Printer Friendly

It's forbidden to forbid.

"Voces estao entendendo nada, nada absolutamente nada!" For Caetano Veloso the students at the 1968 International Music Festival in Sao Paulo just weren't getting it, they understood absolutely nothing about his music. Clad in plastic clothes, electric cords wrapped around his neck, swiveling his hips, shaking his long, Medusa-like hair, Caetano's outburst came in the middle of his highly provocative song, "E Proibido Proibir" (It's Forbidden to Forbid), which was inspired by a slogan of the May student uprisings in Paris. Caetano had appropriated the term to drive home a point about creative freedom to a public which was unwilling to accept electric guitars, rock'n'roll-influenced songs, or any other elements of Anglo-American youth culture.

Twenty-five years later Caetano remembers: "The students reacted against what we were doing because it wasn't within the behavioral limits of the left-wing composer of popular music. I knew it was going to cause a scandal. I knew they were going to react badly. To be sincere I provoked them. It was a happening." Caetano's diatribe against the young audience was perhaps the most celebrated spontaneous "happening" in the Brazilian cultural scene of 1968 and has been quoted often in the years since. The impromptu speech reached a crescendo backed by the atonal, almost punk strains of Os Mutantes, an avant-rock band from Sao Paulo, as the crowd booed wildly and threw garbage on the stage: "If you're the same in politics as you are in aesthetics, we're done for!"

These were dangerous times in Brazil. The "revolution" which had installed a right-wing military regime was four years old. The symbolic passeatas (protest marches) against the regime were giving way to urban guerilla warfare. In December, 1968, the government of President Arthur da Costa e Silva responded by declaring the Institutional Act V which established a rigorous censorship of the arts and media. The decree was followed by the mass detention of left-wing student leaders, labor organizers, and of course, outspoken, high-profile artists such as Caetano Veloso and his partner, Gilberto Gil, who were promptly arrested and later sent packing to London.

Until their exile, Caetano and Gil were at the center of a cultural movement dubbed by the media as Tropicalismo. In the mid-1960s they had joined forces with a handfull of co-conspirators from their home state of Bahia, including Tom Ze, Gal Costa and Jose Carlos Capinam, and descended upon Sao Paulo. There they hooked up with the Os Mutantes and the vanguard erudite composers Rogerio Duprat and Julio Medaglia. The young Bahians also made contact with the inventors of Concrete Poetry, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, who would become their intellectual mentors and principle defenders in the Brazilian press.

The Tropicalistas' peculiar mixture of national genres from bossa nova to baiao with rock, tango, rumba, and bolero revitalized and forever transformed popular Brazilian music. Ironically, their most virulent critics were left-wing students, artists and critics who rejected any real or perceived capitulation to cultural imports. Following the military coup of 1964, the jazzy sounds of bossa nova, pioneered by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Joao Gilberto in the late-1950s, fell out of favor with the politically engaged urban youth who preferred acoustic protest music. Brazilian protest music was an extension of a larger cultural movement organized by a network of Centros Populares de Cultura or CPC (Peoples Centers of Culture) which sought to mobilize workers and students through "revolutionary and consequential" art. Although the fledgling military regime put an end to the CPCs, the protest culture flourished.

At the other end of the pop music spectrum was the Jovem Guarda, or Young Guard, which achieved massive success with their Brazilianized rock diddies. Roberto Carlos, today a huge star of romantic music, was the undisputed king of what was popularly known as "ie-ie-ie" music, presumably named after those delirious refrains of the early Beatles. Students on the front lines of the protest movement branded the Jovem Guarda as "alienated."

The Tropicalistas exploded the facile dialectic between engajada and alienada popular music. Their lyrics were socially-conscious and provocative, but they also experimented with the electrifying rock sounds that emanated from England and the United States. One particularly ingenious song by Gilberto Gil and poet Torquato Neto, "Geleia Geral" (General Jelly), reconciles rock with traditional Brazilian popular culture, signified by the northeastern dance Bumba-meu-Boi (Buck my Bull): "It's Bumba-ie-ie-Boi, the year to come, the month that passed. It's Bumba-ie-ie-ie, it's the same old dance, my bull." Their attitude was vale tudo, or anything goes, and the result was an eclectic potpourri. The young Bahians had entered the "global village."

While the protests singers adopted a defensive posture toward foreign culture, the Tropicalistas practiced what Caetano calls "aggressive nationalism," in which they assimilated parallel advances in pop music without sacrificing originality and authenticity. Caetano explains: "We listened to Jimi Hendrix and were fascinated with his creativity, we heard James Brown and loved his energy, we heard the Beatles with their happiness and lightness and we were happy that all this existed. We were alive and young and wanted to be happy too and create new things. We didn't feel humiliated or artistically offended by all of this, we felt stimulated."

The practice of absorbing foreign culture has a long history in Brazilian popular culture and was first theorized by the literary vanguard of Sao Paulo in the 1920s. Caetano elaborates: "We took the example of cultural cannibalism, created in 1922 by the Modernists, especially Oswald de Andrade, who had invented this idea that you devour everything that comes from anywhere in the world and digest it however you like in order to produce something new." The revisitation of cultural cannibalism enabled the Tropicalistas to assimilate new information as critical subjects, not as passive receptors and imitators. For the young musicians from the impoverished rural northeast, cultural cannibalism was a way to assimilate their experience in Brazil's industrial capital. Tom Ze remembers: "In Sao Paulo we were always dealing with things we had to cannibalize. For us, either we practiced cannibalism or remained in the world of oral communication."

Tropicalismo became known as a musical movement which set the course for Brazilian popular music, or MPB, from that time on. A closer look at this loosely defined--and ephemeral--movement reveals deep connections with vanguard artists working with different mediums. Indeed, the namesake of Caetano Veloso's 1968 musical manifesto, "Tropicalia," was appropriated directly from a powerful work by visual artist Helio Oiticica. This piece will make its U.S. debut, October in 1993 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

In the late 1950s Oiticica's work with concrete Mondrianesque painting led to innovative monochrome constructions suspended in space called Relevos Espaciais (Relief Spatials). He moved further away from conventional art in 1964 when he created the first parangoles, a series of capes and multi-layered garments intended to be worn by the public. The parangoles transformed the status of the observer from mere spectator to active participant. Oiticica writes: "The work requires direct corporal participation; besides covering the body, it requires that it moves, that it dances." The movement of the garment through space, often accompanied by music (i.e. samba) becomes the work of art itself. The traditional concept of the sacred art object, contemplated from a respectful distance, is completely negated.

The parangoles were extremely controversial when they were first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro. The Museum's curators barred entry to Oiticica's friends who had been invited to demonstrate the pieces. According to Luciano Figueiredo, director of the Projeto Helio Oiticica in Rio, technical problems remain despite the creation of copies based on the original garments. "Still today there are problems with parangoles. Institutions do not know how to show them. Museums are hesitant to let people use them." Figueiredo went so far as to propose sending a few Brazilians along with the traveling exhibit to show the parangoles and to inspire what Oiticica called participacao ambiental.

"Tropicalia" represented the next step in the participative art of Helio Oiticica. The work was first shown in the 1967 exhibit "Nova Objetividade Brasileira" at Rio's Museum of Modern Art. As the name suggests, the artists involved sought to defy the two--dimensional limits of canvas and "objectivize" their ideas in three dimensional form. Oiticica's work was inspired profoundly by his experience living in the favela (shanty-town) of Mangueira, home to Rio's most famous samba school. He became fascinated with the "organic architecture" of the favelas, the unfinished constructions and the vacant lots.

The work consists of two structures, called penetraveis, made of wood and brightly colored printed fabric, which are somewhat reminiscent of favela shanties. Well-worn dirt paths and tropical plants circle the penetraveis. To the side, live parrots flutter about in a huge cage. On the inside of one penetravel hangs a plastic bag filled with dirt next to the inscription "purity is a myth." The main penetravel invites the spectator/participant into a dark, labyrinthine passage. Figueiredo relates the experience: "As you enter further, you begin to lose the exterior images, the plants, the printed cloth, the parrots, and you arrive in the dark and enter into a brutalist state. You are devoured by the images of a TV." For Helio Oiticica, it was simply "the most cannibalistic work of Brazilian art."

The use of such a ubiquitous symbol of mass information and communication juxtaposed with the shanty-like structures, the almost folkloric parrots and tropical plants underlines the vanguard's preoccupation with modernization in a developing country where gaps between modern and archaic, rich and poor create stark contrasts. These contradictions were constantly exposed by the Brazilian vanguard of the late 1960s.

Caetano's musical take on "Tropicalia" is a carnivalesque view of the planned city of Brasilia, at that time a city identified with the military regime. Like Oiticica's installation, the song mixes images of sophistication and progress with anachronism and poverty: Bossa Nova and mud huts, a fabulous monument made of paper-mache and silver and a smiling dead child, and finally the Young Guard and Carmen Miranda. For Caetano, Carmen Miranda's appearance at the end of the song was like Andy Warhol's painting of that famous domestic icon, the Campbell's soup can. It was an affectionate, ironic wink at a cultural icon which had transformed into a symbol of Brazilian kitsch following her debut in the United States. Miranda was an embarrassment to Caetano's generation, a symptom of the lopsided U.S./Brazilian cultural exchange in which anything Brazilian was vulgarized and stereotyped. "We were known outside of Brazil through a distorted figure because the Hollywood productions create things that work for them," remarks Caetano. "Carmen became a little bit of this monument of "Tropicalia', somewhat of a monster."

In many ways Caetano and his group shared more in common with the Pop Art of the U.S. than with "Nova Objetividade Brasileira." Like the Pop artists, Caetano revelled in taking a banal object, one that is culturally repulsive, and dislocating it from its context. "At this point you begin to understand the object, you show the beauty that is has, the tragedy of its relation with people . . . and you begin to love it." If on one hand Caetano's song was a parodic gesture, it was one of love and affection, too. As Oswald de Andrade's two word poem goes: "Amor: Humor."

The revisitation of Oswald de Andrade was not confined to popular music. At the same time, Brazilian theater was undergoing radical transformations led by Jose Celso Martinez Correa and the Teatro Oficina. In 1967, Oficina staged O Rei da Vela (The Candle King), a bitter satire of the Sao Paulo bourgeoisie written by Oswald in 1933. The play addressed economic and cultural dependency, issues which were as relevant as ever thirty-five years later.

Jose Celso's production of O Rei da Vela was akin to Caetano's aggressive provocations during the annual music festivals. Both artists identified with the leftist anti-regime movement, but they also demanded artistic freedom to explore new forms of invention. The Teatro Oficina sought to mobilize the public, not through traditional populist stagings, but rather by shocking provocation. While other groups attempted to forge a common bond between the actors and the audience, Oficina created division and antagonism in order to provoke crisis. The actors created a circus-like atmosphere, throwing in references to contemporary low-brow culture and engaging in direct verbal attacks on unsuspecting spectators. This was "guerilla theater" at its best. In the late 1960s Oficina productions were constantly at the center of scandal and debate in Rio and Sao Paulo. If on one hand the group drew criticism from the traditional Marxist left for its radical anarchism, they also provoked the ire of pro-regime reactionaries. Caetano later remarked that his music could be divided into two periods: before and after seeing Oficina's O Rei da Vela.

Perhaps no other area of cultural production in Brazil developed more during the 1960s than cinema. To begin, it had a longer way to go. In the late 1950s a brief attempt to create a national industry on par with the extremely popular imports from Hollywood had failed. Brazilian cinema had to be built from the ground up. It was within this context that a group of young filmmakers forged a movement later named Cinema Novo, or New Cinema.

Glauber Rocha, perhaps the most important figure of Cinema Novo, attempted to define its ethic in his 1965 essay, "An Aesthetic of Hunger": "Wherever there is a filmmaker ready to place his cinema and his profession at the service of the important causes of his time, there will be a seed of Cinema Novo." Cinema Novo rejected grandiose, Hollywood-style production in favor of "decolonized" cinema which addressed the problems and contradictions of the Third World. All that was needed was a filmmaker with "an idea in his head and a camera in his hand."

The early films of Glauber Rocha evidence a strong affinity with the cultural politics of the CPCs. His 1964 production Deus e Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil) was a stunning portrayal of rural violence and revolt in the impoverished Brazilian sertao (backlands). The film is based on the history of the defiant Canudos religious community, destroyed and dispersed by federal troops in 1896, and the marauding cangaceiros, who roamed the sertao in the early twentieth century. It was Glauber's radical response to the classic American western.

In 1967 Glauber Rocha produced Terra em Transe (Land in Trance), a film which evidences a certain disillusionment with the left-wing populism. It would have a profound impact on the Tropicalista generation. The film deals with the corrupt and violent politics of an imaginary Latin American country, Eldorado, with its mixture of authoritarianism, cheap populism and revolutionary romanticism. The main protagonist, poet/politician Paulo Martins, is a militant for popular causes who resorts to repressive measures against the people after taking power. Glauber brilliantly portrays the limitations and contradictions of the bourgeois intellectual who harbors romantic revolutionary notions but feels threatened by social upheaval.

Terra em Transe was an expression of crisis among the left-wing intelligentsia of Brazil which had lost contact with the masses following the 1964 coup. Paulo Martins, a "literary leftist" who believes in the revolutionary power of words, experiences a crisis of conscience when he is confronted with the reality of power relations. Disillusioned after his political experience, he concludes at the end of the film that "politics and poetry are too much for one man alone."

The Tropicalista experience came to an end at a time of mass protest, political violence and the ever-increasing repression of political and cultural activity by the military regime, culminating with the Institutional Act V. As a musical movement, it had already been destroyed when its creators staged a funeral for Tropicalismo on their own TV program "Divino Maravilhoso," a final gesture to avoid the development of banal imitations. Caetano, Gil, Jose Celso, Helio Oiticica and Glauber Rocha all spent time in exile during the 1970s.

Like other countries which experienced profound cultural transformations during this period, Brazil has begun to historicize the late 1960s. Tropicalismo has entered the realm of myth. Last year, a major TV network aired a mini-series entitled "Anos Rebeldes" (Rebel Years) about the dramas of this generation. The theme song to the program was "Alegria, Alegria" (Happiness, Happiness) Caetano Veloso's hit song of 1967. Though not a protest song, it became the anthem as Brazilians took to the streets calling for the impeachment of then-President Fernando Collor in 1992.

Gilberto Gil aptly summarizes the tremendous impact of this movement: "Tropicalismo opened the doors to all influences, it had a democratic attitude towards culture. It helped to reaffirm the popular culture of the streets, and influenced the reafricanization of Brazilian culture." In fact, two famous institutions of Afro-Brazilian popular culture, the Bloco Afro Olodum of Salvador, Bahia, and the Escola de Samba Manguiera of Rio de Janeiro will pay homage to Tropicalismo in the 1994 carnival. Caetano and Gil have commemorated the movement which launched their careers with a joint album, Tropicalia 2, featuring virtually all new material.

Today, the Tropicalista experience continues to influence all areas of Brazilian culture, yet it has resisted all formalisms. "I think that its lesson was more in the architecture than in the imitation of the work," remarks Tom Ze. You can't imitate the things of Tropicalismo, they have already been buried." For Luciano Figueiredo, Helio Oiticica had a similar impact on Brazilian arts: "Brazilian artists conceptually owe a lot to Helio, without realizing it. It's not the formal aspects, but the structural ones which influence artists today. Helio had deeper effects on the sensorial, perceptive field."

Helio Oiticica, like Glauber Rocha, Jose Celso Martinez Correa and the Tropicalista musicians, defied categories and political orthodoxies. They challenged Brazilians "to see with free eyes," as expressed by Oswald de Andrade in his Manifesto Pau-Brasil of 1924. Forty-four years later, at the height of the military dictatorship, this was indeed a revolutionary message.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:the impact of the 1960's art movement Tropicalismo on Brazilian culture
Author:Dunn, Christopher
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Crosscurrents to the mainland.
Next Article:Tropicalia revisited.

Related Articles
Nara Leao, Brazil's poetess of modern song.
Tom Ze: the conscience of Brazil's tropicalismo.
Tropicalia revisited.
Raw meal.
Black Dance in Toronto.
Capoeira: from self-defense to self expression.
Samba! The city of Bern is pulsing to a new kind of rhythm, thanks to dancer/choreographer/all-round-performer Regina Ribeiro, co-founder of the...
Gilberto Gil: setting the stage for the state.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters