Culture from the global south is often presented as traditional, insular and non political. Brazilian popular culture in particular is still packaged in the exotic cliches of the Girl from Ipanema and the Rio Carnival. Tropicalia blows away these stereotypes.
The Tropicalia movement was a counter-cultural explosion that spread to theatre, cinema and fine art but was detonated by musicians. Their mix of rock and roots music dominated the Brazilian scene for two years until leading figures Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested, imprisoned and exiled to Britain in 1969.
Ironically Tropicalia launched Gil and Veloso as the biggest names on the Brazilian music scene for the next 20 years. Gilberto Gil is now the minister of culture in the Lula government.
Tropicalia was a moment when subversive, experimental culture went mainstream. Its leading figures were responding to massive stresses in Brazlian society.
When they were growing up in the 1950s, Brazil was going through a period of growth, relative prosperity and democracy. General Motors built its first car plant in the country and Elvis Presley was on the radio. A new capital, Brasilia, was designed from scratch by the modernist Oscar Niemeyer.
These were the years when the cool, optimistic bossa nova sound first appeared, strongly influenced by jazz from the west coast of the US.
Popular music, which has deep roots in Brazilian society, became factionalised. Some artists influenced by the growth of the left started looking back to Afro-Brazilian music not “suffocated by the tentacles of General Motors, Esso, Coca Cola, Metro Goldwyn Meyer and other giant US corporations”.
On 1 April 1964 generals organised a coup to head off growing radicalisation. The country was under military rule for the next 20 years.
Tropicalia, named after an artist’s recreation of a favela (shanty town) shack, was a chaotic response to all this. Its leading figures defied the dictatorship. They joined demonstrations against arbitrary arrests and one of the reasons they used so much guitar feedback was to disguise criticism of the dictatorship.
But they were also controversial on the left. While Gil and Caetano, and their retinue referenced the Afro samba influences they brought from their native Bahia in the north east of Brazil, like Bob Dylan they also rejected the folk ethic dominant on the left.
They felt left wing folk nationalism had failed and they gloried in global influences, from beat poetry and experimental cinema to the Beatles. As they were being booed by left wing students they taunted them back for not acting against the dictatorship.
As the dictatorship became more severe, their stage shows and TV appearances became wilder and wilder. After a series of state killings, Veloso sang an old samba song on TV while pointing a gun to his head. They were looking for trouble and they got it. A judge who came to one of their shows had it closed down, and soon after they were arrested and imprisoned.
The Barbican in London is putting on a two month festival showcasing the Tropicalia rebellion, its influences and its legacy. Though light on social context, the main exhibition is full of art that’s both accessible and challenging. Rare shows by orginal Tropicalia singers Tom Zé and Gal Costa will be fascinating, and the contemporary Afro Reggae night promises to be explosive.
The cinema season has many highlights, including films by left wing experimental director Glauber Rocha.
The accompanying Soul Jazz compilation gives a taste of the real chaotic history of Latin music.
Tropicalia, Barbican Centre, London, EC2. Until 22 May, £8/£6 online, www.barbican.org.uk
Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution In Sound out now on Soul Jazz records