The BLOG: Culture

The history and breakout style of tropicália

Tropicália was a revolution. After a successful coup in 1964 by General Humberto Alencar Castello Branco, Brazil became oppressively traditionalist. A nationalist style of music developed, called Música popular brasileira, or MPB, which drew upon samba and regional Brazilian music. MPB was a direct response to the growing popularity of Bossa nova, another attempt at a national Brazilian genre, but MPB had the direct support of the government through sponsored televised performances. MPB exploded into popularity in 1965 with Elis Regina’s performance of the Brazilian standard “Arrastão” on Festival de Música Popular Brasileira. Tropicália developed as a rejection of this stagnant, old fashioned music.

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil would meet in Rio de Janeiro in 1967 and together they developed a new style of Brazilian music, one that was new and unique, taking influence from Western psychedelic rock and applying that innovation to Brazilian pop music. Together they acted as the driving force of tropicália and were the principle songwriters of the genre’s first, and most influential, release: Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circencis. The title is a reference to the Roman poet Juvenal, who used bread and circuses as an analogy for how the corrupt government kept the people occupied with food and games. Released in July 1968, the album brought together some of the best Brazilian musicians and poets of their time, such as Gal Costa, Tom Zé, Os Mutantes and Torquato Neto, all of whom can be seen on the cover.

Musically, tropicália had much in common with MPB. They both took their rhythm from samba, Bossa nova and older, traditional Brazilian music. But unlike MPB, tropicália also sought to incorporate the sounds of psychedelic rock. Specifically, its unusual time signatures, complex string arrangements, and lyrical honesty.

This strange and modern style threatened the government’s regime, and in 1969, Veloso and Gil were arrested and imprisoned for the political content of their music. They were released after two months, but forced to leave in exile, unable to return for three years. Many of their collaborators, tropicálissmos as they were called, were less fortunate, and suffered for years in Brazilian prisons and were unable to escape the hard scrutiny of the government. Without Veloso and Gil, tropicália splintered, and the musicians, poets and other artists associated with the movement found new styles.

Tropicália made something of a resurgence in the ’80s and ’90s, with the support of notable artists such as Scottish-born David Byrne of the Talking Heads, Seattle’s Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and solo artist Beck. Each has credited tropicália as an influence on their music, and Byrne in particular has made great efforts to introduce new listeners to the genre through his world music label Luaka Bop, which has reissued records from tropicália artists Os Mutantes and Tom Zé.

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee is a former sound engineer for SiriusXM Radio and the former engineering director for WNYU​​, where he presented the radio shows Unknown Pleasures and Throwing Bricks. Teddy Bunker is a writer whose work has been featured in Structo Magazine​, The Harvard Press and the Hofstra Chronicle​. Together, they are The New Noise.