Tropical Truth will fascinate anyone interested in music and politics, and it gives plenty of insights into the Brazilian left along the way. Author Caetano Veloso is a popular Brazilian singer and guitarist who has worked with Giberto Gil for much of his life. Gil has become such an iconic figure for the left that President Luis Da Silva has made him minister of culture in the Workers’ Party government.
Together, Veloso and Gil pioneered a new musical movement in the late 1960s that became known as Tropicalismo. Like punk, Tropicalismo enraged the establishment and turned its leading figures into stars. Like Dylan going electric, it offended most of the musical establishment. It mixed up some Brazilian styles, especially bossa nova, with rhythm and blues, radical poetry and a generally anarchic attitude.
Music has always been important in Brazilian culture – it has been a vehicle for rebellion, but has also been closely tied up with regional and national identity. In the 1960s music shows on TV – often organised by musicians themselves – topped the ratings. During the military dictatorship that seized power in 1964 music became politically supercharged. Tropicalismo became an anti-nationalist scandal as well as a provocation to fans of traditional Brazilian popular music.
A lot of the old left reacted against the new music. They didn’t like the fact that Caetano and Gil were drawing on commercial, US and European influences like the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, or that they dressed in weird clothes and didn’t always make sense.
Record buyers and the dictatorship saw it differently. The first Tropicalismo records were big hits. Veloso and Gil had connected with a deep mood of rebellion among young people. Mainly it was against the dictatorship – but it was also a reaction to the failure of the left to fight back and the folksy nationalism of Brazilian music. Veloso hated the ‘politically clichéd A-list samba with a slick feel… that was reduced to becoming ideological – the defence of the purity of our traditions against all the trash that was for sale’. Tropicalismo aimed at a much deeper rebellion, wide open to the modern world but also trying to subvert it. Veloso wanted to use music to turn Brazil inside out.
In the context of the wave of student revolts around the world in 1968 the government started to panic about Tropicalismo. On 13 December 1968 an internal coup toughened up the regime. Fourteen days later Gil and Veloso were arrested, brutally interrogated for two months and only released on condition that they would leave the country. They did, and spent a pretty miserable few years in a flat in Notting Hill.
They got a heroes’ welcome when they returned to Brazil in 1972, but they continued to provoke. At their homecoming gig Veloso did an ironic take-off of Carmen Miranda with sudden breaks to offer commentary on exile and the absurdity of Brazilian national identity. Veloso was clearly pleased that the gig was an overnight scandal. But in one of the many fascinating asides in the book he admits that the most radical artists struggle to avoid being incorporated. Tropicalismo still inspires, but it has also become a part of the official musical heritage of Brazil.
Tropical Truth highlights a lot of the stereotypes about South American music. It shows how popular culture constantly intersects with politics and how it is not something separate from so called ‘high culture’. It exposes Latin American nationalism and it blows apart any simple opposition between a globalising western culture and Third World folk.
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