Viva Tropicalia

Thirty years ago political tension in Brazil was at a fever pitch: as the revolutionary government, which had taken power in a 1964 coup, began to lose control, it grasped at power more forcefully than ever. Student protests were suppressed, attempts to restore direct elections were vetoed, the press and the arts were censored, and by 1968 the nation’s congress had been done away with altogether. Fortunately, culture can’t be squashed like a bug–when it gets squeezed in one place it will simply erupt in another.

In Brazil one such eruption was the arts movement called tropicalia or tropicalismo. Short-lived but intense, it thrived on a multicultural inclusiveness that stood in sharp opposition to the stunted, nationalistic version of culture endorsed by the state. Its most enduring legacy is its music: it was unthinkable to write lyrics directly criticizing the government, but musicians managed to subtly voice their defiance by reaching beyond the status quo for musical ideas. Pioneers like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze, and the group Os Mutantes drew not only from Brazil’s own rich traditions, integrating dozens of primitive regional styles as well as the typical samba and bossa nova, but also from funk, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. Both literally and figuratively, the tropicalistas were among the first Brazilians to plug in.

Tropicalia has been celebrating its anniversary this year, and most of the attention has less to do with nostalgia than with recognition of the movement’s prescience: the influence of its graceful, colorful, and inventive fusions can be seen in the critically adored machinations of Beck, Stereolab, and Tortoise. The quirky psychedelia of Os Mutantes has received play in the pages of Spin and the New York Times, and imports of the group’s recently reissued recordings, along with reissued titles by Veloso, Costa, and Gil, have been selling like hotcakes at the Wicker Park specialty shop Dusty Groove. A best-of-Os Mutantes collection is due in January on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, and last week at the Palmer House academics gathered for “Thirty Years of Tropicalia: A Critical Commemoration,” a conference exploring the history of the movement and its contemporary ramifications.

Typically, tropicalia’s effect in Brazil has been less frequently discussed here than its impact abroad. But a couple of weeks ago two great Brazilian albums, Tom Ze’s Com Defeito de Fabricacao (Fabrication Defect) (Luaka Bop) and the debut album by Virginia Rodrigues, Sol Negro (Hannibal), were released in the U.S., and though they couldn’t be more different, both are undeniably products of tropicalia.

Ze, now 62, was a radical even within tropicalia. Classically trained, he enthusiastically brought elements of musique concrete and avant-garde dissonance to his off-kilter pop songs; in the 70s he added the hand drill and the electric blender to his instrumental arsenal. By the mid-70s the Brazilian audience had caught up with Gil, Veloso, and Costa, but Ze’s experimentation increasingly alienated listeners, and by the time Byrne approached him in 1990 he was on the verge of abandoning music altogether: Fabrication Defect is only his fifth album since 1973.

Ze’s–and tropicalia’s–stylistic grab-bagging becomes something of a conceptual thrust on the new album: Ze writes in the liner notes that “we are at the end of the composer’s era…inaugurating the plagi-combinator era.” But Ze hasn’t yet entered the sampling era: when he mixes things up it’s manually and in real time. “Emere,” one of the album’s more dissonant ditties, is an acoustic throb decorated with percussive vocal effects–like a sort of Brazilian doo-wop–and Marcos DiSantis’s piercing “hillbilly violin.” And even the most identifiably Brazilian tune, the breezy samba “Esteticar” (in which Ze assails first-world cultural condescension with lines like “You think I’m a foolish country caboclo / A type of empty-headed little monkey / Your typical rickety hillbilly / A mere number zero, a nobody”), is interrupted by dislocated percussion patterns. All the songs on the album are consistently catchy and accessible, and the experimental flourishes are not showy distractions but essential ingredients.

The songs on Virginia Rodrigues’s Sol Negro are more traditional than anything tropicalia would have produced in its heyday. But the ease with which she mixes regional styles in a haunting contralto that sounds almost European is part of the movement’s legacy. Caetano Veloso heard the 34-year-old Bahian singer at a rehearsal for a musical and was so taken that he arranged for her to record this album. Most of Rodrigues’s previous musical experience was in church choirs, which explains her solemn, spiritual tone; her a cappella rendition of the traditional Brazilian tune “Veronica” (“Oh, all you who pass along the road / Look, look / And then see / If there is pain / Like my pain”) sounds downright liturgical. The arrangements usually highlight her talents with little more than percussion, but even with the addition of swaying horns (“Adeus Batucada”), mournful strings and piano (“Manha de Carnaval”), or famous guest vocalists like Gilberto Gil and Djavan (the baroque ballad “Terra Seca”), her voice remains the main attraction, adjusting expertly to every curve Veloso throws her.

Though the album’s 11 tunes–inexplicably the U.S. version of the album excludes a 12th song, a gorgeous English-language American spiritual, that was on the Brazilian version–aren’t particularly modernist or experimental, they do cover a pretty good range of traditional and relatively contemporary styles. And given the U.S. music industry’s escalating obsession with classifying and subclassifying music for market effectiveness, Sol Negro’s casual openness feels a hell of a lot more advanced than anything we call pop music here.


Saturday night the French vinyl-only label Rectangle Records presents a showcase at the Empty Bottle. David Grubbs will perform “The Coxcomb,” a musical version of the Stephen Crane short story “The Blue Hotel” narrated by Red Krayola adjunct member Stephen Prina; a version of it will be released as a picture disc on Rectangle and later on CD by Drag City. The bill also includes an organ-guitar duet between Grubbs and Rectangle co-owner and guitar improviser Noel Akchote; a solo set by Akchote; and a set by Rectangle co-owner Quentin Rollet’s unremarkable rock band Prohibition (think Slint or Codeine with a saxophonist), augmented by a flamboyant male disco diva called Charlie O. At 2 PM at Reckless Records on Milwaukee, Grubbs will also perform material from his new album The Thicket (Drag City), and Prina will preview selections from his perpetually forthcoming Push Comes to Love (Drag City).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Virginia Rodrigues photo by Bob Wolferson; Tom Ze photo by Eric Johnson.