As with our recent Dancing music in the C20 on northern soul, it should be stated that tropicália is not a musical genre. But whereas northern soul was a retrospective curation of mid-60s ballroom-heating dance songs, tropicália was something that only existed – briefly – in a certain window of time, in a certain place.
Indeed, within little more than a year of establishing tropicalia as a movement affecting the mainstream consciousness of Brazil, its founders – Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil – had already pronounced its death.
Tropicália was a multimedia art movement that was a sort of lurid mix of pop art, dadaism and surrealism, and was mostly produced by a small coterie of young visual artists, filmmakers, poets and musicians from the impoverished Bahia region of Brazil during the mid-late 1960s. Tropicália was also an ideology and a form of political protest, though its primary function as art often seemed to render its political intentions abstract, even a little bit troll-y.
Tropicália was a response to the military coup of 1964 that plunged Brazil into a profound sense of economic, political and cultural crisis. A resurgent and radicalised left wing youth fought back against the principles of the military dictatorship and its close relationship with the United States government with an aggressive nationalism that denounced all associations with American culture as servicing imperialism.
The young men and women involved in tropicália – or tropicálism, as they called it – however, found this position pedantic and absurd. They loved rock & roll and American films. They found the Brazilian left – which promoted a return to traditional Brazilian social and cultural systems, where the only acceptable music was trad Brazilian folk – hopelessly conservative and dogmatic.
The tropicálists created art that was provocative and outrageous, and in doing so they incensed equally the dictator-led establishment and the authoritarian left. The tropicália movement bore similarities to the détournement practice of the Situationists in the 1950s – an attempt to subvert the capitalist system and media culture with political pranks that recontextualise the symbols of those systems and cultures.
But it was more than that. Tropicália wasn’t all arched eyebrows, academic posturing and teenage in-jokes, it was angry, it was soulful, it was fun – worse, it was utopian. The tropicalists advocated a process they called “cultural cannibalism” that smashed together seemingly opposing identities in an eccentric and always colourful way: urban and rural, African and European, high brow and low brow, the commercial and the avant-garde.
Of course, in the 1960s, the tropicálists weren’t the only group proposing to take aggressive cultural action along these lines, but they probably were the only ones who made art you could dance to.
The tropicália musicians consisted of a collective loosely assembled around Gil and Veloso that included the avant-classical composer Rogério Duprat, the dadaist songwriter Tom Zé, pop stars Gal Costa and Nara Leão, and most famously, São Paulo’s legendary psychedelic rock band, Os Mutantes.
All of these artists combined to create the seminal Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis album – a sort of musical manifesto for tropicalism that today is revered as the Brazilian Sgt. Peppers.
The poet Torquato Neto provided the lyrics for the record. In his essay Tropicálism for Beginners, Neto had argued for the creation of a genuinely “Brazilian” pop. He wrote:
“Accept completely all that the life of the tropics can give, without preconceptions of aesthetic order, without consideration of tackiness or bad taste, solely living the tropical and the new universe it contains, still unknown.”
Tropicália embraced kitsch and hailed the Brazilian light entertainer Carmen Miranda as its icon. Musically, the tropicalists attempted to fuse forbidden rock & roll with classical music and Beatles-esque pop with Brazilian folk. The sound was surreal, trippy, raucous – full of odd drifts and noise and space. But if there was any common motif underpinning this pop bricolage, it was the musicians’ deep and genuine love for bossa nova.
Bossa nova – meaning “new trend” in Portuguese – was the Brazilian fusion of samba and jazz that found popularity in the 1950s. Bossa nova was apolitical dance-pop that blandly described the romantic lives of affluent Brazilians in the time before the coup. As the basis for a new politically charged Brazilian music, played by a bunch of smart ass revolutionaries, bossa nova was therefore perfect for reappropriation. Tropicália is often discussed in the context of European and American rock, such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, but really if tropicália’s music is anything it is a heavily psychedelicised version of bossa nova.
This was a revolution you could dance to. That and the fact that the tropicálists were savvy media operators meant that this deeply weird and avant-garde music did not have the luxury and freedom that most other experimental genres have of being marginal musics. The tropicálists were all over Brazilian TV. They debated politics and philosophy and performed on youth-oriented pop shows and competed enthusiastically in the national equivalent of Eurovision, with one appearance by Veloso famously enraging the audience to the point of rioting.
Tropicália was a mainstream cultural phenomenon and its agents were antiheros. It was inevitable that, at some point, they would be recognised as the threat that they were. Movement leaders Veloso and Gil were jailed and then deported by the military government in 1969. Their exile in London put an end to tropicália as a movement, although its central figures would remain engaged – if in an off-and-on basis – in music for the rest of their lives.
In the 1990s, tropicália was rediscovered, and the patronage of alternative music icons like Kurt Cobain and David Byrne led new generations to this working class, Brazilian dance music of dissent. By this point their political activism had bore fruit, however, with Gilberto Gil becoming the second-ever black Brazilian to serve in the country’s now-democratic cabinet.