Great Brazilian Music


In 1967, the young singer and composer Caetano Veloso felt that Brazilian popular music, since the appearance bossa nova 8 years earlier, had stagnated almost completely and had seemed to have run out of both energy and ideas. And since no one else seemed to be doing anything about the situation, he felt compelled to take action himself. Caetano first entered in contact with some of the biggest names of Brazilian music at the time and tried to convince them that Brazilian popular music was in desperate need of new ideas and renovation, but got little or no support. Instead, Caetano assembled a small group of young musicians, which included Bahian artists Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Tom Zé, the psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes, poets Torquato Neto and Capinam, and the conductor and orchestral arranger Rogério Duprat, who together would form the nucleus of a new “rebel” movement in Brazilian music.

At this time, the Brazilian music scene was divided in two halves. On one side stood the traditionalists, supported both by the conservative establishment (which completely controlled Brazilian society after the military coup of 1964), as well as the leftist opposition, led primarily by intellectuals, the cultural elite and students. The traditionalist, both of the leftist and right wing varieties, vehemently opposed all foreign influences on Brazilian music, coming from contemporary western pop and rock. Instruments like electric guitars were seen as aberrations. A large majority of all Brazilian artists at the time either actively supported or at least followed the “rules” set by the traditionalists. On the other side of the divide were the fans of modern English and American popular music, primarily represented of the artists and band of the Jovem Guarda movement, who were very popular among the young, urban middle class generation .

Against this background, Caetano’s small movement set the bold goal to force a paradigm shift within Brazilian popular music. Contrary to the traditionalists who dominated the Brazilian music scene, Caetano and his friends wanted to “universalize” and modernize the Brazilian music, by opening it up to foreign influences. Not by trying to imitate the English and American rock and pop, like for example the Jovem Guarda, but by incorporating foreign music into the Brazilian music tradition, and thereby creating something completely new. After all, argued Caetano, what was the Brazilian nation itself, if not a country which was built up as a mixture of people and cultures from virtually all corners of the world. In light of these ideas, Caetano proposed the new movement to be called “Som Livre” or “Som Universal”, meaning “Free Sound” or “Universal Sound”. However, before any of these proposed names became known to the public, the media had coined the term tropicalismo, to describe the musical activities of Caetano and his friends, who soon became known all over Brazil as the tropicalistas.

The tropicalists wanted to describe the Brazilian society as they saw it and their aesthetics drew much inspiration on the enormous contrasts of Brazilian culture and the inherent contradictions of Brazilian society. Brazil was (and is) a country where enormous wealth exist side by side with abysmal poverty, where the ancient coexist with the latest technology, conservative traditions exist side by side with extremely liberal values, the native with the foreign, elite culture and mass culture, extreme beauty with grotesque ugliness, and so on. In an effort to weave all these elements together and thus musically reflect the Brazilian society, the tropicalists adopted diverse musical genres such as samba, frevo, Jovem Guarda, choro, bolero, Anglo-American pop and rock, and avant-garde art music, molding them all together to a single unit. The tropicalists also put much thought into their lyrics, to create a sort of musical allegory of the Brazilian society of the late 60’s. The creative process of the tropicalists has been called “cultural cannibalism”.

The venue chosen by tropicalists to launch their new style of music was through a series of televised music festivals, which at this particular time were very popular in Brazil. During these festivals, the participating artists were allowed to perform one song each and Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil both brought newly written tropicalismo compositions. Caetano Veloso went with Alegria, alegria, which was basically a sweet marchinha mixed with international pop and electric guitars. Gilberto Gil presented Domingo no Parque, which brought together the characteristic berimbau rhythm (typical of the capoeira music of Bahia) with beatlesque arrangements (complete with orchestra and electric guitar). Both songs divided the festival audience. While some people loved the new sound, others booed, jeered and whistled to express their discontent. Both songs were soon after released as singles, and as the first recorded tropicalismo songs, Alegria, alegria and Domingo no Parque represent a pivotal watersheds in Brazilian music history. On balance, the songs proved to be a success among the public and propelled both Caetano and Gil into instant fame and stardom, especially among music loving teenagers and students.

However, the success of Gil and Caetano was not at all welcomed by the hard core traditionalists. Other famous musicians, such as Edu Lobo, Francis Hime, Dori Caymmi and Elis Regina were very bitter, feeling that Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had betrayed their ideals and were wasting their great talent by writing and recording weak music, inspired by what they viewed as international junk culture. Even angrier were the proponents of political music – the so called protest singers – of which, Geraldo Vandré was the most popular and perhaps alos the most annoyed one. The famous talk show host Flávio Cavalcanti, during one of his programs, launched into a violent and melodramatic tirade against Caetano and literally broke a copy of the vinyl single Alegria, alegria in pieces, on live TV. Among other things, Cavalcanti argued (for unclear reasons) that Alegria, Alegria was in fact a covert and immoral tribute to LSD. But all this was just the beginning of the wrath and protests that would face the tropicalist movement.

The record company Philips nevertheless saw the commercial potential of the new music and speeded up the process of recording the first full length tropicalismo albums, which were released in 1968. Caetano and Gil again set very ambitious goals for their respective albums, as they wanted to create something with the same musical firepower as João Gilberto's classic Chega de Saudade and the same advanced production as Sgt Peppers’ of the Beatles. The music should have an international appeal and atmosphere, while still being unmistakably Brazilian. The actual end result of both albums were brilliant, yet neither Caetano nor Gil felt completely satisfied, as the recording studios available in Brazil at the time, were simply not as advanced as the best British and American ones, a fact that obviously left its mark on the sound quality. Shortly following Caetano Veloso’s and Gilberto Gil’s album releases, Gal Costa and the young psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes (the three band members Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias were all teenagers at the time) released their own tropicalismo styled LPs.

For the next set of televised festivals, the tropicalists prepared a couple of more daring and challenging songs, shifting the tone towards the more rebellious and rock’n’roll. At the same time, the hard core traditionalists prepared themselves to show up in numbers and give the tropicalists the reception they felt they deserved. Consequently, Caetano, Gil and os Mutantes all faced a massive barrage of boos and whistles, while performing their songs. As his performance was completely drowned in the noise of the upset crowd, Caetano Veloso interrupted his singing and instead gave an improvised speech, blasting the intolerant and retrograde audience. He also invited Gil up on the stage with him, while the crowd threw old eggs, old fruits and even pieces of furniture on them. Gil was slightly wounded by a hard projectile that hit him.

The disgraceful behavior of the traditionalists in the crowd, clear for the entire Brazilian nation to see, worked as an eye-opener for many people in the music business as well as for the Brazilian public in general. And indeed, only a few months later, most Brazilians had embraced the tropicalist movement and their habit of mixing different music styles, both national and international. Many artists also tried to imitate the music of the tropicalists. For a short while, Caetano and Gil even got their own tropicalist television show, where they regularly performed together with invited artists like Gal Costa, Tom Zé, os Mutantes, Jorge Ben, Paulinho da Viola and Jards Macalé. The program was named Divino Maravilhoso, which was also the name of a song that Caetano and Gil had written for Gal Costa. The TV program Divino Maravilhoso came to an abrupt end in December 1968, when the military regime implemented a set of repressive laws called AI-5 (Ato Institucional 5), which strongly limited the freedom of speech.

The military, governed by right wing conservative nationalists, had seized power in Brazil in 1964, through a coup against the democratically elected president João Goulart. Until the early 1970’s the military regime steadily imposed harsher laws on the Brazilian people, in order to clamp down on opponents of the regime and any one who was perceived as threatening to the status quo. The single biggest step towards oppression of the Brazilian people was the implementation of the above mentioned AI-5. Because of their huge popularity and their influence on Brazilian popular culture and especially the Brazilian youth and the intellectuals, Caetano and Gil were perceived as a threat by the authorities. On December 27th 1968, they were both arrested in their homes by the police. They were held in house arrest for 6 months, forbidden to speak to any media outlet, until they were deported in July 1969. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso thus were forced to live in exile, in London, for two years. During that time, they kept recording and also wrote songs recorded by other artists, back in Brazil. Popular pressure mounted for the exile to end, and in January 1972, Caetano and Gil were finally allowed back to Brazil, where they were hailed as national heroes. The return of the two artists also marks the end of the tropicalismo movement, as its members all went on to work on different projects.

Examples of tropicalist music

Click to listen:

Baby, Caetano Veloso, 1968
Panis et Circenses, os Mutantes, 1968
Ando Meio-Desligado, os Mutantes, 1970
Procissão, Gilberto Gil, 1968
Não Identificado, Gal Costa, 1968
Alegria, alegria, Caetano Veloso, 1967
Ave Lucifer, os Mutantes, 1970

Caetano Veloso, Gilberto GIl and os Mutantes on stage, 1968.

Dramatic scene from the years of dictatorship, in the 1960's.

Caetano Veloso, 1967.

Cover of famous tropicalist album by Gal Costa.

Cover of first tropicalist album by Gilberto Gil.

Tom Zé.

Os Mutantes in São Paulo.