Taking as its title a phrase (bread and circuses) from Roman poet Juvenal about the diversion of the public’s attention from politics to entertainment, few compilations feel as revolutionary and subtle as Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis. The title track from Os Mutantes might be the watermark for the entire movement. You don’t need to understand Portuguese to be overwhelmed by its exuberant manic sonic energy. Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso’s dulcet duet “Baby” remains one of his gentlest tunes. The pairing of Gilberto Gil with Mutantes yields “Bat Macumba,” a tune that hints at Bahian religious practices macumba and candomblé as well as Batman, all set to a crunchy garage rock riff for the ages. But uncertainty lurks at the edges. What sounds like cannon fire can be heard amid the flute trills of Gil’s “Miserere Nóbis”. Unspeakable/unsingable violence is never far away here.
Some revolutions combust, violent as a powder keg, while other revolutions are more like a decades-long wick: a subtle, slow-moving subversion that sometimes takes decades to fully develop and detonate. The US-backed military coup that ousted Brazilian President João Goulart in 1964, taking control of all branches of government and bringing an end to democracy there for more than two decades, is an example of the former. In history books, the date given for that particular revolution is March 31, 1964, though singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso insists that the tanks rolled out the next day, i.e. on April Fool’s Day.
Veloso was part of the latter type of revolution, Tropicália. Under the dark, oppressive shadows of the junta and its attendant repressive policies, tropicálists focused instead on arts-poetry-music-film, providing a brief glint of light amid the “vazio cultural” (cultural void) or “the suffocation” that followed after the coup. It was a revolution in sound that took decades to rise up from Brazil and spread around the world. Tropicália took its name from an art installation of the same name, originally conceived by visual artist Hélio Oiticica in 1967. It was a revolutionary piece of art delivered with the slyest of winks. Viewers walked into a pop-up structure meant to look like a favela, strolling along a tropical sand path filled with fake palm fronds and plastic chairs, only to come face-to-face with a television set in the sand. Was this paradise? Or was paradise yet another mass-market consumable? (That piece might have been coy enough to escape government censorship, but Oiticica’s 1968 piece seja marginal, seja herói, featuring an image of a bandit gunned down in the favela by the police, made him a subject of intense scrutiny and he left for New York City for many years.)
Veloso and a band of similarly brash and inspired musicians – including Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Nara Leão, Tom Zé, arranger Rogério Duprat, guitar hero Lanny, and others – courted unbridled glee and controversy in equal measure. They genuflected before the refined sound of their country’s finest musical export, bossa nova, and gobbled it up alongside the wooliest psychedelia imports coming from overseas. They loved concrete poetry and Pop art. They adored Brigitte Bardot as much as they did Carmen Miranda. Cue up any of the albums that fall under the heading of Tropicália and they brim with joy, unfettered sound, infinite possibility. “The idea of cultural cannibalism fit Tropicalistas like a glove; we were ‘eating’ the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” Veloso wrote in his book Tropical Truth about that era. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.”
Tropicálist artists, flippant, fun, and mischievous as their music was, were instead perceived as threats by both sides of their country’s political spectrum. The Marxist left considered them apolitical, obsessed with superfluous Western pop music rather than traditional Brazilian sounds. And to the fascist right, such playfulness scanned as anarchy, a real threat to the country’s status quo. And even though Tropicália itself burned away in less than a year (fittingly, it was given an on-air burial ceremony), its reverberations were long-lasting.
Tropicália produced only a handful of proper albums and a compilation of the same name, but it went on to transform Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) and to inspire future generations from Brazil and around the world. As author Christopher Dunn put it in Brutality Garden, his 2001 book on the movement, this was “simultaneously an exciting period of counter cultural experimentation and severe political repression.”
Not long after the televised burial of Tropicália in 1968, the military government issued a highly restrictive decree called AI-5 (Institutional Act Number Five). The legislation shuttered the National Congress, imposed strict censorship on media, and suspended habeas corpus. Meanwhile, extralegal police forces began to patrol the city streets. They were renowned for their sadism, and – according to Brasil: Nunca Mais, a report published in 1985 that reckoned with the dictatorship’s torture record – they were funded “by contributions from various multinational corporations, including Ford and General Motors.”
Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine describes disposed Brazilian president Goulart as “an economic nationalist committed to land redistribution, higher salaries, and a daring plan to force foreign multinationals to reinvest a percentage of their profits back into the Brazilian economy,” a plan that was decidedly at odds with the paranoiac anti-communism of the US at the time. Privatization of natural resources and public services, coupled with cutbacks to social programs, was the prescription of the day, implemented through the Southern Hemisphere by other US-approved leaders like Jorge Videla in Argentina and General Augusto Pinochet in Chile (whose soldiers infamously tortured and murdered outspoken singer Víctor Jara and displayed his corpse outside the entrance to Chile Stadium as a warning).
Early one morning, Veloso and Gil woke up to the police at their doors. They were arrested without charges, imprisoned for months, later placed under house arrest, and only released after agreeing to leave the country. With its two main figureheads gone, Tropicália as a movement drifted apart. Os Mutantes turned from their impish early sound to heavier progressive rock riffs. Gal Costa became one of the country’s most beloved MPB superstars, and Tom Zé carried on with his own itchy, irascible deconstructions of native musical forms.
Some enjoyed stardom and success, others teetered on the brink of obscurity, and in 1972 Veloso and Gil returned to Brazil and resumed their careers there. But all felt the deep freeze as the military regime’s reign stretched to decades. Few outside of the Southern Hemisphere heard such music until the 1990s brought about a renaissance.
David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint reissued a compilation of Tom Zé’s music in 1990 and one highlighting Os Mutantes in 1999. Nirvana famously tried to get Os Mutantes to reform for a Brazilian tour in 1993. Beck, Nelly Furtado, and Panda Bear have all been vocal about their love for this music. Tropicália might not have toppled the dictatorship on the strength of a few guitar chords, but that was never its sole purpose. As Veloso argues in his book: “Tropicalismo wanted to project itself as the triumph over two notions: one, that the version of the Western enterprise offered by American pop and mass culture was potentially liberating… and two, the horrifying humiliation represented by capitulation to the narrow interests of dominant groups, whether at home or internationally.” That indomitable spirit remains vibrant and vital well into the 21st century, where a new round of regressive regimes have emerged both in Brazil and in many countries around the world.
The opening salvo of Tropicália, Caetano Veloso’s debut announced the arrival of the greatest Brazilian talent since João Gilberto and launched a fifty-year career of a singer who remains resolute in pushing into new sonic realms. “It was against the dictatorship without saying anything about it,” Veloso would later tell the Times. Instead, Veloso presents himself as a suave young teen pop star with a Bing Crosby-worthy croon and an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from the bossa nova songbook to the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Pop Art of Andy Warhol to the writings of Che Guevara. The album strikes a balance between knowing winks and swaying hips. “Paisagem Útil” nods to Tom Jobim with its silky bossa nova, but casts the song’s lovers in the inhuman glow of an “ESSO” sign at a gas station. “Soy Loco Por Ti, America” teeters somewhere between a Colombian cumbia and a Cuban mambo, sung in Portuguese and Spanish. Throughout, Veloso is an assured presence.
The other primary singer-songwriter prong of Tropicalia was Gilberto Gil. Born in Salvador and raised in rural Bahia, Gil remains one of Brazil’s most beloved performers, even serving as Brazil’s Minister of Culture under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from 2003-2008. On his second album, Gil is already a formidable artist, balancing the big bouncing orchestrations of arranger Rogério Duprat with the whiplash rock of his backing band, Os Mutantes, his guitar keeping the rhythmic pulse of his beloved samba throughout.
The trio of brothers Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias with singer Rita Lee infused Tropicália with wide-eyed exuberance and the reckless abandon of a 5-year-old in a bouncy castle. Taking a name that translates as “the Mutants,” they had the chops to match that youthful energy, careening between tough garage stompers and acid-tinged balladry with glee. Opener “Panis et Circenses” definitely offers the most madcap statement of a band. A blow-by-blow is reductive but also instructive: Triumphant horn fanfare, then dreamy vocal pop, veering into a psychedelic fuzz bomb that suddenly melts like film stuck in a projector. The song speeds back up like a go cart with the brakes cut before ending in a chaotic din of silverware, musique concrete noise, and Strauss’ “The Blue Danube Waltz.” Imagine Un Chien Andalou as garage rock and you’re getting close, all crammed into 3 dizzying minutes. Such audacious joy and sonic U-turns abound on their classic debut.
Tom Zé hailed from the small town of Irará in Brazil, where the arrival of running water and electricity during his childhood was a transformative event. His debut might scan as “country kid gets overwhelmed by the big city,” but Zé’s musical exuberance and keen eye for detail was already in effect. Grande Liquidação bustles with zigzagging melodies and jumpy arrangements, full of wry observations that include equating consumerism with the country’s bedrock Catholicism on “Catecismo, Creme Dental e Eu.” In the deceptively joyous musical theater stylings of “São São Paolo,” he sees the underlying solitude of its approximately eight million inhabitants. More tightly-wound, haywire albums (some made with homemade instruments) would follow, but Zé was an idiosyncratic force from the jump.
Samba singer Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos’ career began in 1965, but her powerful voice first registered with a wider audience when she shortened her name to Gal Costa. She tapped into a new generation of songwriters in Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and his sister Maria Bethânia, her voice taking their words to new heights. After an album of breezy bossa nova duets recorded with Veloso in 1967, she released her electric debut in 1969. UFO organ effects, stinging guitar leads from Tropicália guitar hero Lanny, chamber pop, lush big band orchestration arranged by Duprat, all of it topped by Gal’s purring vocals, inaugurated the start of a long career by one of Brazil’s most beloved singers.
Already a burgeoning force in the samba world, Jorge Ben might not have been a card-carrying tropicálista per se (ie, he doesn’t appear on the cover of the iconic Tropicália comp), but his 1969 album made clear his sympathies. With its vivid cover art commingling Catholic imagery, palm fronds, and Barbarella, Ben keeps his samba foundation intact, while adding electric guitars and the swagger of American psychedelic soul (see “Take It Easy My Brother Charles”). The slinky island groove of “País Tropical” would soon be covered by Gal Costa, while “Charles, Anjo 45” would become a single for Veloso. But this album is far more than an alignment with the group, as it also anticipates not just Ben’s funky decade ahead but also provided the blueprint for another movement, Black Rio, which fused together Brazilian and Black American music into a formidable new alliance.
Recorded in the scant weeks between his release from prison and his exile to England for the next four years, Veloso sketched out this album with just his voice and guitar. The tapes were then handed over to producer Rogério Duprat, who then worked his magic. While freed from prison, the trauma of incarceration still very much shadows Veloso, especially on the forlorn “The Empty Boat.” However, each song here shows another side of Veloso: drunken Carnival drums, subdued bossa nova, maudlin traces of tango and fado, and flares of psychedelic rock. It’s the sound of a man defying all restraints and rising above.
As voracious a reader and listener as Veloso, Gil absorbed the likes of Jimi Hendrix and R. Buckminster Fuller, dove deep into Eastern philosophy, and applied it all to his brain-melting third solo album, cut just before he was exiled to England. Fearlessly facing down that fate, the album yields both Gil’s most experimental moments as well as his first hit, courtesy of the joyous samba “Aquele Abraço.” Extraterrestrial guitar transmissions get beamed down by Lanny (Brazil’s own Hendrix), orchestral flourishes float in space, and composer Rogério Duprat’s experimental sonic collaging ensures the album lives up to the title of its first song, which translates as “Electronic Brain.”
One of Tropicália’s secret weapons was Rogerio Duprat, an arranger who could both conjure the lush orchestral easy-listening sound of Brazil’s past while wedding to its electric future. He’s the George Martin of the movement and A Banda Tropicalista do Duprat is his lone solo statement. The charts are big and bold, even if at times the selections are head-scratching, like a version of boilerplate like “Judy in Disguise.” He adds Brazilian flare in the form of cuíca, samba percussion on a Cowsills cover, and records opulent versions of Veloso’s “Baby” and Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade.” Elsewhere, he wears his Martin influence on his sleeve, with reimaginings of the Beatles’ “Flying” and “Lady Madonna.”
Os Mutantes’ second album, recorded while they were still teens, was just as raucous and uninhibited as their debut. Their chops grew bolder and their songwriting prowess was peaking, meaning they could pull off all the melodramatic hairpin turns of Broadway-worthy songs like “Dom Quixote” and “Caminhante Noturno” with exuberance. Psychedelia still informs every song here and the band gives knowing winks to the likes of the Stones (quoting them in the coda to “Mágica”) and the Beatles (“Rita Lee” is a rollicking reimagining of “Don’t Pass Me By”). In hindsight it’s not that audacious, as the upstart Mutantes were every bit the fearless sonic peers of their Western counterparts.
Only a few months separate Gal Costa’s two albums from 1969, but while the prior featured psychedelic flourishes, the latter album is wholly doused in acid. The album might serve as Tropicália’s full-throated riposte to what was emanating from San Francisco at the time, blowing the likes of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, and Jefferson Airplane out of the water. With Lanny’s flamethrower guitar work front and center and Gal’s sweet vocals turning into a jungle cat roar, the album ranges from hard rock blasts (see opener “Cinema Olympia”) to the buzzing MENA stomper “Tuareg.” “Objeto Sim, Objeto Não” might be the defining psychedelic song of the era: it evolves from Echoplexed groans and feedback into a swinging big band number before melting back down into primordial noise, with Gal strutting through the sonic madness in her unflappable style.