Tropicalismo Fifty Years Later

Tropicália is the name of a cultural moment in late 1960s Brazil that was manifest in nearly all realms of artistic production, especially in popular music, but also the visual arts, theater, film and literature. In music, it denoted not a particular style, but rather an approach toward the... ... more

Tropicália is the name of a cultural moment in late 1960s Brazil that was manifest in nearly all realms of artistic production, especially in popular music, but also the visual arts, theater, film and literature. In music, it denoted not a particular style, but rather an approach toward the Brazilian song tradition, international pop, and cultural modernity.  Tropicália was a cultural response to the specific contradictions and tensions of Brazilian uneven modernity. At the time, Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship, which entered its most repressive phase in 1968. The regime was committed to a program of conservative modernization, an array of economic, social and political measures that favored industrial development and infrastructural modernization, but invested little in programs fomenting social equality. The tropicalists advanced an irreverent critique of authoritarian rule and conservative social values, but were generally not regarded as proponents of ‘protest music.’

The core group of tropicalist musicians – Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and Gal Costa – were from the northeastern state of Bahia and began to perform together in the state capital, Salvador, in 1964. After migrating south in the mid-1960s, the so-called grupo baiano formed a creative alliance with São Paulo-based artists, including a group of avant-garde composers, most notably Rogério Duprat and the psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes, featuring Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sérgio Baptista. They also befriended the concrete poets, most notably Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, who championed their work and schooled them on Brazilian and international avant-garde traditions.  On one level, tropicalist music may be understood as a convergence of musicians from Bahia, a center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and from São Paulo, the largest and most industrialized Brazilian city. In the genesis of Tropicália, Rio de Janeiro also played a role, most notably in the realm of the visual arts. The Carioca experimental artist Hélio Oiticica coined the term Tropicália as the name of an environmental installation, or ambiente, created for the exhibition Nova Objetividade Brasileira of 1967. After Veloso appropriated the title for one of his own compositions, it came to designate a range of cultural interventions.

Veloso and Gil achieved critical and popular acclaim in the 1967 TV Record festival with the songs "Alegria, Alegria" (Happiness, Happiness) and "Domingo no Parque" (Sunday in the Park) respectively, which they described as the som universal  or “universal sound.” Left-wing nationalists rejected the tropicalists’ music largely because they were using electric instruments and incorporating elements of rock, which the nationalists associated with U.S. cultural imperialism. Both songs initially met with disfavor among sectors of the live audience, which typically favored performances with acoustic instruments that drew heavily on Brazilian musical traditions. In the final round, Gil and Veloso won over the audience with songs backed by rock musicians using electric instruments, but were still recognized as essentially “Brazilian.” Within a few months, the musical movement initiated by Veloso and Gil was renamed "tropicalismo" in the national press.

In 1968–69 the tropicalists issued several solo albums and one collective manifesto, Tropicália, ou Panis et Circensis (1968), a concept album inspired by the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tropicália was not a new genre or style, but rather a pastiche of diverse musical forms, national and international, dated and ultra-modern. At its core, tropicalist music may be understood as a rereading, both reverential and ironic, of the tradition of Brazilian popular song in relation to international pop music and avant-garde experimentation. The tropicalists drew from a wide variety of musical traditions, including samba, bossa nova, baião (a northeastern dance music), capoeira music, British invasion rock, psychedelia, Brazilian iê-iê-iê (rock and roll), Spanish American bolero and cha cha chá, and classical music. They were interested, above all, in the phenomenon of pop music and its relation to youth culture, consumer society, and musical tradition. Some of the most important tropicalist songs, such as Veloso’s "Tropicália," Gil’s "Geléia Geral" (General Jam), and Tom Zé’s "Parque Industrial" (Industrial Park), may be understood as national allegories that juxtapose signs of underdevelopment and backwardness with signs of ultra-modernity. In an interview with the literary critic Marjorie Perloff at the 2016 Modern Language Association Convention, Veloso explained that Brazil was an underdeveloped, predominately rural nation with high rates of illiteracy, which made pop songs particularly influential, or as he put it, "culturally strong." The tropicalists were acutely attuned to the structural changes brought on by the military regime, its development program and its repressive mechanisms and found incisive ways of representing these transformations and their effect on everyday life in Brazil.

In their musical project, the tropicalists found theoretical support in antropofagia (cultural cannibalism), first formulated and articulated by modernist provocateur Oswald de Andrade in his "Manifesto Antropófago" (Cannibalist Manifesto) of 1928. They had been introduced to the work of Andrade by the concrete poets, who were then re-editing his works and reviving his critical and poetic legacy. For Andrade, the conceit of cannibalism, inspired by coastal Indians known to devour their captive enemies including Portuguese colonizers, provided a model for cultural production that was neither subservient to metropolitan trends in Europe nor defensive or narrowly nationalistic. For the tropicalists, the idea of cannibalism provided a model for revitalizing the Brazilian song tradition in light of contemporary developments in international pop.

Although the tropicalists were most vehemently criticized by artists and critics of the nationalist left, they also aroused the suspicions of the military regime for their anarchic, countercultural attitude toward authority. In late December 1968 Veloso and Gil were arrested, put in a military prison and then confined to house arrest in Salvador until they departed for exile in London, where they would stay until 1972. By 1969 Tropicália was over, but some of the fundamental qualities that oriented its practice – the critical dialogue with international cultural practices and projects and the attempt to fuse avant-garde practices and popular culture – continued to inform artistic practice in Brazil into the twenty-first century. Furthermore, nearly all of the tropicalist musicians continued to be active as professional musicians, public intellectuals, and cultural agents. The voracious eclecticism of the tropicalist project, once so startling to nationalist critics, is now the dominant paradigm for Brazilian popular music. The recent ascension of right-wing forces, denounced by some on the left as a parliamentary coup, has also occasioned a reconsideration of authoritarian rule, its lasting legacy, and the forms of resistance and critique that pushed back against it. 

Christopher Dunn's picture
Curator Christopher Dunn

Dunn's research focuses on Brazilian cultural politics during the period of the military d

Dunn's research focuses on Brazilian cultural politics during the period of the military dictatorship (1964-85), national and regional discourse, popular music, race relations, and black culture. He is the author of Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

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The Artist as Interpreter: Caetano Veloso at MLA 2016

by Caetano VelosoVideo
The singer and songwriter is interviewed by Marjorie Perloff at the 2016 Modern Language Association Convention in Austin. He discusses his early encounters with American music, how he views his songs in relation to poetry, and his collaborations with the concrete poets of Brazil.  A transcript of the interview, edited and augmented for clarity, appears in the... more

Introduction: Power and Joy

by Christopher DunnBook Chapter
Contracultura: Alternative Arts and Social Transformation in Authoritarian Brazil
Why was 1968 "the year that never ended" in Brazil? An excerpt from Dunn's new book explains how politics and art created the context of Tropicalismo. more