"You're Sort of Illegible, And That Won't Do"

Tropicalismo and Gilberto Gil

By Julian Dibbell


(From a profile published in Spin, March 1989)

This story could begin in 1554, when the Bishop Sardinha set foot on the shore of Brazil, bearing the gospel of Christ and charged with the catechization of the heathen natives. The local Indians welcomed this emissary of European civilization and, hoping to get the most out of the wonderful new culture he brought, ate him.

Then again, the story could as easily begin in 1928, when the avant-garde poet Oswald de Andrade went looking for an ideal model of Brazilian cultural practices for yet another of his manifestos, and settled on the anonymous consumers of Bishop Sardinha.

But letís begin in 1968, when the Brazilian avant-garde pop stars who led tropicalismo, probably the most intellectually self-conscious movement in pop music history, went looking for yet another cultural hero to define themselves with, and settled on Oswald de Andrade.

"We went though a lot of effort towards making understood in Brazil the necessity of cultivating foreign habits in art and music," says Gilberto Gil, who, along with Caetano Veloso, formed the nucleus of tropicalismo, "towards making understood that this foreign thing was no longer a mere submission to the forces of economic imperialism, but also a cannibalistic response of swallowing what they gave us, processing it and making something new and different. We saw the cultivating of new habits and manners from the outside as a way of nourishing ourselves, not just intoxicating ourselves."

Their nourishment, their Bishop Sardinha, was rock music, principally the Beatles. For Gil and Veloso, then bossa nova-style musicians increasingly frustrated by what they saw as an imagination drought on the Brazilian music scene, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the same thing it was for everybody else in the world: a license for pop artiness on an unprecedented scale, and they took off with it like the license might expire any minute. They started writing songs that mixed rock instruments and arrangements with traditional Brazilian styles, both urban and rural, and writing lyrics that used cinematic montage techniques to capture the chaotic feel of Brazil's haphazard modernization. Veloso grew his hair out. Gil got a dashiki. But if the tropicalistas saw the electric guitar as a sign of modernity, for the leftist nationalists who dominated the music milieu it signified a sell-out to Brazil's recently installed military dictatorship and the US interests the generals were seen to serve. Their affair with rock got the tropicalistas caught up in a fierce debate that turned Gil off to conventional ideas of nationalism once and for all.

"I have no interest in defining my music as Brazilian," he says now. "I lost interest in that many years ago. Never even had any, perhaps. You could define it as Brazilian in terms of a real Brazil, not an ideal Brazil. An immense country, of various realities, various social conditions superimposed. A computerized Brazil, a high-tech Brazil, a cosmopolitan Brazil. A rural primitive poor Brazil, a Brazil of favelas [shantytowns], a Kingston Brazil, a Lagos Brazil, a New York Brazil, a Paris Brazil. But so: A New York Brazil? A Paris Brazil? A Nigeria Brazil? Well then it isn't Brazil any more. But at the same time it is Brazil. So there can't be a just-Brazil Brazil. In order for there to be a just-Brazil Brazil there has to be a non-Brazil Brazil."

Which of course makes Gil a non-nationalist nationalist, if you follow. But 1968 in Brazil was not an auspicious time for these sorts of paradoxes. The clarity of dictatorship reigned: you were either for or against. Everybody was busy picking sides, and the tropicalistas just wanted to turn categories inside out.

"We invested a lot in the idea of getting political expectations away from that left/right dichotomy. And also of getting music and the arts out of a kind of isolation they were subject to, a tactical isolation that society enforced, saying they were to remain in a place where they wouldn't interfere in the customs, the life, of society; where they wouldn't acquire transformative powers. And we thought no, the modern world needed a new perspective."

But of all the barriers the tropicalistas sought to break through, perhaps the hardest were those that separated high-, middle- and low-brow culture from one another. Their well-publicized list of heroes was a screaming affront to the going standards of good taste, including such reputable figures as Oswald de Andrade and João Gilberto (the creator of bossa nova) alongside the likes of Roberto Carlos, an extremely popular rock 'n' roller inspired by Elvis's Blue Hawaii days, and Chacrinha, a TV personality whose weekly variety show made "Let's Make a Deal" look like "The Macneil/Lehrer News Hour." Gil and Veloso sometimes referred to Chacrinha as the true founder of tropicalismo.

Their love of mass-mediated "trash," along with their skepticism towards cultural nationalism, hardly endeared the tropicalistas to the leftist intellectuals who might otherwise have been their natural allies (right up into his tropicalista phase Gil wrote songs explicitly critical of Brazilian capitalist exploitation). But the only reason the left's criticism of them was more vocal than the right's was that criticism was the only line of attack open to the left. The worst the radicals could do was boo their concerts; the generals, though, could always throw them in jail. Finally, as part of a sweeping crackdown on opponents in late 1968, they did just that.

Gil and Veloso spent two months in prison, then four months confined to their home town of Salvador, and then they were "invited" by the government to leave the country. They spent three years in exile in London. No formal charges were ever brought against them, but according to Gil, the dictatorship's complaints about tropicalismo were made clear enough:

"It was anarchism. It was subversion in disguise. It was a social infection of troubling consequences for youth. Those were the reasons they gave. 'You represent a threat, something new, something that can't quite be understood, something that doesn't fit into any of the well-defined compartments of existing cultural practices. You're sort of illegible, and that won't do, that is dangerous.' "