Tropicalismo’s radical reimagining of Brazilian music swept through Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo between 1966 and ’69. The tropicália style’s founding poet and prophet, respectively, were the singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who were raised in northeastern Brazil’s lush and laid-back Bahia region. The tropicalistas‘ work was inspired by poet Oswald de Andrade’s 1920s notion of “cultural cannibalism” in the aftermath of the 1964 coup that installed a military government in Brazil and therefore had an overt countercultural agenda.
Aided and abetted by members of Rio’s music, theater, and art scenes, Veloso and Gil — along with the singer Gal Costa and Veloso’s TV-star sister, Maria Bethânia — introduced rock instrumentation, rhythm and blues, and psychedelia to Brazil’s already rich musical ecology through numerous solo albums and collaborations with young rockers Os Mutantes, visionary producer Rogério Duprat, bossa nova star Nara Leão, politically engaged songwriter Chico Buarque, Afro-Brazilian soul singer Jorge Ben Jor, and avant-garde fellow traveler Tom Zé. Most of them appeared on Tropicália: ou Panis et Circensis (Tropicália: or Bread and Circuses), the brilliant 1968 collaborative rock manifesto that sealed Tropicalismo’s appeal.
Tropicália was a monumental testament to ambivalence. The tropicalistas adored Brazil’s samba, bossa nova, and folk traditions just as much as they sought to upend them with the help of Euro-American rock and political satire. They found both commercial and critical success in their endeavor, creating a sound and sensibility that continues to ripple through contemporary Brazilian popular music and the music of international fans like Beck and David Byrne (whose Luaka Bop label has released several disks of great Brazilian music, tropicália and otherwise).
Tropicalismo was nothing if not complicated, however. Veloso came to believe that the movement’s success actually caused the quality of Brazilian music to decline even as it opened it up to influences and styles that transcended class and race. Tropicália’s heyday ended with the 1969 arrests of Veloso and Gil, who were exiled from to London, where they lived until their return in 1972. No charges were ever specified, but the duo certainly represented something new, threatening, and unpredictable to Brazil’s conservative nationalists. And who could ask more of music than that?
The sexiest of intellectual musicians, Brazil’s Bob Dylan launched Tropicalismo in 1968 with “Alegria, Alegria” (Joy, Joy) and has been wildly prolific and popular ever since.
Tropicalismo’s Bahia-born Afro-Brazilian co-founder is a stylistic sponge with a long, productive career. Gil also served as Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003-08.
Brothers Arnaldo and Sérgio Dias Baptista, and USA-raised singer Rita Lee formed Tropicália’s psych-rocking house band in São Paulo in 1966.
The politically engaged bossa nova muse and TV star was an influential fellow traveler among the tropicalistas.
Born in Bahia, Costa kicked off her long career with a pair of highly influential tropicália albums featuring songs by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
Caetano Veloso’s sister, a celebrated singer and Brazilian TV star, was his main muse during tropicália‘s heyday and his London exile.
With David Byrne’s help, the Bahia-born trickster of Tropicalismo continues to manifest its most anarchic and avant-garde tendencies into his 70s.
Jorge Ben Jor
While the tropicalistas were crafting outré sounds, Bahia-born Ben wrote and performed laid-back compositions in which love and geography become virtually indistinguishable.
Caetano Veloso called Brazilian pop music’s most widely respected artist his “greatest rival.” Buarque never accepted Tropicalismo’s agenda but exerted an immense influence on the movement nonetheless.
Despite being recruited by Caetano Veloso, this songwriter never embraced Tropicalismo. Yet Miller’s second album, Brasil: Do Guarani ao Guaran, displays a distinct tropiclia influence.