Tropical Blend

Tropical Blend

by Kevin McElvaney

Though it’s en vogue to trumpet cultural diversity, there’s a reason Disney, McDonalds and Starbucks have become global forces. Cultural imperialism is what happens when, through colonization or other means, a powerful, “modernized” nation imposes its values on another, less influential country — confining the native culture to the margins or, worse, rendering it obsolete.

Throughout its turbulent history, Brazil has always been a country of many cultures. Before it was colonized by explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral in 1500, Brazil was inhabited by as many as 11 million indigenous people of various tribes. Later, as the country became a major source of sugarcane, Brazil imported 4.9 million African slaves (more than any other nation during the height of Transatlantic slavery).

But though war, colonization, and slavery could have erased the cultures of the indigenous people and African slaves, those groups would remain resilient — ultimately enriching the national culture every bit as much as the Portuguese.

Cultural Cannibalism

Today, Brazil is largely populated by the descendants of those European settlers, African slaves, and native peoples— many of whom have ancestors from all three groups. The country’s ethnic diversity is reflected in its art, which is an elaborate patchwork of many different cultures. This particular talent of the Brazilian people to take in (and not be overtaken by) ideas is sometimes referred to as “cultural cannibalism” — a phrase coined by the early 20th century modernist poet, Oswald de Andrade.

In his 1928 essay, “Manifesto Antropófago” (“Cannibalist Manifesto”), Andrade detailed his native country’s long history of absorbing, or “eating,” the ideas of colonists and other outsiders — from Catholicism to Communism, and absurdist literature to film — blending them with the native culture, and coming out with something uniquely Brazilian.

Andrade in 1920

Andrade in 1920

Andrade’s ideas didn’t resonate immediately. Despite the country’s long history as a genuine melting pot, many artists still advocated a purely “Brazilian” culture that, Andrade argued, never really existed. But for two years in the 1960s, the notion of cultural cannibalism finally had its moment — forming the backbone of a movement that would change Brazilian music forever.

Tropicália Arrives

In 1967, Brazil was in the fourth year of rule by a U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Though the military had supposedly taken over to fight communism and promote democracy, the regime’s ties to the U.S. led to concerns that Brazil would lose its culture and national identity. As a result, Brazilian music was at a crossroads.

Protest singers such as Chico Buarque continued to build on the legacy of bossa nova — a Brazilian fusion of jazz and samba, cultivated in the 1950s by João Gilberto and others. Meanwhile, pop artists like Roberto Carlos performed a style similar to American and British rock ‘n’ roll (known as “iê-iê-iê,” or “yeah-yeah-yeah”).  Caught somewhere between the two camps were singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

Veloso and Gil performing live. Photo credit: Cultura Brasil

Veloso and Gil performing live. Photo credit: Cultura Brasil

Veloso and Gil were proud Brazilians who grew up in the northeastern state of Bahia. However, they were also culturally savvy young musicians in the late ’60s, and as such, enjoyed the work of The Beatles and Bob Dylan every bit as much as João Gilberto. In 1967, wanting to push forward the “linha evolutiva” (evolutionary line) of Brazilian music, Veloso and Gil declared the arrival of the Tropicália movement (also known as Tropicalism).

Tropicália took its name from a 1967 installation by visual artist Hélio Oiticica. The piece, which resembled a “tropical” living room, adorned with sand and native plants, but also modern furnishings, was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the Americanization of Brazil under the military dictatorship.

 Hélio Oiticica's Tropicália installation. Credit: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

 Hélio Oiticica's Tropicália installation. Credit: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Aiming to engage with modern musical forms in a way that would strengthen Brazilian culture rather than dilute it (an approach Veloso referred to as “aggressive nationalism”), the Tropicalists set about creating a new style that combined prevailing Brazilian culture with foreign motifs. What resulted was a hybrid genre that blended bossa nova and Afro-Brazilian rhythms with elements of psychedelic rock, folk, jazz, and soul. It was cultural cannibalism, writ large.

The 1968 album Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis (Tropicália, Or Bread and Circuses) was the Tropicalist manifesto – a record full of nods to traditionally Brazilian music, as well as coy references to American and British works. The album cover even paid homage to the iconic artwork of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

In his 2003 memoir, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, Caetano Veloso wrote, “The idea of ‘cultural cannibalism’ fit us, the Tropicalists, like a glove. We were ‘eating’ The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.”

Because the Tropicalists engaged with foreign music, they weren’t favorites of nationalist left-wing activists. This meant that, for a while, the right-wing government largely ignored them. Only as the government began to crack down on the free speech of dissidents did that change.

Alarmed by what they saw as an attack on artistic freedom, Tropicalists began to cannibalize some of the political stances of other Latin American countercultures. Their songs, though still upbeat and lively, were increasingly critical of the established order and addressed dark subject matter. For example, Caetano Veloso’s “É Proibido Proibir” (“It is Forbidden to Forbid”) is a love song that takes place amongst burning cars and utter chaos.

Some of the movement’s key members were imprisoned. On December 27, 1968, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were both arrested under unspecified charges, and spent two months in a military prison. For fear of what would happen if they stayed in Brazil, Veloso and Gil elected to flee the country for London — where they remained in exile until 1972. In their absence, the Tropicalist movement was effectively over.

Why It All Matters

In just two years, Tropicália cultivated a legacy that continues to influence musicians around the world. Grammy Award-winner Beck recorded his 1998 single, “Tropicalia,” as a tribute to the movement. And Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was so enamored that he curated a series of Tropicalist compilation albums.

Perhaps more importantly, Tropicália did help advance Brazilian culture — just as its founders had hoped. Nearly 50 years later, Brazilian music is impressively diverse — traditional Latin and African rhythms coexist with increasingly modern sounds, from hard rock to hip-hop.

The Tropicalist movement, though short-lived, proved that art can provide a meeting point for different cultures, even (and perhaps especially) in contentious environments — an important lesson for us all.