Why aren’t you listening to… Tropicalia

This is some of the most glorious music ever written.


Why aren’t you listening to… Tropicalia


It’s January and it’s cold and wet and grey. In fact, in my neck of the woods, there have only been two days this year when it hasn’t rained. Fuck. Sunshine is needed. Except that there’s none to be had here, and the places that have it are remote and require flights and jabs and money. It’s fortunate then, that sunshine can be found in Tropicalia music. You probably know the story but I’ll recount it ever so briefly here.


A movement of sorts coalesces in northern Brazil around the singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. There’s Gal Costa, the Os Mutantes group, Tom Ze and Chico Barque. Bossa Nova, they reckon, has had its day. They needed a new sound, a Universal Sound. Not everyone was sure that this new sound could be found, and some, such as Veloso’s sister Maria Bethania, were quite happy with the sound they had. But the Universal Sound was found and it was named Tropicalia.


What went into this sound? Well, as befits a Universal Sound, pretty much everything. Traditional Brazilian music wasn’t abandoned. But it was augmented by rock music (Strawberry Field Forever was a big influence), psychedelia and the music of Cage and Stockhausen. The result was a fantastic mix of avant-garde pop – fun music you could dance to but which was also incredibly sophisticated.


You are recommended to purchase Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound if the grey days of January are proving to be more than a little trying. Collected here are many of the songs that defined the movement. The album kicks off with Gil’s Bat Macumba, as perfect a pop song as you could wish for. Fast, funky and fun it fizzes with life. If Gil was the heart of the movement (with Veloso its soul) then Os Mutantes were its jokers. They provide the second song on the album, A Minha Menina. It opens with a manic laugh and then proceeds to mix crazy doo-wop with ominous fuzz-ridden guitars and an insanely catchy chorus.


Veloso is amongst the more conservative artists on the compilation, but with Tropicalia, he shows his more avant-garde side. A rambling percussive opening gives way to Axelrod-like strings. The song continually pauses and the pauses are tense and awkward. And then we get a chorus all jovial and jaunty. Then the strings and the tension return until eventually the two sections come to a rapprochement of sorts.


Tom Ze provided the more outré songs as befitted his interest in atonality and the concrete poets. Not that his songs are dry academic exercises – indeed his songs are defined as much by their sparkling wit as by their keen intelligence. Elsewhere Gal Costa provides the stunning Tuareg and Jorge Ben brings along a swing band for Take It Easy, My Brother Charles. All of the songs here are great: all sound like the best pop song you ever heard.


The movement lasted a single year: 1968. 1968 again - the war years apart, it is without doubt the defining year of the twentieth century. Brazil didn’t escape the turmoil. A military dictatorship since 1964, in ’68 a group of real hardliners began to clamp down even further on individual freedoms. On December 27th 1968 Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested and spent the next two months in solitary confinement. The following year they were exiled, spending the time in London, and were not allowed to return until 1972.


The songs on this album were composed under a dictatorship. Criticism of the generals’ leadership had to be oblique. Wordplay had to be used to get critical songs past the censors. In the short term the artists continued to work (even Gil and Veloso) and to prosper despite these pressures. The dictatorship was finally ended in 1985.


Interest in Tropicalia music was reignited in the late eighties and early nineties largely thanks to David Byrne and his Luaka Bop label. The Beleza Tropical is not strictly speaking a collection of Tropicalia music but all of the main players are there (except Tom Ze) and the music is exceptionally good. Byrne also put out collections of music by Ze (who was, apocryphally perhaps, working on a garage forecourt when Byrne found him) and of Os Mutantes’ music.


This is some of the most glorious music ever written. If you’re unaware of it then you’re in for a treat. And if you’re already a fan it’s worth remembering it when you need to banish the winter blues. You really should be listening to it. 


Words: Chris Dawson