Brazilian youth toward a lifestyle of drugs and anarchy.

In December, 1968, the military regime decreed Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act No. 5, or AI-5) and finished off the few remaining democratic freedoms that still survived after the 1964 coup. AI-5 removed all human rights, everything that the constitution had guaranteed. People were jailed without legal defense, without trials. According to the principles of the military revolution, the people of Brazil had no rights. Tropicália as a movement dissolved with its single collective recording effort, Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis.

Institutional Act No. 5 had lasting consequences for many tropicalistas. Different from many of their friends on the left, they were more inclined to face up to the dictatorship; that increased their suffering. Artistic careers were cut short by imprisonment, torture, and beatings. Censorship of the press hindered the public’s knowledge of much of the absurd violence that was being directed against hundreds of intellectuals, journalists, and democratic resistors. Television programming was often interrupted with the word “censored” boldly scripted across the screen. Constraints were not only politically motivated; the regime also censored themes connected with sensuality and sexuality. Student informers—censors for the regime—infiltrated the universities and denounced both students and professors. Freedom of speech was severely curtailed by a general sense of uneasiness and distrust of the censor. People were afraid to talk to their neighbors.

Artists like Chico Buarque and singer-songwriter Geraldo Vandré, who were just beginning their careers and were nervous about the cuts, impositions, and artificial techniques they were forced to use to deceive the censors, fled the country. Buarque looked for refuge in Italy; Geraldo Vandré went to Chile after a dangerous escape. Music critic Tárik de Sousa, now 47 years old, who started to work for the press in 1968, described the period as a nightmare, “We could not mention names like Chico Buarque, not even to report news that had nothing to do with music.”

Caetano and Gil were arrested on December 27, 1968, in São Paulo. The Baianos were taken to Rio and imprisoned. A few months later they were moved to Salvador and “invited” to leave the country. The tropicalistas found a cold refuge in London, where they remained in exile until 1972. Gal Costa, a singer whose lifestyle symbolized the openness and freedom of Tropicália, recorded their songs and served as a medium for Caetano and Gil while they were in exile. As AI-5 marked the death of the movement, the arrest of Caetano and Gil marked its funeral procession.


Gilberto Gil does not accept the theory that Brazil under the dictatorship was one of the most creative periods of MPB, precisely because of the need to go around the censors. Gil said recently that he just wrote tunes that he wouldn’t have otherwise. Lyricist Aldir Blanc also does not agree that the seeds of creativity were greater because of the censors. Poet Waly Salomão feels that there have been few times in Brazilian history where the youth have been as creative as they are today. “They are the rams butting their horns against the walls of mediocrity.”

Nonetheless, Luís Carlos Maciel (journalist, author, and theater director) feels that having courage was easier in the late sixties and that comfort now controls too much of Brazil’s artistic daring. He argues that artists want to have a house, a nice car, a computer, the Internet, and that this contemporary paraphernalia is seducing them into a dependence on it. In an interview with Jornal do Brasil, Maciel said, “When people lack the disposition to abandon their comfort and have the courage to risk, things remain static. In a context of comfort, being courageous is difficult. But risk is exactly what artists did in the late 1960s. Tropicalismo was more than a revolt against the military dictatorship.”

Maciel feels that the space for a counterculture has been significantly reduced and that creating vanguard music, theater, or film is more difficult now because works of art have to please the public. “If they don’t, they’re finished.” He acknowledged that the rules of marketing are stronger today than they were in the 1960s and that the possibility of another Brazilian arts movement with the magnitude of Tropicália is weaker.

What MPB would have been without this very rough interruption is difficult to evaluate. That obscure two-year period of history ushered in a wide spectrum of influences. Tropicália greatly accelerated MPB’s musical and textual experimentation and diversification and gave all who came after a greater sense of freedom. The rock of the 1970s and 1980s was a direct descendent of Tropicália. Trailblazing groups like Blitz and Titãs, that were the most tropicalista in their approach, were responsible for opening the doors of rock to that generation. There are traces of Tropicália in today’s Axé music, in the music of Carlinhos Brown and Chico Science, and in the Afro-Baiano Carnaval.

It would be safe to say that since Tropicalismo, nothing has been the same. Ex-Mutante Rita Lee stated in a recent interview, “Tropicália was a tattoo for the rest of your life, the musical kindergarten where I learned to write lyrics in Portuguese, to sing in Spanish, to play in English, to dance in African, and to compose in Esperanto.” Tropicalista director José Celso Martinez Corrêa (Zé Celso) said, “We are feeling this now. It is not a vestige. Tropicália is a feeling that is extremely current in Brazil, now that Brazil is trying to find its own way amid globalization.” What happened to the leading intellectuals and artists behind the movement and what modifications the movement brought to MPB and as a consequence to Brazilian culture in general is the legacy of Tropicália.


The intellectual father of Tropicália, writer, musician, and plastic artist Rogério Duarte, a Baiano from Ubaíra, was detained and tortured by the military regime. The torture proved too strong a shock for Duarte. Following detention, he was moved from a cell in the regime’s headquarters to a cubicle in the Hospital Pinel—a hospital for the insane. He became withdrawn and self-destructive. His later years were spent in seclusion at the Buddhist monastery of Santa Teresa in the interior of Bahia. Today, he lives in Brasília. Duarte has recently come out of the shadows to release a translation of part of the epic Mahabharata—the Hindu conception of heaven and hell.

Rita Lee and Gal Costa, both in their fifties, are still actively performing and recording. Costa, the bona fide muse of Tropicália, has become Brazil’s leading female vocalist. Arnaldo Baptista from the group Os Mutantes, who also underwent “psychiatric treatment,” threw himself from the third floor of a psychiatric ward in 1981. Tom Zé has all but disappeared from media attention. Notwithstanding, his work from the early seventies, during the formidable right wing repression, was impressive. The cover art on his LP Todos os Olhos (All the Eyes) smirks at the censors with what appears to be a giant yellow eye with a sparkling iris, but is in actuality an asshole set with a marble, photographed in soft focus.

Poet and lyricist Torquato Neto, who in partnership with Gil wrote the hymn of Tropicália, “Geléia Geral,” and who passed on the latest news about the universal pop underground in a column he wrote for the newspaper Última Hora during the years marked by the torture and political persecution, closed all the windows of his apartment in Rio de Janeiro on November 10, 1972, and turned on the gas. He was twenty-eight years old and had also come from a period of internment in the psychiatric hospital. Neto left behind an amount of work small in quantity, but vast in creative quality. The death of Torquato Neto sent a wave of shock through the artistic community.

In 1973, Waly Salomão organized and published material written by Torquato Neto in Os Últimos Dias de Paupéria—a wordplay on The Last Days of Pompeii. In 1982, Salomão and Ana Maria Duarte reissued the work revised and enlarged. The publishing house José Olympio is now planning to release the third edition of Neto’s works, still untitled, which will include pieces never published, an exchange of letters between Neto and Hélio Oiticica, and letters that were left out of the previous editions. Torquato Lives!

Gilberto Gil’s extraordinary new release of Quanta is his most compelling work to date. Dedicated to the memory of musician Chico Science, Quanta is an elaborate project with fertile lyrics, unforgettable music, and luscious packaging. The liner notes open with a letter from Brazil’s most famous physicist, César Lattes and present a glossary of words, expressions, celebrities, divinities, and historical facts cited in Gil’s lyrics. These entries are set among words from the universe of quantum physics, the discipline from which Gil derived the CD’s title. The Brazilian release features the track “Objeto Ainda Menos Identificado” (Object Even Less Identified) and a guest appearance by Rogério Duarte, co-author of the 1969 composition “Objeto Semi-Identificado” (Semi-identified Object), one of Gil’s most radical poetic-musical experiments.

If Tropicalismo was truly important in the history of Brazilian music and culture, and not just a mouse that roared, then Caetano’s Verdade Tropical (Truly Tropical) will be a book of consequence and provoke debate for its polemic content. In his book, Veloso remembers, analyzes, profiles, relates, and reflects on the past of Brazilian popular music to recover his version of a country that was living under the military dictatorship. One of the book’s merits is the depth in which Caetano explores the reasons why the events happened the way they did.

Besides explaining that the violence and torture committed by the military regime were corrupt and irreverent aspects of Brazil’s profile, Verdade Tropical reveals some surprising things about sex, drugs, rock `n roll, and the main authors of the late 1960s cultural earthquake. Reading Verdade Tropical (524 pages, Companhia das Letras) is an obligatory exercise for those who have fundamental questions about what happened in Brazil. The book is slated to be translated in English by Arto Lindsay and Robert Myers for publication in the United States by Alfred Knopf.

Wherever one wishes to set the boundaries of the movement, Tropicália was a turning point, a fundamental moment in the development of Brazilian culture. Although many feel that today’s artistic production has been coopted and is tied to marketing trends, Brazilian pop music would not have progressed as it has, were it not for Tropicalismo. The commotion caused by the Bahian group made an indelible imprint on the artistic scene. Tropicalismo, still germinating seeds after thirty years, remains a source of inspiration. It was a moment of courage.

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Foreign views