Mr Porter Musical Primers: Tropicália
Mr Caetano Veloso in São Paulo, 1968. Still from Mr Marcelo Machado’s docmentary Tropicália, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Mr Bongo
Everything you need to know about the rebellious Brazilian music movement.
In 1964, as Beatlemania and counter-culture swept across the US, young Brazilians way south of the border found themselves in a far less hip situation. Following a coup d’état, the country’s musicians, artists and students were suddenly being persecuted by a brutal new dictatorship. Censorship and jail sentences were handed out to anyone who dared question the might of the military junta. It was against this incendiary backdrop that one of the most rebellious pop movements of the last 50 years was born: Tropicália.
Named after an installation by the Brazilian artist Mr Hélio Oiticica (which is currently on show in London’s new Tate Modern Switch House), Tropicália was the personification of cultural anarchy. His motto, “Be an outlaw, be a hero” became the maxim of its supporters. Kindred spirits Messrs Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, Ms Gal Costa and the band Os Mutantes started creating songs that directly fanned the flames of this political dissention. In July 1968, all the artists appeared on the compilation Tropicália: Ou Panis Et Circencis. With the cover art paying homage to The Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it quickly became a touchstone for a generation who didn’t want to act, think or dress like the ruling classes.
Sonically, Tropicália drew a line in the sand. Instead of the easy-going bossa nova and samba that had been synonymous with Brazil up until this point, the collective took more inspiration from British and American psychedelic rock. Combining unusual time signatures, distortion and experimental production techniques, they created a potent brew of anarcho-pop that shook the system to its core.
Ms Gal Costa. Still from Mr Marcelo Machado’s documentary Tropicália, 2012. Photograph by Mr Paulo Salomão, courtesy of Mr Bongo
The Tropicálistas not only subverted sound but the very foundation of Latin art and style. Ms Rita Lee from Os Mutantes took to the stage wearing a wedding dress, while Mr Veloso performed wearing a green plastic tunic accessorised with electrical wire and a necklace strung with animal teeth. When a crowd of students saw Veloso’s outlandish look and provocative sexual thrusts at a show in September 1968, a riot nearly ensued. It wasn’t just his fashion choices or grinding they objected to – leftist intellectuals felt Tropicália was too closely aligned with the capitalist values of corrupt Western nations. They missed the point entirely – Tropicálistas wanted to celebrate and evolve South American multiculturalism. They dreamt of creating the Brazilian sound of the future – but what future would anyone have if freedom of expression was outlawed?
Outcast by the government and the student body alike, the movement grew in popularity nonetheless. As its anti-authoritarian calls to action and art happenings grew in confidence, the government decided to take drastic action. Several prominent Tropicálistas were tortured and forced into psychiatric wards by the dictatorship. In February 1969, scene leaders Messrs Gil and Veloso were jailed for two months. Following their release, they were exiled to Britain where they continued to record until returning to Brazil in 1972.
With the Olympic torch currently racing towards Rio de Janeiro, you can expect this year to be filled with the throwback sounds of these young fire starters. After all, their music has influenced everyone from Beck and Mr David Byrne to Messrs David Bowie and Devendra Banhart. So what better way to get into the mood for this (hopefully) scorching hot summer than with 20 of our favourite Tropicália anthems. You’ll have to make your own plastic tunic and tooth necklace though.