“Brazil is not for beginners.” Caetano Veloso had his tongue only halfway in his cheek in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times when he quoted this observation by fellow musician Antônio Carlos Jobim to describe their motherland.
Precisely 50 years ago, Veloso and his close friend, revolutionary comrade and musical collaborator Gilberto Gil learned that truth the brutal way. It was 1969 and the two young men were both 22 years old. Five years earlier, the Brazilian armed forces had seized power in a coup d’état and imposed a military dictatorship, usurping civil rights and targeting the poor.
The global, flower-powered youth uprising of the late 1960s also echoed in repressive Brazil. Gil and Veloso were on the frontline of the psychedelic countercultural revolution there, leading the avant-garde tropicália or tropicalismo movement. “Like bossa nova before it, tropicália grew out of the work of a group of like-minded musicians who knew each other well and collaborated often,” wrote Chris May on the Vinyl Factory website. “But whereas bossa nova celebrated sun, sea and romance in the years immediately before the 1964 coup, tropicália reflected the darker realities of life which followed it.”
In 1968, Gil and Veloso released their album, Tropicàlia: ou Panis et Circencis. It became the movement’s musical manifesto and attracted the junta’s attention, even though the songs weren’t strictly political. But the paranoid military “considered them dangerous because of the potentially revolutionary charge they carried”, wrote Graziano Scaldaferri on the Culture Trip website.
Alex Robinson aptly described the radical tropicália in an article on Gil for Songlines magazine as “a movement for cultural democracy”.
“We said to ourselves – let’s do something new, make a new kind of music and use songs to talk about fresh things,” Gil said. “We decided to bring everything together – traditional Brazilian musical forms like samba and baião, the new pop and rock from outside Brazil and classical music. And we wanted to include more than music too – mixing in the day-to-day cultural reality of working and rural Brazil, mixing in politics and social issues.”
Some lyrics alluded to works by the founder of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade, and the Brazilian Noigandres concrete poets.
Tropicalismo is still influential to this day.
“We saw tropicalismo as a universal sound, one that brought together music from all around the world, broke down conventions,” Gil told The Independent newspaper. “What offended the generals was our refusal to make music that could be used to support their nationalistic policies.”
In February 1969, the regime arrested writers, painters and musicians – Gil and Veloso among them – because they posed a “threat to good order”. The two friends spent three months in a Rio de Janeiro military prison and another four under house arrest. They were freed on the condition that they left the country. Gil and Veloso went into exile in London. They were relatively fortunate as other musicians were tortured in jail and a few “disappeared”.
They were never charged, but according to what Gil told Wired magazine, their captors made it clear why they’d been singled out: because they represented “a threat, something new, something that can’t quite be understood, something that doesn’t fit into any of the clear compartments of existing cultural practices, and that won’t do”.
Gil recorded the vocal and guitar tracks for Gilberto Gil (Cérebro Eletrónico) during his house arrest in the city of Salvador. He got the idea for Aquele Abraço, the invigorating centrepiece on the album, his third, on his last day before leaving Rio. It is a farewell song about the places and people he would miss while in exile. Translated as That Hug, the song became a massive hit and had an extended stay at the top of the hit parade.
Hello, Rio de Janeiro
All Brazilian people
Gil said the song was his way of capturing the joy and happiness he had seen on the streets. “My intention was really, very simply, to give an embrace to the people of Rio … It was a song of encountering, not leaving.”
In 1972, Gil was allowed back into Brazil, where his music career continued. The military regime fell in 1985, and Gil became involved in local and regional assemblies. In 2003, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva appointed Gil as Brazil’s minister of culture, a post he filled for five years.
As minister of culture, Gil focused on increasing opportunities for the poorest to both enjoy and create culture. Among his achievements was increasing state expenditure on the arts by more than 40%. He set up 5 000 Pontos de Cultura, or cultural centres, throughout Brazil, which brought the internet and multimedia tools to the country’s favelas for the first time, according to Robinson. Gil’s initiatives helped spread samba schools, capoeira and baile funk around the globe. Despite Lula’s pleas, he decided to resume his music career in 2008.
Lula governed as leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party from 2003 to 2010. During his two terms in office, an estimated 30 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty.
Lula was recently released after spending 18 months in prison on charges of corruption. But it has become clear that the trial against him was manipulated. Still, Brazil remains under the firm control of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who has cultivated an “extremely authoritarian and militant atmosphere”, as political philosopher Vladimir Safatle told the broadcaster Deutsche Welle. Safatle says that “the extent of state violence against blacks, the poor and favela residents is shocking; this year alone, some 1 800 people were killed by the police”.
A certain by-product of authoritarian creep is censorship. Theatre troupe The Clowns of Shakespeare found that out a few weeks ago, during its second performance of Abrazo, which means “hug” in Portuguese. The show, aimed at children, tells the story of a fictitious dictatorship where citizens are prohibited from hugging others. The troupe was only able to perform the opening act for its young audience before government officials shut the production down.
The clowns were allegedly in breach of contract, Associated Press (AP) reported. They made the mistake of talking politics with the audience during the first show, a major taboo in Bolsonaro’s Brazil if your production receives public funding.
Abrazo is among a list of plays, conferences and other artistic projects that have been cancelled abruptly since Bolsonaro took office on 1 January, according to the AP report. An outspoken Christian and an army captain during the military dictatorship between 1964 and 1985, Bolsonaro has with his political inner circle taken the fight to what they term “cultural Marxism”.
“We’re not going to persecute anyone, but Brazil’s changing,” said the president in a recent speech. “With public money, we won’t see certain types of works. That’s not censorship. That’s preserving Christian values, treating your youth with respect, recognising families.”
As the International Relations Insider newsletter at New York University remarked, censorship is not unfamiliar to Brazilians. During the junta days, Institutional Act No. 5 imposed military rule across the country. The government legalised censorship and prohibited political demonstrations – that of course included a clampdown on the arts and culture.
The shutting down of the clowns’ “hugging” show has eerie echoes of what happened to the counterculture of people like Gil and Veloso 50 years ago. Also, one can’t help a wry, uneasy wince at the irony – Gil’s song, Aquele Abraço, the one that really annoyed the junta, also dealt with hugging. Yes, Brazil is still not for beginners.