The rise of the musical style known as Tropicalismo began in the early 1960s as young Brazilian artists and musicians, tired of the classic style of bossa nova and weary of the increasingly restrictive tenor of the government, began experimenting with new sounds that reflected the cultural changes they saw everywhere around them. Bossa had reigned supreme in the Brazilian popular music scene since its emergence in the late 1950s, but by the early '60s, it was considered passe by a younger generation eager to push the limits of artistic expression.
The rise of a military dictatorship in 1964 served as a clarion call for Brazilian artists to band together and subvert the government's powers, using culture as their weapon. Pioneered by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Tropicalismo emerged as an attempt to assimilate musical styles and achieve a compromise between national and international influences.
To that end, Gil and Veloso combined strains of blues, rock, psychedelia, folk and jazz with Latin American genres bossa nova and samba, and dubbed the hybrid a "universal sound," which they debuted at a 1967 televised music festival. The music moved Brazil into the forefront of pop avant-garde.
Veloso writes in his autobiography, Tropical Truth, that the movement found its roots in modernist poet Oswaldo de Andrade's anthropophagic philosophy. In the 1920s de Andrade wrote The Cannibal Manifesto, addressing the perceived European view of Brazil as a land inhabited by cannibals. De Andrade shifts this idea to discuss a cultural rather than a physical cannibalism, suggesting Brazil should take morsels of European culture and recast them in a Brazilian light.
When Tropicalismo was emerging, Brazil already had its own rock style known as Jovem Guarda (Young Guard) which was popular with young urbanites who were attracted to the consumerism of American youth culture. This was in contrast to artists active in the Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) movement, a post-bossa nova style. Followers of MPB detested the perceived imperialism of American music and culture, believing MPB was an appropriately independent type of musical expression for Brazil.
"After the bossa nova revolution, and to a great extent because of it, there emerged the tropicalista movement, whose aim it was to sort out the tension between Brazil the Parallel Universe and Brazil the country peripheral to the American Empire," Veloso writes in Tropical Truth.
The artistic combination of Brazilian and international styles made for an eclectic and sometimes jarring spectacle. Brazil's right-wing military regime soon deemed the new music subversive and some musicians on the left criticized it as a muddy fusion of styles.
Larry Rohter of the New York Times writes that the movement sought to mix "electric instruments, political egalitarianism, foreign influences, sexual freedom, the celebration of home-grown musical styles considered déclassé, mind-bending drugs and avant-garde poetry."
While music was the cornerstone of the movement, Tropicalismo's powerful current encompassed other improvisational art forms, and was seen on late 1960s album covers, on the stage, in paintings and in films. A particularly important example of Tropicalismo in a nonmusical format is the 1967 film "Terra em transe" ("Land in anguish"). Considered a landmark in Brazil's Cinema Novo movement, the film is an allegory for the rise of military rule in Brazil.
The reign of Tropicalismo as a formal movement was brief, although its influences are still felt nearly 40 years later. It flourished in 1967 and 1968, until the Brazilian government passed the Fifth Institutional Act in December 1968. The act, which granted President Costa e Silva dictatorial power, was a catalyst for artists and musicians to flee Brazil. Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were jailed for several months in 1968, and then lived in exile in London before returning home in 1972.
-- By Jessica Moore, Online NewsHour