Once Upon a Time, Brazil Protested with Psychedelic Rock ’n’ Roll
Jun 27 2013
Os Mutantes and Gilberto Gil circa 1967. Photo courtesy of Iconographia archive
On March 28, 1968, students in Rio de Janeiro began protesting against the high price of food in a student restaurant called the Calabouço. The military regime set up by an earlier coup d'état was in its fourth year of power and President Costa e Silva’s authoritarian rule had begun to take hold. During the protests, a Brazilian teenage student named Edson Luis was shot in the chest at point-blank range by the military police, who showed up to disperse the protesters. In the wake of his death, several antimilitary demonstrations were held across Brazil, the largest being the March of the One Hundred Thousand, which took place in Rio on June 26 of that year.
At the frontlines of the march were artists from the Brazilian intelligentsia, including two young musicians from Bahia in northeast Brazil, named Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who were at the vanguard of Tropicália—a counterculture arts and music movement that emerged in 1967 as a reaction to the dogmatic elitism of the left, the authoritarianism of the military, and the socially oblivious lyricism of bossa nova. Influenced by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but creating an amalgam of rock ’n’ roll and the Brazilian folk of the northeast, Gil and Veloso, along with Tom Zé, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes, came up with a new avant-garde style that was highly inspired by cultural anthropophagy—the "eating" of others' ideas.
The movement only lasted a couple of years before being clamped down on by the military. With the introduction of an extreme decree called Institutional Act Number Five, they jailed Caetano and Gil amid a spree of sentencing and torture directed at thousands of people, including leftists, activists, and students. This brutal era of persecution also targeted then-Marxist rebel and the current president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, who—45 years later—finds herself at the center of a nationwide dissent against inadequate public services, government corruption, and what many believe to be unnecessary expenditure on the forthcoming World Cup and the Olympics.
Tropicália as a movement is now considered to be over, but the idea of it remains. Marcelo Machado, a Brazilian filmmaker who was a teenager during Tropicália’s heyday, pays tribute to this special era in Brazilian culture with his new documentary, Tropicália. I gave him a call to find out more about the movement.
The band Divino Maravilhoso. Photo courtesy of Paulo Salomao
VICE: How’s São Paulo right now? What are your thoughts on the current demonstrations?
Marcelo Machado: The new government hasn’t changed the way politics is managed, and most of the politicians don't really represent the people who elected them. They only care about their own interests and those of the corporations. Social programs created better conditions for the poorest, but I can't agree with a government that spends millions on events that won't really change Brazilians’ lives instead of fighting corruption. We can’t be a real developed country with just bread and a circus.
Sure. Going back a few decades, can we talk about the political climate in which Tropicália was born?
In the 1950s, we had this dream of modernization; we were fighting very strongly to build our democracy—we’re still fighting for a stable democracy in Brazil. President Juscelino Kubitschek [who ruled Brazil from 1956 to 1961] was a very modern man. He was responsible for the construction of the modern capital, Brasília. His successor, Joao Goulart, having leftist ideas, suffered a military coup d'état in 1964. The military was afraid of communism.
However, in the period between 1964 and 1968, they left a bit of room for the opposition in the streets. But in late 1968, they took away all the civil rights, shut down all the protests, and press censorship began. They put people in jail and tortured the "enemies." The dream of modern Brazil suddenly collapsed. My movie documents exactly that period, when the military dictatorship shut off all freedom of opposition.
Edson Luis was killed during this period. What was the significance of that incident?
Edson was protesting against the condition of a students’ restaurant [Calabouço] in Rio when he was shot by a policeman and died in March of 1968. His death and funeral brought thousands of students to the streets in a series of demonstrations that [culminated in] the March of the One Hundred Thousand in Rio, which is considered one of the main reasons for the introduction of AI-5 [Institutional Act Number Five, a military decree overruling the nation’s Constitution].
Os Mutantes performing at Fundação Padre Anchieta, a Brazilian organization for educational radio and television programmes, in 1969.
Do you think there are similarities between the March of the One Hundred Thousand and the ongoing nationwide protests initiated by the Free Fare Movement?
There are some similarities. The protest Edson took part in was about food prices, and now the students are complaining about transport [fares], both demanding better life conditions. And what the students started spread out to different segments of our society. But it's important to remember that 45 years have passed, and Brazil is now a democracy. So the protests are happening in a completely different political environment.
Interestingly, the left wing at the time was against the Tropicalists. Why was that?
Those we could call the “left” were engaged in a political movement against the military dictatorship; they were making music charged with political ideas, with explicitly leftist lyrics. Tropicalists didn’t agree with the traditional left, they didn’t want to do what nationalist and leftist musicians were doing with their lyrics—just talking about poverty and starting a revolution. The Tropicalists’ point of view was more complex; maybe they were inclined more towards the left, but they said, “We need to understand that the world is not just left and right.”
This was a very avant-garde position, if you consider that we’re talking about the 1960s. It was the Cold War era, and there was a dichotomy in the way people understood the world, in terms of left and right. What the tropicalists talked about was really difficult to understand for the Brazilian [people]. When Caetano and Gil were put in jail, even the nationalists and the leftists were surprised because they believed it should be them, not Caetano and Gil. Nowadays, our interpretation is that maybe the military wasn't about [being against] communism, but about being against "counterculture" and people with different attitudes, who could be seen as a threat.
Gilberto Gil and Caetono Veloso (front center) at the March of A Hundred Thousand. Photo courtesy of CPDoc Jornal do Brasil
Can we expand on cultural anthropophagy? It was a major influence on Tropicália, right?
It’s the idea of eating the other—the ideas of the other—to make yourself stronger. The [Tupi] Indians used to eat the Portuguese when they first came to Brazil, to become—as they believed—stronger. The analogy of the cultural anthropophagy was that you can put all the virtues of the foreigners inside you.
To take in all the virtues of others?
Yes. It’s an interesting idea. For example, I'm married to a Chinese woman, so I'm mixing my Brazilian influence with the influence of this strong foreign people, the Chinese. So sometimes I think that, in my life, I’m doing the same [cultural anthropophagy]. Sometimes people tend to think that when the Chinese come to Brazil, with their cheap products, that our industry will be done for because China’s industry is stronger. But I say no; they’re the new influence, the new people we need to mix with to become stronger and try to find ourselves in this new world. This is the idea.
Perhaps this is what the military was scared of?
Oh, yes. It’s one of the things they were really afraid of, for sure.
The trailer for Tropicália.
Can you explain the cultural and economic differences between Bahia, the birthplace of Tropicália, and Rio, the birthplace of bossa nova?
Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Tom Zé are all from the state of Bahia in northeast Brazil, and they met each other in Salvador when they were students. Salvador is the centre of Afro-Brazilian culture; it’s a black city with the heritage of the slaves of Africa. Also in the countryside of Bahia, you have the folk culture of the sertão from the arid regions where the countrymen work in very difficult conditions. Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, is a completely different reality: it’s the paradise—this urban beach, the old capital of colonial Brazil. I’d also like to add a third city to this equation, São Paulo.
In the 1950s, Brazil began to modernize and the car industry was making São Paulo the economic center. In Tropicália, you have these young people from Salvador who went south to Rio and started to see a new Brazil there. Then, during the specific period from 1967 to '69, they came down to São Paulo, where television was starting out and where the car industry was becoming important. So you have the story of people who come down from Bahia to Rio—the place of a smooth, nice life; the place of bossa nova. Then they come down to the neurotic and intense São Paulo.
So I think that Tropicália brings all these different Brazils together, expressing all the contradictions. When they came to São Paulo, they met Os Mutantes, who were pioneers of rock ’n’ roll in Brazil, and they were sensible enough to mix with these young rock ’n’ roll kids, then to say to us, “OK, music from Brazil now needs to have all the influences and the heritage of northeast Brazil, mixed with the influence from abroad.”
Can you tell me a bit about another piece of northeastern heritage—the folk culture of Pernambuco?
After the cane-sugar period, during the colonial era, Pernambuco was looking inward for many years. It combined Catholic and Afro-Brazilian traditions with many rural expressions. The ciranda [circle dances and songs] and the maracatú [heavy drum music and dance] are just two of the genres among them. So Pernambuco was the secret source of many traditions adopted later in Bahia, such as the frevo, another musical genre that influenced the trio elétricos, the music trucks that bring thousands of people to dance first in the streets of Salvador's carnival, then all over Brazil.
Caetano Veloso at the Divino Maravilhoso TV Show (Photo courtesy of Paulo Salomao)
In terms of lyrical content, how was Tropicália different to bossa nova?
There's a very famous bossa nova song with the title, “Love, a Smile, and a Flower.” Everything in bossa nova is romantic and nice—people sing about the sea, the beach, and the young and beautiful girl from Ipanema, you know? In Tropicália songs, you heard about the poor Brazil. Yes, there would be a beautiful beach, but there would be a hungry and poor child there. This was, and still is, a more accurate portrait of Brazil.
Yeah, Caetano Veloso did a parody of "Strawberry Fields Forever" as "Sugar Cane Fields Forever," right?
He was talking about colonization, because the sugar cane represents the old Brazil. First we were the land of the Brazilwood, then gold, then cane sugar, then coffee. At the time of that song, we were beginning to make cars and build Brasilia, a city that expressed our idea of how modern life should be. So when he talked about cane-sugar fields, he talked about the aspects of our culture that were resisting [change]. Brazil has always been based on commodities, even nowadays with meat and soya. Brazil is still struggling to be a modern nation, to have a service industry. But richness is still based on commodities, like the way cane sugar was a commodity at the time. When this old Brazil is done with, we’ll be modern.
Lastly, where do you think these protests will lead?
This is the question that most Brazilians are asking right now. My opinion is that the changes we really need won't come soon. Even though we’re a democratic country now, most of the bad habits that come from our colonization are [still] present in our society. It's a legacy that comes from the Portuguese colonization, which based the economy on slavery—with rules that preserved the privileges of just a few—and a strong Catholic mentality. We won't change the mentality and behavior of five centuries within five years. We’re just starting to walk the first steps, and I'm happy that young people want to go further.
Follow Esra on Twitter: @esragurmen
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