Excerpt from “Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture
As part of Afropop Worldwide’s “Hip Deep” series, Christopher Dunn co-produced “The Tropical Soul of Jorge Benjor
on Afropop Worldwide“. Here’s the intro from his book, Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (University of North Carolina Press, 2001)
Every cultural complex has specific forms of consecration and adulation for its artistic luminaries. For Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso, perhaps the supreme moment of popular and official canonization came on February 20, 1998, as he surveyed a crowd of five thousand carnival celebrants in Salvador, Bahia while perched on top of a trio elétrico, a moving soundstage that transports electric dance bands through the city’s streets. Since the early 1970s, he has made annual guest appearances on trios elétricos on the morning of Ash Wednesday to perform his songs that have become standards of the Bahian carnival repertoire.
This time, however, Veloso was there to receive the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the Federal University of Bahia for the “grandiosity of his oeuvre and his renowned wisdom.” In the past, the university had awarded the title to famous Bahian artists like novelist Jorge Amado, composer Dorival Caymmi, and filmmaker Glauber Rocha, but this was the first time the title had been conferred in the streets during carnival. For the rector of the university, it was a democratic gesture: “We want to integrate the university into society. For this reason we opted to pay homage to Caetano in the streets, together with the people celebrating carnival.” Despite some editorial grumbling that the ceremony made the university look ridiculous, the event was a public relations success for the institution and its honored guest, an artist who has been at the forefront of musical innovation and cultural transformation since the late 1960s. As the carnival ceremony would suggest, Veloso is an artist who enjoys mass popularity as well as critical acclaim among intellectuals.
Veloso came to national attention together with his friend and colleague from the University of Bahia, Gilberto Gil, as leading figures of Tropicália, a short-lived, but high-impact cultural movement that coalesced in 1968. They worked collectively with other artists from Salvador, including vocalist Gal Costa, singer-songwriter Tom Zé, and poets Torquato Neto, and José Carlos Capinan. The so-called grupo baiano [Bahian group] had migrated to São Paulo where they forged a dynamic artistic relationship with several composers of the vanguard music scene, most notably Rogério Duprat, and the innovative rock band, Os Mutantes [The Mutants]. This alliance between musicians from Bahia, a primary locus of Afro-Brazilian expressive culture, and from São Paulo, the largest, most industrialized Brazilian city, proved to be a potent combination and has had a lasting effect on Brazilian popular music and others arts. Although Tropicália only coalesced as a formal movement in the realm of popular music, it was a cultural phenomenon manifest in film, theater, visual arts, and literature. The dialogic impulse behind Tropicália would generate an extraordinary flourish of artistic innovation during a period of political and cultural conflict in Brazil.
The year of 1968 has special historic resonance for several nations around the world. Of course, significant events occurred on both sides of 1968, but in several national contexts the year serves as a generational watershed. In the United States, 1968 marked a public turning point against the Vietnam War, widespread antiwar student protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the emergence of the Black Power movement. In France, radical Maoist students and workers forged a brief tactical alliance against the post-war Gaullist State. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the democratic and liberationist aspirations of the Prague Spring movement. In Mexico City, student protests against high unemployment and repression of political dissent ended when hundreds of unarmed demonstrators were massacred by army and police detachments.
The symbolic density of 1968 is particularly evident in Brazil, especially for artists, intellectuals, students, workers, civilian politicians, and activists who opposed a right-wing military regime that had seized power in 1964. In 1968, broad sectors of civil society coalesced in opposition to the regime. Factory workers in São Paulo and Minas Gerais carried out the first strikes since the inception of military rule. Leftist students engaged in pitched battles with the military police and ultra-rightist allies in the universities. Meanwhile, more radicalized groups of the opposition went underground and initiated armed struggle against the regime. The government responded to civil protest and incipient armed resistance with a degree known as the Fifth Institutional Act (AI-5), which outlawed political opposition, purged and temporarily closed congress, suspended habeas corpus, established blanket censorship over the press, and effectively ended the protest movement. Thereafter, opposition to the regime would be expressed primarily through disparate movements of armed resistance, which were ultimately liquidated. The generation reaching adulthood at that time would subsequently be called the “geração AI-5,” an emblematic reference to this draconian decree that initiated a period of intense repression.
Cultural conflicts also came to a head in 1968, primarily within a largely middle-class urban milieu that opposed military rule. Artists and intellectuals began to reevaluate the failures of earlier political and cultural projects that sought to transform Brazil into an equitable, just, and economically sovereign nation. Tropicália was both a mournful critique of these defeats as well as an exuberant, if often ironic, celebration of Brazilian culture and its continuous permutations. As its name suggests, the movement referenced Brazil¹s tropical climate, which throughout history has been exalted for generating lush abundance or lamented for impeding economic development along the line of societies located in temperate climates. The tropicalists purposefully invoked stereotypical images of Brazil as a tropical paradise only to subvert them with pointed references to political violence and social misery. The juxtaposition of tropical plenitude and state repression is best captured in the phrase that serves as the title for this book, “brutality garden,” which was taken from a key tropicalist song discussed in Chapter 3.
The musical manifestations of Tropicália did not propose a new style or genre. Tropicalist music involved, instead, a pastiche of diverse styles, both new and old, national and international. On one level, tropicalist music might be understood as a rereading of the tradition of Brazilian popular song in light of international pop music and vanguard experimentation. In Brazil, the tropicalists elicited comparisons with their internationally famous contemporaries, the Beatles, a group that also created pop music in dialogue with art music as well as with local popular traditions. The tropicalists contributed decisively to the erosion of barriers between música erudita, for a restricted audience of elite patrons, and música popular for the general public. Tropicália was an exemplary instance of cultural hybridity that dismantled binaries that maintained neat distinctions between high and low, traditional and modern, national and international cultural production.
On a discursive level, the tropicalists proposed a far-reaching critique of Brazilian modernity that challenged dominant constructions of national culture. Instead of exalting the povo [masses] as agents for revolutionary transformation, their songs tended to focus on the quotidian desires and frustrations of “everyday people” living in the cities. Ultimately, the tropicalists would give impetus to emerging countercultural attitudes, styles, and discourses concerning race, gender, sexuality, and personal freedom. These issues were becoming increasingly salient in countercultural movements in the United States and Europe, but were manifested in distinct ways in Brazil during the period of military rule.
As with any cultural object or practice, the significance of Tropicália is not produced solely by the artists themselves. As Pierre Bourdieu has shown, the “symbolic production” (i.e. production of value and meaning) of art depends on a wide range of agents, including managers, producers, critics, and consumers. A considerable body of journalistic and scholarly literature on Tropicália has accumulated in Brazil during the last thirty years. Cultural critics in the mainstream press of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro published the earliest articles about the movement. As the movement unfolded, the concrete poet and theorist Augusto de Campos wrote a series of enthusiastic articles which praised Veloso and Gil for their brazen critique of musical nationalism. From the outset, several journalists were supportive of the movement, although other critics expressed anxiety over their unabashed enthusiasm for electric instrumentation, Anglo-American rock, and mass-media exposure.
Following AI-5 many well-known Brazilian artists emigrated abroad, both for political and professional reasons. While most previous accounts of the tropicalist movement end in the late 1960s or early 1970s, I have extended my analysis to 1979, when the military regime passed an amnesty bill that allowed for the return of political exiles. Chapter 5 follows the artistic trajectory of the tropicalists, after the formal movement had ended. Gil and Veloso spent two and a half years in England, where they participated in the vibrant countercultural scene of “swinging London,” revolving around the rock music scene, and interacted with the Caribbean immigrant community, absorbing emerging Afro-diasporic styles such as reggae. Upon their return, the former leaders of the tropicalist movement were celebrated as icons of a Brazilian countercultural movement, which was dedicated primarily to the politics of personal, rather than collective liberation. In the latter part of the 1970s, Gil and Veloso also became enthusiastic proponents of emerging Afro-Brazilian cultural movements associated with soul, reggae, and the Afro-Bahian carnival in Salvador. These phenomena were to varying degrees connected to a broader movement calling for the end of military rule.
The final chapter discusses the various revisitations and homages relating to Tropicália since the restoration of civilian rule in the mid-1980s. Throughout the 1990s, Tropicália received several public tributes during carnival, both in Rio and in Bahia. In 1992, Veloso and Gil produced a recording entitled Tropicália 2 that commemorated the movement and attempted to update its political and aesthetic concerns. This chapter highlights on the work of Tom Zé, an artist who launched his career with Tropicália, but then fell from public view as he continued to develop more experimental pop music. In the 1990s, he regained visibility with the international release of a compilation of his work from the 1970s and two innovative albums featuring new material. Together with the other tropicalists, Tom Zé found new audiences outside of Brazil, especially following a brief tropicalist vogue in the United States and Europe during the late 1990s. Attracted to the ironic and decentered pastiche aesthetics of Tropicália, international singer-songwriters drew attention to the movement and its principle figures. More importantly, the tropicalist movement has had a lasting impact on the production of popular music in Brazil. I will discuss the impact of this legacy on some contemporary artists who have claimed affinities with the tropicalist project.
This book provides both a diachronic and a synchronic analysis of the tropicalist movement. Chapters four and five focus exclusively on tropicalist cultural production during 1968. In each of the chapters, I have expounded on key issues that serve as thematic or theoretical detours from the narrative. Otherwise, it is structured chronologically so as to historicize Tropicália and to follow the trajectories of some of its key proponents after 1968. Instead of including long transcriptions and translations of entire song texts, I have highlighted phrases and stanzas that are particularly important to my arguments and observations. For readers who would like to hear audio samples and consult complete transcriptions and translations of lyrics, I highly recommend the CD Tropicália Essentials (Hip-O/Universal, 1999) a compilation of some of the most important tropicalist songs, many of which have since become standards of the Brazilian songbook. Well-crafted translations of several key tropicalist songs may also be found in Charles Perrone’s Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song and in the appendix to Gerard Béhague’s essay “Bossa & Bossas.” Readers of Portuguese who are particularly interested in the work of Gilberto Gil should consult his annotated book of lyrics, Todas as letras, organized by Carlos Rennó. Musicians may consult the two-volume songbooks of compositions by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil that feature lyrics and musical annotations of important works from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s. By the turn of the millennium all of the key figures of the tropicalist movement had also set up personal web-sites on the Internet that may be easily found using any search engine. There are presently several informative web-sites dedicated to Tropicália in Brazil and in the United States.
Contributed by: Christopher Dunn