The Brazilian music toppling dictatorships

(Credits: Far Out / Picryl / Wikimedia)


It is March 2022, and under the late summer sun in São Paulo, Brazil, the annual Lollapalooza Festival is beset by a strange atmosphere. The usual carnivalesque ways of a country renowned from afar for its Copacabana celebrations are actually subdued in a surreal spirit of fortitude, fear, festivities and caution. Brazil has been here before. Back then, musical trailblazers like the defiant Caetano Veloso illuminated the way towards a peaceful sense of equitable progression.

In March, it was clear that his resilient legacy of liberation was set to continue as an emerging musician called Marina cried out to the masses in attendance, “Fuck Bolsonaro. Fuck him. We are sick of this energy.” This rallying cry came in response to the former leader’s attempt to legally ban any political discourse being espoused by the performing artists. 

Since then, Jair Bolsonaro has been toppled in the democratic elections in October. He subsequently made accusations of election fraud. And Brazil is now reeling from the riots that his allegations resulted in. But in the calming streets today, an order of normality is resuming, and a symbol for that is the sound of Bossa Nova stars piping down from apartment windows and booming out of cars like benevolent birdsong of restoring solidarity.

Among the sounds of new artists like Emicida and Pabllo Vittar is one eternal voice of expressive hope in Brazil, a voice that has proved inviolable to all the torturous impeachments upon it belonging to the smiley star: Caetano Veloso. 55 years ago, his voice rang out in similarly troubled times in an ever-singular Brazil. Back then, in 1968, this counterculture Christ figure was arrested for ‘desvirilizante’. This antiquated term essentially meant that Veloso was failing to display the macho virility expected of a man by flirting with the androgyny of shoulder-length hair and a dress sense deemed flamboyant by the suited status quo.  

However, the authorities were not just interested in his attire. This handsome hippy strummer was starting a movement that the stuffy bourgeoisie really feared. Tropicalismo was Veloso’s brainchild. Essentially it was an expansion of the mainstream by virtue of assimilation. In other words, Veloso looked to bring together the mainstay of pop with the weirdness of avant-garde exploration, the timelessness of traditional tunes with the cutting edge of emergent rock ‘n’ roll, the freedom of individualism and a sense of artistic unity. In essence, the movement was as close to a symbol of empathetic solidarity among the disparate columns of Brazilian society as an artistic metaphor can get. 

The tribal rhythms of drums and chants combined with traditional tunes and the aesthetics of psychedelia. However, this idea stretched beyond the mere music that Veloso and his friends were making. It entered the world of film, theatre and poetry. By and large, it entered society. Tropicalismo clubs were popping up a legion of folks who identified with it were joining in. Simply put, it became clear to the authorities that these trailblazers of a “tropical paradise” were not exactly the sorts that were in favour of the military dictatorship. 

At the heart of this band of unruly souls rejecting the divergent nationalism of the time were Veloso’s musical cohorts Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé and the poet Torquato Neto. In July 1968, they released the album Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis. It is both the manifesto of the Tropicalismo movement and one of the greatest albums ever produced by Brazil, resplendent with a cover that paid tribute to the western triumph of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s. This was a pungent confluence when it comes to societal impact. The powers that be figured that something had to be done. 

In February 1969, Veloso and Gil were imprisoned for three months. They shaved their long hair at gunpoint. Placed them under a further four months of house arrest. And finally agreed that they could be free… provided they got the hell out of Brazil. They spent the next few years in exile. And for what? Well, as Veloso opines, “they didn’t imprison us for any song or any particular thing that we said,” they just didn’t know what to do with them so they thought “we might as well put them in prison.” This quandary didn’t get any easier when it was time to release them either. 

The Tropicalismo movement was a puzzle. In truth, it had provoked both sides. The student left disavowed its use of western influences and took to the streets in marches saying “down with electric guitars” while the right was also damn sure that a long-haired gyrator singing about Brigitte Bardot was bad news for them too. However, on both sides the cause for concern was obscure—and that in itself highlighted the problem. When you can’t even put your finger on what exactly Veloso was doing wrong other than the fact that it didn’t fit tidily within your ideology then by condemning you’re ultimately exposing the limits of your own fixed beliefs in the face of a joyous emancipation with the simple central tenet of delivering the populace to the wider spice of life and incorporating a sense of communal peace. 

Ultimately, this would win out. While its two stars might have been exiled and Tropicalismo ostensibly disbanded, its influence was already being felt and that was all it had to achieve to shift things just a shade towards making Brazil symbolically sunnier. The smiling musician has continued in this vein ever since. While the musicology of today’s stars like Emicida might have moved on, the very fact that he is a rapper mixing hip hop with traditional rhythms and chanting “Bolsonaro get stuffed” at Lollapalooza is a sign that Veloso’s legacy lives on. 

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