Editorial Feature

What is the Tropicália movement?

Discover the artistic and musical revolution that unleashed a generation of rebels

Tropicália is one of the most significant cultural movements in Brazil, encompassing music, film, visual art and theatre. The term Tropicália was first coined by artist Hélio Oiticica, for an artwork of the same name, which he exhibited at MAM Rio in 1967. The piece demonstrated Oiticica’s desire to give contemporary art a specifically Brazilian character. The artist introduced disorder, resourcefulness and communality of lived experience into the artwork, injecting a “Brazilian reality” to subvert the “purity” of European modernism.

Some say Tropicália’s beginnings can be traced back further to 1928, when Brazilian poet and polemicist Oswald de Andrade published the Anthropophagic Manifesto. Taking the form of an essay, Andrade’s main argument was that Brazil’s history of “cannibalizing” (or absorbing and creating something new) from other cultures was its greatest strength. He said by playing on the European, modernist interest in primitivism, cannibalism becomes a way for Brazil to assert itself against European postcolonial cultural domination.

Metaesqueme, Hélio Oiticica (From the collection of MAM, Museu de Arte Modema de São Paulo)

The most iconic line from the Manifesto, which appeared written in English, is: “Tupi or not Tupi: that is the question”. It is both a celebration of the Tupi, who practiced certain forms of ritual cannibalism, and a metaphorical instance of cannibalism in that it “eats” Shakespeare.

The ideas presented in this essay and Oiticica’s introduction of Tropicália to the cultural sphere, helped to inspire a wider cultural and political shift in Brazil, with many adopting a spirit of merging influences to create something unique. A year later in 1968, the sentiment surrounding the Tropicália movement was epitomized by the album, Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis (misspelled Latin for Bread and Circuses). The work was a collaboration album that involved the musicians Caetano Veloso, Gilerto Gil (ex-Minister of Culture, known as the “hacker minister”), Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Nara Leão, Torquato Neto, and Rogério Duprat.

The artists who came together were innovative and fused musical forms. This can be seen in the title track, "Panis et Circenses", written by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, and performed by Os Mutantes. The song was a satire of bourgeois conventions in response to the military rule and the economic liberalization it brought in the mid-1960s. While a rejection of certain aspects of society was popular in Brazilian music, it had never been presented in this way. The melody was sporadic and merged elements of traditional Brazilian song with international rock, and was littered with new instruments and sounds like fanfare horns. Unsurprisingly in 2009, it was voted 7th greatest Brazilian song by the Brazilian edition of Rolling Stone magazine.

Gilberto Gil by David Drew Zingg (From the collection of Instituto Moreira Salles)
Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia (From the collection of Instituto Moreira Salles)

Another song was "Bat Macumba" by Gilberto Gil, in collaboration with Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa. The song is sleek, funky and catchy, with elements of psychedelic rock creeping in. Gil and Veloso were the driving forces behind Tropicália and their music was so radical they even spent time in prison after being deemed a threat by the Brazilian dictatorship.

The album came to be considered to be the defining sound of the Tropicália movement. The artists involved created a new exotic version of pop, being as influenced by psychedelia as it was by samba, bossa nova and more traditional South American genres. Tropicália created musical and cultural anarchy, a revolution in Brazilian sound.

As well as the musicians, the cover art for the album became just as iconic. It featured many of the collaborators and was a tribute to the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and uses bold typography in the Brazilian flag colors. The cover was designed by Rogério Duarte, a graphic designer and musician who eventually became a mentor for the movement and was known for his left-wing militant activities that saw him arrested and tortured.

Caetano Veloso (From the collection of Instituo Moreira Salles)

The political undertones that surrounded Tropicália and Brazil at the time informed the movement. For many, Tropicália embodied the anger, anxieties and desires of the Brazilian left, which, at the time, was struggling under the oppressive rule of CIA-backed military group after it brought down the elected government of President João Goulart.

A motto often used by members of the movement was, “Seja Marginal, Seja Herói” (“Be a delinquent, Be a hero”), a phrase coined by Oiticica. The idea was to shake up the status quo and create something that threatened the establishment.

"Be an Outsider, Be a Hero" by Hélio Oiticica (From the collection of Instituto Vladimir Herzog)

After Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis, music produced during that time was often politically charged. For instance, Caetano Veloso released the song “É proibido proibir” (It’s forbidden to forbid), which became an anti-dictatorship youth anthem in the years to come.

However, despite being connected to the counterculture and against the dictatorship of the country, Tropicália is considered an "alienated group" by the left wing movement of that time, making its lasting impact even more significant.

The movement is not restricted to just music and art, and its influence can be seen in literature with Torquato Neto’s work, cinema through Glauber Rocha, and theater from the work of Zé Celso and Teatro Oficina.

Carmen Miranda stamp (From the collection of Smithsonian's National Postal Museum)

Singer, dancer and actress Carmen Miranda was also a strong influence and is said to be a precursor of the movement. Miranda came to prominence in the 1940s when she starred in a dozen Hollywood-produced movies. She was often dressed in Bahiana-esque costumes with tropical fruit adorning her head. This aesthetic became a stereotyped caricature of Brazil and this image was exploited to the max by Hollywood studios.

Soon she was accused of becoming Americanized by Brazilian intellectuals, but Miranda’s aesthetic grew fashionable again during the Tropicalist movement. As a pop culture icon and with her exaggerated appearance, Miranda wasn’t so much celebrated for her musical importance but rather her links to a stereotyped and “tropical” image of Brazil.

Founding members of Tropicália opened up a new path for contemporary artists to embrace and borrow from other cultures. Its influence has even trickled out of Brazil’s borders, with artists including David Byrne, Beck, Devendra Banhart and Nelly having cited the movement as having an impact on their work.

Tropicália took multiculturalism to a new level and people within the movement turned it into a new form of culture that could be heard, seen and felt. While the movement was short-lived in Brazil, the enduring legacy of Tropicália continues to inspire today.

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