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Bread, Circuses & Brazilian Protest: Tropicalia Reviewed
Jez Smadja , July 2nd, 2013 05:57

Jez Smadja reviews a new documentary about the revolutionary 1960s Brazilian movement and finds parallels with today's events within the country

Tropicalia Ou Panis Et Circensis. The title of that Beatles-inspired concept album, recorded in May 1968 by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes amongst others, could be a slogan for today's protesters. The occupants of pretty much every major city in Brazil, and many minor ones too, from São Paulo to Fortaleza to Manaus in the far north, have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest what at first was a hike in bus fares, but from there metastasized into a whole series of grievances. High on that list is the spiralling cost of corporate mega-circuses like the World Cup the Olympic Games. All this in a country where public services are desperately underfunded, but living costs are almost as high as Europe.

In the context of the recent demonstrations, that 'tropicalist' year of 1968 seems to be all too prescient. When student Edson Luis de Lima Souto was killed by the military police in March 1968, a wave of demonstrations culminated in the Hundred Thousand March in Rio de Janeiro in June of that year. Photos from that demonstration show Tropicalia's ringleaders, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil stood next to other prominent artists of the era like theatre director Renato Borghi and Cinema Novo actor Paulo Autran. Around them fly banners like 'No to Censorship' and 'Stop the Repression'.

Historical parallels are always risky. Brazil then was under the grip of a military dictatorship, while today it is a democracy. But to judge by the recent actions of Brazil's military police, which bear all the hallmarks of the excesses from the 1960s, repression is still a political tool – even if this may not be news to Brazil's favela population or to the Amazon Indians in the north.

An excerpt from Caetano Veloso's autobiography, Tropical Truth, reminds you that despite 30 years of democracy, in Brazil it's still business as usual: "In 1964 the military took power motivated by the need to perpetuate those disparities that have proven to be the only way to make the Brazilian economy work (badly, needless to say) and, in the international arena, to defend the free market." Today's demonstrations are happening against those same currents –deregulated inflows of capital and the disenfranchisement of the masses from the issues affecting their daily lives.

Tropicalia itself never had an explicitly political agenda, even if it emerged out of a charged era in which left-wing factions fought a losing battle against the state's depredations. Like those torrential storms that arrive in Brazil at the tail end of summer, ripping trees from the ground, pulling down electricity pylons and sending mudslides cascading over hillsides, you could say that Tropicalia was born at the meeting of a cold front and a warm front. For the nation's musical landscape, its repercussions were hardly less dramatic.

Politics may not have been Tropicalia's forte, but provocation was, and - like Bob Dylan at Newport, Miles Davis on In A Silent Way, even soul music's uneasy alliance of gospel and the Devil's music - it proceeded to break through musical barriers. When in 1967 bossa nova singer Gilberto Gil came on stage at the televised TV Record festival backed by Os Mutantes with their Beatles haircuts and home-made electric guitars, it was seen as a crime against the 'purity' of Brazilian music.

Camps, tribes – call them what you will – are nothing if not political. They have as much to do with how their members see their place in society as any musical differences, a fact that was brazenly apparent in Brazil under the military dictatorship. In the red corner was MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) which grew out of bossa nova. A distinctly Brazilian sound preferred by university students and sophisticates that gave rise to politically engaged artists like Chico Buarque and virtuosos like Elis Regina. In the blue corner was the Jovem Guarda (Young Guard), spearheaded by Roberto Carlos, with their rock & roll rebellion modelled on the music of the United States, UK and, as it happens, Italy.

The Tropicalists, whose inner circle hailed from Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, took an axe to these old divisions, invoking Oswald de Andrade's 1928 'Cannibalist Manifesto'. Referencing the customs of Amazonian tribes, Andrade wrote of Brazil's need to "cannibalise the foreign, in order to eliminate its threat while incorporating its power." In Caetano's words, "Tropicalia was a bit shocking. We came up with new things that involved electric guitars, violent poetry, bad taste, traditional Brazilian music mass, low-class successful music, kitsch, tango, Caribbean things, rock and roll and also our avant-garde, so-called serious music."

The high-water mark was that album, Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis, a collaborative effort from the Bahian group – Caetano, Gil, as well as Tom Zé, Gal Gosta and Torquato Neto – in tandem with the young pretenders from São Paulo, Os Mutantes and avant-garde composer/arranger Rogerio Duprat. There's also a guest appearance by bossa nova's muse, Nara Leão, on 'Lindonéia', a song about a painting of a young girl who died aged 18. Gil and Caetano make no secret about the fact that the album was heavily indebted to Sgt Pepper, released a year earlier, and the album revels in its experimental approach to recording, full of home-made sound effects and theatrical flourishes. Yet it also contained messages, to those who could decipher them, about what was happening in the country.

In 2012, an official sounding documentary called Tropicalia was released in cinemas in Brazil. Directed by Marcelo Marchado, it manages to fit a pretty complex history into 80 minutes, with plenty of unseen footage from the nation's TV vaults and national archives, and squeeze in appearances by almost everyone who had any connection with the movement (it's interesting that Tropicalia is always described as a movement – not how you'd describe synth wave, or jungle). It follows its evolution out of the experimental schools of the 1960s like Cinema Nova and the Teatro Oficina and how its artists crash landed on the national stage at televised MPB 'festivals' – not a million miles away from the Pop Idol style talent shows of today.

The documentary is a pacy romp through 60s Brazilian counterculture, and newcomers to the subject could lose their bearings amongst the flow of information – the BBC's 2007 Tropicalia Revolution is a more straightforward, if slightly stiff account. Where Tropicalia succeeds is through its reams of footage, which capture the energy and effervescence of the period that gave birth to a string of magnificent solo albums from Caetano, Gal, Gil and Os Mutantes, in a short but explosive blaze of creativity.

So as not to interrupt the flow of images, most of the interviews are in voice-over, with the exception of a bravura scene with Tom Zé. When occasionally the footage does run out – some was destroyed by the military dictatorship, some of it in the fires that periodically engulfed Brazil's big TV studios in the 1960s – Tropicalia cuts to photos with lysergic splashes of colour over the top.

Crucially, the film is also the story of a traumatic era in Brazilian history. With their long hair, Haight Ashbury garb, and growingly confrontational stance, the freedom that the musicians advocated onstage was soon identified as a threat to the regime. Caetano and Gil were jailed without charge for four months, before leaving for the UK. The final third of the film shows the artists in Technicolor 70s London, doing capoeira in the street, and at the Isle of Wight Festival where the announcer explains that they're here because "politics hasn't allowed them to do their own thing in Brazil."

The history lesson is timely, as, just like in the 1960s, Brazil is again prey to conservative forces – in its music, its television and monopolistic media, in its politics (it elected a homophobic minister as President of the Commission for Human Rights) and, worryingly, in stigmatised race relations. Among all the people taking to the streets, you wonder where are the artists who are brave enough to provide a radical break with the past, to go beyond left and right, and to dispense with that age-old merry-go-round of bread and circuses. Out of all the noise and all the slogans, the disinformation and obfuscation, we still need voices to make sense of these times.

Tropicalia is showing in selected cinemas from the 7th of July