[Hype Hype Hooray] Tropicália: How Brazil Created the Greatest Genre Ever

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Hype Hype Hooray is a biweekly “critique” of the music scene and the blogosphere that feeds it, told through the lens of Jamie Hale, a journalist who likes music about as much as he likes scotch and a firm leather chair. Please enjoy with a grain of salt.

Hey guys, Jamie Hale here. You know, when I’m not penning hot blog posts about the indie music industry, I like to sit back and relax with a cool drink, a big pair of headphones, and an album from my favorite 1960s artistic movement, Tropicália

You may know Tropicália as that genre that you heard about once, from where you’re not sure, but gosh it sounds so familiar. But do you know the true story behind Tropicália? Come along, won’t you? Today we explore the fascinating melodies behind the radical music that redefined Brazilian culture.

The story of Tropicália starts not in the ’60s, but all the way back in the 1920s. After World War I, Brazilians were tired of being defined by foreign cultural influences, so tired in fact that they decided to band together to redefine their entire national identity, not through politics, but through music. The modernismo movement, as it was called, ardently embraced traditional native folk, rejecting any outside influences that weren’t distinctively, and historically, “Brazilian.”

While the movement fell apart in the ’30s, it created a generation of Brazilians who fought, rather forcefully, against any music that wasn’t traditional. Bossa Nova fluorished in the ’50s, combining the traditional samba with cool jazz, but found an abundance of critics who despised its North American influence.

Those critics were in for an even ruder awakening in the ’60s, when rock ‘n’ roll came to town. Like young people everywhere else in the world, young people in Brazil hungrily absorbed rock ‘n’ roll records from America and Britain, emulating the style in a genre known as iê-iê-iê or yeah yeah yeah.

Their blatant disregard for traditionalism ignited a culture war in the country. The battle waged against the backdrop of the Brazilian military’s 1964 coup d’état over the national government. The coup subjected Brazil to a harsh military regime that actively promoted traditional music over anything that sounded remotely foreign.

But it wasn’t just the military who had an axe to grind. In 1966, critics of iê-iê-iê  gathered en masse in a protest known as “the march against electric guitars.” This new style was everything the modernismo movement was supposed to be against. There was no room for both the modern and the traditional, they said, when it came to Brazilian music.

Enter: Tropicália.

Among the protesters were Brazilians who wanted neither the destruction of traditional music, nor the complete subjugation to foreign styles. These people argued that national identity is not a thing, but a process, something that is constantly in flux. It’s important to be true to your roots, they argued, but it’s foolish to run from change.

Their protest came in the form of a full-throated acceptance of both traditional and modern genres. Musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil (who, it should be noted, participated in the march against electric guitars), led a widespread celebration of a changing cultural identity, which they dubbed Tropicália. It’s ok to explore, they said, it’s ok to redefine ourselves, because no matter what we do or what anybody says, we are Brazilian, and this is our movement.

Musically, Tropicália unashamedly borrowed from ’60s pop and rock ‘n’ roll, openly ripping off the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Musicians like Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Gal Costa, and Veloso and Gil themselves, came out in full force, performing at music festivals to screaming fans and jeering critics alike. They often coupled the music with wild, theatrical shows that combined elements of Brazilian carnival with French avant-garde and American pop art. Their message railed against the authoritative nationalists with the rallying cry, “why not?”

That mantra gave Tropicálists, as they were known, ample room to experiment. Listening to a playlist of Tropicália is like walking through a room of funhouse mirrors; every reflection is similar, based on the same form, but is completely unique at the same time.

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Os Mutantes’ “A Minha Menina” is ripped straight from the pages of American psychedelic rock, the traditions of Brazilian folk hard to find, language aside.

Tom Zé’s “Tô,” on the other hand, borrows heavily from the traditional Brazilian samba, but lyrically challenges the deep-seeded cultural paradox within the realm of Brazilian music. (It might be worth noting that Tom Zé likes to distance himself philosophically from the label of “protest music.”)

Chico Buarque’s “Construcão” pits traditional rhythms against a booming Hollywood orchestra, in a not-so-subtle criticism of hypocritical Brazilian culture.

Each song in the movement was it’s own combination of traditional Brazilian music and foreign influence, each brilliantly crafting its own idea of what Brazil could, and should, sound like. The track list is lush with great songs: Gal Costa’s “Sebastiana,” Gilberto Gil’s “Luzia Luluza,” Os Mutantes’ “Panis Et Circenses,” etc. etc. etc.

The defining principal in the Tropicália movement was the concept of cultural cannibalism, a theory proposed by modernismo poet Oswald de Andrade in his 1928 essay Manifesto Antropófago, or Cannibalist Manifesto. Rather than reject foreign cultural influences, the theory says, Brazilians should cannibalize them, thereby eliminating the threat and incorporating their power.

If you’re thinking the term “cannibalize” is used lightly, think again. The theory calls upon the native Tupi people, who were known for engaging in actual cannibalistic rituals. As Andrade so famously quipped, in a beautiful moment of true cultural cannibalism, “Tupi or not Tupi, that is the question.”

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While the Tropicália movement was a hit among Brazil’s more radical youth, the military-run government wasn’t amused. Authorities arrested Gil and Veloso in 1969, and after two months of imprisonment forced them to seek exile in London. Other musicians were allegedly tortured or sent into psychiatric care.

While the musicians were allowed back in 1972, the military crackdown is largely seen as the end of Tropicália. Still, the message of the movement lived on. Brazilians, after being forced to listen to traditional music for decades, could finally feel good about evolving their culture, not to bow to foreign influence, but to embrace it–cannibalize it no less–to craft something of their own, something wholly and uniquely Brazilian.

If that isn’t the single most beautiful story of a genre of music, I don’t know what is. The short-lived movement received little international recognition, popping up occasionally throughout the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1998 though, when American musician Beck Hansen released the song “Tropicalia,” that the movement came full circle.

Beck’s homage to the movement wasn’t bowing to the Brazilian sound, as so many critics accused Tropicália of doing to American genres, rather he was absorbing the music and making it his own; cannibalizing the cannibals. In that moment, Tropicália had become the foreign influence, a style to be absorbed. The result wasn’t quite American, nor was it Brazilian, it was something uniquely it’s own. It was a child of the the global cultural identity, standing onstage before critics and fans, screaming “Why not? Why not? Why not?”

A big thanks to Patti Kalil, for making sure I didn’t make an ass of myself, and to Richard Greenan, whose paper “Traditional Mutants” provided crucial background on  Tropicália.