Feeding Grapes to Cannibals: Tropicália and the Evolution of Pop

An amplified barrage of noise fills the air. The crowd prepares to hurl grapes, tomatoes and wads of paper at the source of the racket: three long haired, foreign looking teenagers clad in surreal-looking plastic outfits and brandishing electric guitars. A direct hit could send untamed locks flailing, maybe toppling a ridiculously tall and pointy witch’s hat. The crowd’s tormentors smile defiantly amid the succulent hail. Then, turning their backs on the crowd, they mockingly increase the sonic assault.

The time was 1968, and Os Mutantes – the psychedelic rock face of the controversial arts movement, Tropicália — were about to crash out of the Brazilian National Festival of Song. Meanwhile, Brazil’s military junta was hardening into a fully-fledged dictatorship; president Castelo Branco (tightly clamped jaw, impervious eyebrows) had been replaced by the army general Artur de Costa e Silva (the Brazilian Vito Corleone), a man who didn’t take kindly to being musically flipped off by kids wearing shiny capes. By next year’s festival electric guitars would be banned and Tropicália snuffed out, its key protagonists, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, imprisoned without charge for two months, then deported. Why all the hooha?

The Brazilian music industry had long been wary of foreign pop. Even the introduction of bossa nova in the mid-‘50s caused a nationalistic uproar. The style, which would come to epitomise Brazilian music, artfully blended Samba rhythms with the unusual harmonic progressions of jazz. Radio audiences across Rio were enthralled; the intelligentsia were outraged. Critics claimed jazz had sullied samba — the very essence of Brazilian musical identity — with its dissonance and atonality. The writer José Ramos Tinhorão condemned bossa nova as ‘a kind of soft and amorphous acoustic pap’.

Adding insult to injury, the catalyst for samba’s evolution — the glamorous, crystal-clear jazz being pumped out over Brazil’s major cities by US radio stations — was a painful reminder of Western technical superiority and economic encroachment. For much of the 20th century, Brazilians found foreign music simultaneously seductive and repellent.

Fighting to preserve Brazilian pop’s roots, the esteemed composer Heitor Villa-Lobos lobbied music industry bigwigs, implicitly suggesting that ‘foreigners who did not like samba should be exiled.’ The radio announcer known only as Almirante (“The Admiral”) used his hugely popular show, O Pessoal da Velha Guarda (The Gang of the Old Guard), as a platform for his xenophobic rants. Cackling on air, The Admiral would defame Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra while rhapsodising over the Brazilian wine industry. Introducing his program as uma audiçã brasileiríssima (“An extremely Brazilian broadcast”), The Admiral would select records from his own folktastically vast collection. He loved the old-timey Rio style of choro and, in a particularly patriotic moment, announced that Brazilians venturing outside the motherland should at all times proudly whistle the famous choro composition, “Carinhoso”.

With the ‘60s came a new threat to authentic Brazilian pop: a full-scale Anglo-American rock ‘n’ roll invasion. Records by Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis Presley and Little Richard became immensely popular, and rock ‘n’ roll culture came to be perceived as the epitome of youth and modernity. Hundreds of Brazilian beat groups with names like The Pops and The Brazilian Bitles (sic) sprang up in the middle class suburbs of São Paulo and the beach communities of Bahia. This Brazilian articulation of rock ‘n’ roll, sneeringly branded iê-iê-iê (“yeah yeah yeah”), was criticised from both ends of the political spectrum as shallow and Americanised.

Os Mutantes

To make matters worse, the connection between guitar-slinging youths and anti-social behaviour was rapidly crystallizing. The notorious rock ‘n’ roll rebellion flick “Blackboard Jungle” was screened soon after it incited teddy boys to riot and rip up seats in British cinemas. The copycat rockers were now condemned as substance abusers and un-talented “delinquents”.

In a fiery tirade, bossa nova legend Elis Regina branded iê-iê-iê “a drug: it deforms the minds of young people.” Sniffing paydirt, record companies and television networks drummed up a “war” between the lovers of bossa nova and iê-iê-iê. Anti-electric guitar protest marches were organised, and concerts came to resemble political protests. The arena of Brazilian pop had turned into a cultural battlefield bristling with placards that shouted: “Down with Old Power”, and “Beatles Go Home!”

Tropicalism represented the avant-garde hinterland of iê-iê-iê. Thematically, the tropicalists bounded away from the beaches of idyllic safety, entering a surreal jungle filled with voodoo spells, Western comic book characters, and “big white plastic fingers” bursting through the sky. In Veloso’s “Alegria Alegria” (“Pleasure Pleasure”), the narrator finds himself lost in a forest of foreign and Brazilian signs: an alienating mosaic of spaceships, presidents, love, flags, bombs, Brigitte Bardot and coca cola. The influence of James Joyce and concrete poetry was tangible, too, on Veloso and Gil’s “Macumba”, which chewed up lyrical conventional and spat out an expanding and contracting stream of poetic fragments.

Likewise, formal structure went out the window. Songs would fade into the sound of baying crowds; outtakes and laughter managed to find their way onto final cuts; Os Mutantes would simply let their songs descend into psychedelic cacophony, rhythm sections falling away to be replaced by theremin solos and carefree wails. The sight of singer Rita Lee smiling as she lovingly caresses the theremin, an enormous transparent crown balanced on her head, is still bizarre today. The part ecstatic, part horrified audiences jiggled up and down, whistled, and threw missiles.

Central to the tropicalist aesthetic was “Cultural Cannibalism”, an idea borrowed from the modernist poet Oswald de Andrade. In Andrade’s famous Manifesto antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto, 1928), a caustically amusing collection of poetic snippets regarding Brazilian culture’s struggle for autonomy, the poet urged local artists to devour native and foreign cultures in order to produce a new and unique cultural identity. In his famous aphorism “Tupi or not tupi, that is the question,” not only did Andrade pithily chew over Shakespeare while encapsulating Brazil’s identity crisis, he also referenced the Tupinamba, an indigenous Brazilian tribe made famous for enthusiastically chowing down on white invaders in order to harness their powers.

And so the tropicalists ate. They ate string quartets and Penny Lane horn solos, war marches and Ezra Pound, Stockhausen and Finnegans Wake. Their mission wasn’t to imitate; it was to devour, to digest and to regurgitate an all-conquering collage, an anti-nationalist manifesto. By confronting listeners with the icon of the cannibal they were converting taboo to totem, wittily playing with the post-colonialist stereotype of a primitive, culturally isolated Brazil.

Tropicália proved that pop is a dream-machine. It permanently widened the public’s perception of “authentic” Brazilian music, and closed the gap between pop music and “high-art”. The movement stands as a testament to the futility of attempting to manipulate pop’s evolutionary line. It didn’t matter that the music was critically panned, or that it was stifled, or that the musicians were pelted with fruit; the tropicalists only needed enough time to trace the contours of tomorrow before the politicians twigged, before words were found to quell it.

Richard Greenan studied Politics at Keele University, England, and is coming to the end of an M.A. in Music, Culture and Politics at Cardiff University in Wales. In between he lived in London and Bellingham, WA. He likes writing about music and nationalism, and value judgements in pop culture. Richard will soon be relocating to Austin, TX, where he plans to watch obscure bands and stroke his beard.