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What Is And How Did the Brazilian Tropicália Movement Begin?

Discover tropicália's influence on music, cinema, architecture, and design, and how it changed Brazilian style

Brazil, 1967. The country is under full military dictatorship. As a result, cultural identity in such a diverse place as Brazil is drifting, almost at a loss. While Bossa Nova and the Jovem Guarda are the ruling forms of expression and are considered mainstream, they do not reflect the sentiment and artistic expression of a large part of the younger generation.

This is the context in which tropicália was conceived, with its innovative songwriting, new sound, and a big desire to create a new Brazilian identity. Tropicália, also known as tropicalism, or tropicalist movement, as we know it, was inspired by modernist poet Oswald de Andrade who published the Manifiesto Antropofágico (Anthropophagic Manifesto), in 1928.

To Oswald, the term anthropophagy, despite relating to cannibalism, meant "to feed off foreign culture" and referred to a number of ideas that would help shape something uniquely Brazilian. What is foreign and international must not be ignored but rather transformed into something new and incorporated into the local and thriving culture.

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From left, back: Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Gal Costa. Front: Sérgio Dias, Arnaldo Baptista. (1968)..

Tropicalism borrowed this concept to create a popular movement encompassing rock and roll, psychedelic sounds, Brazilian rhythm, and local artistic expression. This generated a wave of new popular Brazilian music (also known as MBP), a movement that took under its wing anyone who did not feel represented by the cultural production of the time.

In his article , "Anthropophagy and Tropicália - devotion/devouring" [in Portuguese], scholar Júlio Cesar Diniz, a doctor in Brazilian literature, indicated that in reference to its aesthetic, tropicalism highlights the contrasts within the culture of Brazil. "The movement intends to overcome the dichotomy of archaic/modern, national/foreign and elitist culture/mass culture, concepts that had left a mark in the cultural debate of the 1960s."

Inspired by realistic poetry, the song lyrics were innovative in playing with words and imaginative codes, which required a great deal of cultural background to be fully comprehended within a dictatorial setting.

During the third edition of the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira, in 1967, the tropicalist movement took shape with the song "Alegria, Alegria" by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, together with "Domingo no Parque" by Os Mutantes.

In 1968, the album Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis was released worldwide as a manifesto, with songs by artists including Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Nara Leão, Os Mutantes and Tom Zé, lyrics by poets Capinam and Torquato Neto, and arrangements by composer Rogério Duprat. The record is still considered revolutionary and one of the best in the history of Brazilian music, marking a new national identity with unique and innovative artistic expressions.

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Album cover of “Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis.”

It notably included the classics "Tropicália" by Caetano Veloso and "Geléia Geral" by Gilberto Gil and Torquato Neto, considered the manifesto songs of the movement.

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Cover of Caetano Veloso's first album, 1968.

The tropicalist movement intended to scandalize and protest against the conservative attitude of Brazilian music. As a result, the artists began to express themselves using excessive, colorful outfits, wearing their hair long and showing a clear influence from pop art and the counterculture of the times.

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Gilberto Gil's 1968 album cover, created by Rogério Duarte.

According to researcher Ana de Oliveira, the movement made a huge impact on the culture:

"The songs showed a critical and complex image of the country: the union of a traditional and archaic Brazil, a modern Brazil with its mass culture, and even a futuristic Brazil, with astronauts and flying saucers. They provided a sophisticated version of our popular music. They brought principles and themes until then only associated with avant-garde concepts to the fore, through their commercial music."

Despite the progressive character of tropicália, the movement ended up being repressed by the military government of 1968, including the incarceration of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who later spent time in exile in London.

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The album "Grande Liquidação," by Tom Zé, released in 1968.

Its influences, however, were a force to be reckoned with and helped propel an important era throughout the 70s and 80s, in which the music of Brazil and the iconic voices of Gal Costa, Jorge Ben, Jards Macalé, and Tom Zé, created the strong identity that is now a symbol of Brazilian culture.

Gal Costa, who is considered the muse of tropicalism, was also the voice of a post-tropicalist movement with her forceful and melancholic interpretation of her songs. Those were naturally written by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso while in exile.

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"Legal," Gal Costa's album, released in 1970.

Beyond music

The influences of the tropicalist ideology reached out beyond the music scene. Julius Wiedemann, chief curator at Domestika, acknowledges that the Sixties were a decade of transformation for creative disciplines on many levels.

"It was a movement that began in 1967 and ended in 1968 as a libertarian philosophy, whose aim was to modernize Brazil in its ideas. The translation of those ideas, detaching from the intellectual and connecting with the people, had repercussions in many fields. It began with music, under the leadership of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, but was soon transferred to poetry, literature, architecture, and cinema, among others. This moment in time represented a Brazil that was looking inwardly towards Brazil itself," Julius explains.

When speaking about influence, we cannot omit Hélio Oiticica, a performance artist, painter, and sculptor, whose work stood out for its powerful experimentalism.

In 1967, one of his works, Tropicália, was key for inspiring composer Caetano Veloso. Its aesthetic marked the essence and development of the whole cultural movement. The piece Tropicália is a sort of homeless labyrinth that is reminiscent of the architecture of the favelas (shanty towns).

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“Tropicália," by Hélio Oiticica.

According to Julius Wiedemann, the launch of the movement at the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira in 1967 was a trigger that spread the idea of appreciation of the national culture. "The name of the movement, created by the press, was influenced by the Hélio Oiticica's visual artworks. Visual arts, therefore, were an important part of the movement," he says.

However, Domestika's chief curator also highlights the importance of observing the organic way in which tropicália stretched into other areas: "In architecture and interior design, for example, the concept of a cheerful environment was something even Modernism had not thought to incorporate in its aesthetic. The vibrant colors, wood, craftsmanship, indigenous plants, and prints are all elements that come from tropicalism and change our vision of everything we do without losing sight of our potential. Those aspects were quickly extended to literature, cinema, and other artistic expressions."

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Visual artist Hélio Oiticica.

Cinema

In cinema, the movie Terra em Transe (Entranced Earth) (1967), by filmmaker Glauber Rocha, inspired Caetano Veloso to create Tropicália, that in turn will become the movement we know nowadays. Many people claim that the Cinema Novo style, to which Glauber belonged, was a type of tropicalism in its social critique but was detached from it for being difficult to appeal to and be understood by mass audiences.

When asked whether he considered himself part of tropicalism, during an interview for TV Manchete in 1968, he replied:

"What happened with tropicalism is the following: when Terra em Transe was released, no one was speaking about tropicalism, and people were making fun of the film without fully grasping its meaning. Later on, Caetano went to see Terra em Transe and watched it six times, after which he composed this revolutionary song called Tropicália. Film producer Luiz Carlos Barreto, when he heard the music, gave it the name Tropicália. The name stuck. Later, José Celso Martínez wrote a play based on Oswald de Andrade's, O Rei da Vela, (The Candle King) and dedicated it to me. Caetano went crazy for O Rei da Vela and decided to release Tropicália. It was a great success. At the time, I was living in Europe, and when I returned, the movement was in full swing, with its theorists, critics, precursors, and enemies. Tropicalism is the most tropical movement of all. Everything goes. I personally am occupied with other things, but I encourage people to discover tropicalism.[…] Tropicália frees us from European obsession and throws us into the carnival-style panic of our very own Brazil, where bossa coexists with palhoça. Only from an injured conscience can you generate something.”
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“Terra em Transe" (Entranced Earth), by Glauber Rocha, released in 1967.

Cine Marginal Brasileño, which appeared later on, is similar to tropicalist cinema. According to researcher Meire Oliveira Silva, from the University of São Paulo, in her article Tropicalist cinema or the various conjectures on the film Macunaíma (in Portuguese), this genre of cinema is responsible for a new attitude, which takes on the conventionality connected with the high culture propagated by Cinema Novo.

"This marginalization refers to a search to speak to the masses—a goal seldom achieved by Cinema Novo with, for instance, Macunaíma (1969), by Joaquim Pedro de Andrade—and to delve into popular culture, television, revue theater, erotic cinema, vulgarity and filth, and in the Jovem Guarda, that is, in all the taboos avoided by the Brazilian intellectual elite."

Design and architecture

In the world of design, illustrator and designer Rogério Duarte created innumerable album covers with a tropicalist aesthetic, and even the famous poster for Glauber Rocha's movie Deus e o Diabo na terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil).

We must also mention fashion and interior design, where the influence of tropicalism is seen in the vibrant colors, the natural materials, such as wood, the craftsmanship, the plants, and the attractive prints.

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Poster for “Deus e o Diabo na terra do Sol”(Black God, White Devil), created by Rogério Duarte.

In architecture, Lina Bo Bardi, although not being officially part of the movement, embraced the tropicalist concept by designing the Museum of Modern Art of Bahía between 1959 and 1964. Later on, she became director of the same museum and promoted Salvador's cultural life with events that created links between the arts, the state, and the university. Lina's goal was to get rid of the city's "culture of the establishment" by opening the museum's doors to everyone, for free, with support from the university and its students.

As noted in architectural platform Vobi, tropicalism has become a prominent trend in architecture and interior design over the last few years:

"This style never goes out of fashion, and, occasionally, it comes back into vogue among the public, thanks to its typically Brazilian characteristics of cheerful and versatile attitude."

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Caetano Veloso as the subject of one of Hélio Oiticica's pieces, "Parangolés."

When we talk about Tropicália, we refer to the songs of Caetano and Gil, the voice of Gal Costa, and the works that evoke a specific era. Yet, it created an aesthetic and philosophy that still influences the popular Brazilian music (MBP) of the present day and is an undoubtedly timeless movement.

English version by @acesarato

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