· Tradition Tropical Tradition · Translation Tropical Translation · Betrayal Tropical Betrayal ·

50 years after the Tropicália movement that reshaped the culture of Brazil, André Sztutman and Lucas Rehnman contextualize the movement and reflect on its impact to sketch out the tropicalist legacy today.

Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis: disco de lanzamiento del movimiento Tropicalista, con Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Nara Leao, Tom Zé, Os Mutanres, Capinam, Torquato Neto y Rogério Duprat (1968).

Tropicalia is an exaggeration.
All the cultural, political, and historical complexity of a country like Brazil, condensed into an uncontainable will; a convergence of bodies and thoughts; our cultural and regional roots that hydrate the postmodern underground; friction before the mystery of Latin American identity, steeped in racism, indigenous genocide, and festivity; all the lines that limn a national self-consciousness, at once magical and tragic, as part of a carnivalizing poetics; the promise of the future, rent by the exigencies of being in the present; the experience and (almost clandestine) connection between erotic and political forces. Above all, there are so many who constructed what we call Tropicália that writing about it now implies committing injustices. That’s why we’re apologizing in advance to those that were left out of this essay.
In historical terms, 2017 represents the fiftieth anniversary of Tropicália, which can be understood both as an avant-garde movement and a cultural revolution, in the dual sense of cultural modalities (i.e., music, film, theatre, the visual arts, etc.) and as customs, inclinations, and behaviors. José Celso Martínez Corrêa says it was a revolution—here in the Global South—that presaged France’s famed May ’68. [1]
In the New World, the nation that was once called “the country of the future”—the one where so many utopian promises, desires, and hopes had been bandied about—offered an atlas for new ways of being, even though it was submerged into a dystopian, adverse reality.
Let’s contextualize 1967 and perform a brief reading on the tropicalista legacy in today’s Brazil. How to think, articulate, critique, learn, and benefit from its experience? How do we consider Tropicália in light of the current, increasingly conservative political scenario?
Tropicália is a reflection of pop culture and consumerist societies on the global periphery. But it goes beyond that; it includes behaviors, attitudes, as well as anthropophagic and subversive proposals. It was the South that needed to manifest itself before an attack from the North, to nuance the imperialism, hoping as well to infect the invader. Cordial and venomous, Tropicália took on tropical stereotypes ironically, while always honoring popular culture as a source of energy, where paying homage means positioning yourself historically and meta-linguistically.
Something like that was already contained in the Jackson do Pandeiro song that became famous in 1959:
I’ll only put bebop into my samba
When Uncle Sam picks up the tabor
When he picks up the tambourine and the zabumba When he gets that samba isn’t rhumba
These dialectical sparks in specific frictions between North and South, hillside and asphalt, the erudite and the popular, Otário and Malandro, [2] order and chaos, work and idleness were starting bonfires of senseless beauty.
As the brilliant, Curitiba-born, post-tropicalista-punk-erudite poet and biographer Paulo Leminski cogently points out, it was perhaps the black, late-nineteenth-century symbolist poet Cruz e Souza who first coined the term tropicalismo, in a period that saw slavery and the transition from empire to republic “amid springtime tropicalismos under bloody suns .”[4]
Recall that Brazil—the last nation to abolish slavery, in 1888—considered samba criminal vagrancy until 1930, and any Africanist protest was subject to police repression.[5] In the 1920s, therefore, resistance was organized among Rio hillside communities in the form of the first samba schools. The music penetrated all societal segments starting in the 1930s, reaching radio, theater, and television, and propagated from mouth to ear, often recounting its own history using humor and its self-awareness as a living language.
Such is the case with the ironic radio hit, Para Que discutir com Madame by Janet de Almeida, later recorded by João Gilberto:
We’ll get rid of the samba
Madame doesn’t like anybody samba-ing
She never stops saying loathsome samba
Why even argue with Madame?
Therefore, the movement known as Música popular brasileira (MPB)— that counts samba as a definitive source and positions itself at the epicenter of the founding of tropicalismo—was already “highly activated to set up a counter-discourse in opposition to the repressive order.” [6]
Synthesis is abstraction, like Malevich’s black square, that final extract of the latent geometry in Russian icons. Bossa nova emerges as a synthesis: a samba school in five guitar finger chords. João Gilberto (the antisocial genius whose voluntary reclusiveness seems perfectly in line with his extreme sensitivity when it comes to sound) revolutionized music and singing, reduced and condensed it into a minimum-maximum or a maximum-minimum.
Every tropicalista affirms that bossa nova was the big revolution in their lives. Caetano Veloso situates the “Leblon Hermit” at the highest artistic level: “João is the only thing better than silence.”[7] The mystery, however, lies in the fact that this poetics of less has been such a determinant cultural event, so resoundingly capable of framing Brazilian identity. How did a man who insisted above all in disappearing become a nation’s biggest cultural icon? (Because that is what João Gilberto is.)[8]
Silence is an important component in the melos (μέλος) of maland-ragem (i.e., the tunes of the malandro “punk” or “badass”). Whatever the malandro utters cannot be translated to deaf ears. There is also a certain superstition (or wisdom) that states that certain things—projects, wishes, intentions—should not be iterated so they can come to pass without interference or extraneous noise. As O Canto Ossanha[9] rues, the man who says “I’ll give” doesn’t give because people who give don’t talk about it. In other words, be it before you say it.
Silence lends the malandro his ideal position. There, he listens to everything attentively, he’s alert and at the same time, out of sight. It’s a strategic position, a struggle for survival, play, dialogue, conversation, negotiation. Above all there is play with life’s signature impiety, before which speaking or acting frivolously can bring on grave consequences. The ludic flirts with the fatal at all times. Silence, above all, is a space without which nothing can be heard.
In 1968, antidemocratic and authoritarian measures intensified with the notorious law known as Institutional Act No. 5 (acronym in Portuguese: AI-5) which institutionalized censorship and torture in Brazil by suspending all constitutional guarantees.
Torture can be seen as an institutional procedure against silence. And the torturer is always deaf. Therefore silence inflicted by means of censorship might not rightly be called silence. That said…
Tropicalista music cannot be read as a revolt in relation to bossa nova. That said, the adoption of electric guitar, noise, samples and sound collages, atonal arrangements, pastiche, references and quotations was nonetheless a disruption of everything that had been produced before. But that break came not only in music, but also in every artistic segment that above all managed to efface the borders between it and the others.
The exhibition entitled Nova Objetividade Brasileira at Rio de Janeiro’s Museo de Arte Moderno featured work by Anna Maria Maiolino, Antonio Manuel, Carlos Vergara, Ferreira Gullar, Carlos Zilio, Geraldo de Barros, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Rubens Gerchman, and Waldemar Cordero, to name just a few, and naturally in addition to Helio Oiticica and Tropicália, an installation environment the artist conceived that made use of a Brazil-cliché “stage set”—palm trees, parrots, and pre- cariously placed screens (which Oiticica called “penetrables”), print tablecloths used as curtains for the screens, dirt-roads alluding to Rio hillside slums, and a mysterious, unnerving television tuned to a channel broadcasting nothing but an uninterrupted, black-and-white noise, all spatially organized like a maze through which audiences wandered.
Caetano gave the name of Helio’s installation to one of his most emblematic songs. Later, after attending a performance of O Rei da Vela, a long-forgotten theatrical work by modernist Oswald de Andrade,[11] revived that year by José Celso Martínez Corrêa and staged at the Teatro Oficina, he felt an enormous affinity for what they had been doing in different artistic realms.[12]
The earth trembled. Glauber Rocha had finished Terra em Transe, a critique of the regime’s hegemonic power that called for dissent. The film was briefly censored but soon thereafter received permission to be shown, leading to a major impact in the artistic community.
What these artists shared, in an epistemological sense, was a will to undertake critical research into national identity: the entry barrier to knowing oneself is to de-colonialize oneself. The confluence and fortuitous encounters between personalities and their contributions were the organic background that allowed Tropicália to gain the strength and weight of a cultural movement. And all of it some three of four years out from the US-financed military coup and in the paranoid context of the Cold War—right at the end of that contradictory decade in which a never-before-experienced idea of youth flourished; the decade of rock and roll; the decade of fears of nuclear threat, of the Vietnam War and military coups in Latin America; of the hippie movement, of alternative therapies and LSD; the sexual revolution, feminism and the Black Panthers.

Nildo da Mangueira viste Parangolé P15 Capa 11 “Incorporo a Revolta” (1967) por Hélio Oiticia.

Ligia Clark.

Oiticica goes up into the hills and discovers a way to revitalize sterile, modern art that has disconnected from the common man—to which Klee had laid claim decades before—discovering the Escola de Samba Estação Primeira da Mangueira whose vitality both in- spires13 and overwhelms him.
Oiticica and Lygia Clark become neo-concretists,[14] i.e., artists who broke with the exacerbated rationalism of the concrete-predicated visual arts and sought out a participative dimension, who considered the body’s immersion into the artwork and went beyond traditional supports (like painting, sculpture, and design) while articulating their art in terms of propositions, environments, and events, with an acceptance of the ephemeral, in defiance of museums and the white cube. Clark precedes Oiticica with her interest in tactile participation and becomes a major influence on Helio’s thinking. His research radicalizes toward a clinical/therapeutic outlook. [15]
In 1964, Oiticica developed his parangolés, proposals in which the artwork existed only if its participant donned its capes and layers (according to his instructions) and activated them through movement. It was artwork no longer as object but rather as the proponent-participant-object relationship, color in movement through participation. Oiticica was highly committed to his work’s own theorization, which took its “object” to be “overcoming the object as the end of aesthetic expression”:
“It’s pointless to want to look for a new aestheticism of the object, or limit yourself to “discoveries” and pseudo-advanced novelties through artworks and proposals. […] What still matters is the proposals’ internal structures. […] All that experience into which art flows, the problem of freedom itself, of the expansion of individual consciousness, the return to myth, rediscovery of the body, the senses, what we’re ultimately left with as a weapon for direct, perceptive, participatory knowledge, brings on an immediate reaction from conformists of every stripe, since it—experience—is freedom from the prejudices of social conditioning to which individuals are subject. Therefore the position is revolutionary in every sense of action. Don’t be naïve—we’ll be labeled as crazies at all times; that is part of the reactionary model. […] All that will be left of art past is what can be understood as direct emotion, what manages to move individuals from their oppressive conditioning, lending them a new dimension that finds an answer in its actions.” [16]

Grabado de Theodore de Bry, 1592. Ilustración de el libro Verdadera Historia y Descripción de un País de Salvajes Desnudos de Hans Staden, soldado y marinero alemán.

With his epiphanic outlook on anthropophagy, 1928 saw Oswald de Andrade choose the cannibalistic ritual common to a number of Brazilian indigenous cultures as the exemplary image of attitudes to otherness and what it gives rise to. Let’s devour one another and leave it there, incorporated into it in our own way. In his Manifesto Antropófago, Oswald poetically organizes the imperatives that guided artists like Heitor Villa-Lobos, Anita Malfatti, and Flávio de Carvalho.
The anthropophagous experience would be revived forty years later by the tropicalistas (with assistance from the concrete poets) as an ostensible protocol or strategy for aesthetic, ethical, and political agency. For Tropicália, devouring, chewing, and swallowing US pop culture, sucking the bones to get at the marrow, feeding on psychedelic rock, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles, was instinctively Oswaldian. Scarf down the Nouvelle Vague. Munch on Brecht, Artaud, Joyce, Ezra Pound, Cage, and Mayakovsky. Eat jazz in the Beco das Garrafas, chomp down on Broadway at the entrance to the dump. Eat Cartesian Mondrian in wavy Copacabana. Eat Andy Warhol, Fluxus, or Kaos itself.
“In the infinitive” by Haroldo de Campos:
“To assimilate the foreign experience into the Brazilian species and reinvent it in our terms, with inevitable local qualities that would lend the resultant product an autonomous character and that would confer upon it the possi- bility of functioning as an international product at the same time.” [17]
The anthropophagous gesture seeks to multiply and intensify relationships and to secure a position beyond the village itself. To be here as well as elsewhere. To do as much, you’ve got to immerse yourself into the hazardous arena of otherness. In the first-person plural. We identify with the alien, with the enemy. Sometimes we even lose any ability to distinguish ourselves from the Other. But by taking on a bit of the Other, we renew our own singularity.
The anthropophagous gesture lends agency to alliances, but it is worth remembering that good relations also imply proper distance. In an increasingly homogenized world—where the (aesthetic and ethical) values of a certain North American nation are validated all over the world, cast up by an enormous apparatus in service of consumerism—we can affirm that otherness brings with it the danger of losing the ego in the Other, of being dominated by the Other, possessed by the enemy’s spirit. Yet fearing that hazard, looking for asepsis when it comes to the Other could invite consequences that are even more terrible than that possession: xenophobia, hate crimes, and other monsters that are sadly too common these days.
All is dangerous, all is divine, marvelous
Attention: You need to be alert and strong, we have no time to fear death.[18]

Waly Salomao con rostro pintado por Helio Oiticica. Fotografía por Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

Tropicália’s legacy in Brazil is enormous. In music, its songs condensed a variety of genres and hybrid influences to such a degree that the generic category of MPB defines little or practically nothing of what it could really be. It could be said something very similar happened with jazz (that includes work as disparate as that of Sinatra and Ornette Colleman), as well as with rock and roll (an abyss separates Elvis and the Velvet Underground, for instance) or even contemporary art. It is clearly a crisis of categorizing devices of which Tropicália is not the sole driving force.
Such a crisis should be celebrated. It is the very terrain of the freedoms which gener- ations in the 60s and 70s struggled to secure. Today, fifty years after those explosions, we’re living a critical moment. The sexual revolution of the 1960s didn’t prevent feminicide numbers from going up, for example, and the dismantling of customs and social structures like sexism, homophobia, and racism still faces powerful opposition from institutions like evangelical churches.
It’s not a bad thing that they’re selling “Tropicália.” It’s good, because whoever eats it eats forbidden fruit.
Oiticica in Balança da Cultura Brasileira 1968.
MPB undertook the achievement of producing a culture that went be- yond the high-low distinction[19] and transmitted it through mainstream channels—the mass media that so often repels quality and opts for more conservative criteria. Utopian but not ideological, the tropicalistas worked with powerful production houses run on foreign capital and appeared at major festivals broadcasted on television, garnering them ferocious criticism from leftist youth.
Today, however, the alliance with mass media seems to be losing strength. The most resounding artistic manifestations and artworks that are heirs to Tropicália’s moment are presented almost always under independent circumstances. This is the case with Teatro Oficina, which has fought for justice for almost thirty years against the owner of SBT television network, Silvio Santos, trying to prevent the company from building an enormous shopping mall next to a theater, designed by Lina Bo Bardi and declared a national historic site. The conflict per se makes evident the di- vergence of interests separating a television network from a theater whose language and ideas are revolutionary, orgiastic, Dionysian, and tropicalista.
Another example is Tom Zé’s two most recent records, Tropicália Lixo Lógico and Vira Lata na Via Láctea. These two artworks, produced independently, commit to thinking about the tropicalistas’ question in depth. In addition to presenting a polyphonic, non-linear multi-narra- tive about Tropicália on these recordings, Tom Zé also undertakes a somewhat clandestine operation by connecting new musical names like Criolo, O Terno, and Trupe Chá de Boldo to canonical figures like Milton Nascimento and Caetano Veloso.
A persistent interest in the performative is the most obvious aspect of Oiticica and Clark’s legacy in visual arts currently being produced. What’s more, the tropicalista experience situates performance as a means of endowing agency to anthropophagous protocols as well as de-colonialization strategies.

Jorge Raka, Fall from the Flag, 2014. Video 01:12 min.

Dalton Paula, Implantar Amanú, video 10', 2016.

Two examples include Jorge Raka’s Fall from the Flag, and Implantar Amanú by Dalton Paula. Raka, a Peruvian, has hanged an enormous US flag in an Alaskan city at risk of being arrested and deported. His gesture recalls videos by Bas Jan Ader, the Hanged Man in a tarot deck, and other hangings (KKK lynchings, or Saddam Hussein’s hanging, televised live across the world, a caterpillar’s cocoon, and finally Oiticica’s Seja Marginal Seja Herói flag). A confrontational gesture and a connection to the nation of empire.
Dalton de Paula plants a stalk of guiné—an herb known as amansa- señor that slaves formerly used to poison their torturers and that is used as a protective herb in the Candomblé tradition—blindfolded in front of Cuba’s seventeenth-century La Cabaña Fort, an erstwhile prison, now a museum. He also repeatedly grinds down ceramics and adds the dust to a planted field. The ritual symbolically activates this Remedy/Poison; i.e., performs an update to the symbol of resistance in the artist’s body.
In either case a desire to be perforated is felt, a desire to transverse a body, an identity, and pull out a renovating image—of oneself or one’s context.

Tropicália, more than offering up an image of folklorized underdevelopment (as many wrongly interpret it), provides us with a creative space for de-colonizing poetics, bodies, and identities.

It celebrated and lent expression to the Latin American queer at a time when this was far from the standard (for example, in the case of the groups Secos e Molhados and Dzi Croquettes), informing a performance of its own potential as language. To date, Tropicália feeds an interest for de-conditioning experiences in artistic practices not just in Brazil, but throughout the world.
The consolidation (or institutional assimilation) of trans-individual strategies moves through the Brazilian context and can be related to the tropicalista legacy, but above all it is a global consequence of which the nation forms part. As tropicalista composer, writer, and thinker Jorge Mautner states, anthropophagy, in fact, is no longer Brazil’s exclusive property. It is a thought, a potential that can empower us in relation to facing contemporary problems.


  1. “Glauber ya preveía, ¿verdad? Que la Tierra temblaría en
    “Glauber saw it coming, right? That the World would shudder in ’68. And it shook. […] All that cultural revolution in Brazil, back in ’67, that came before its worldwide, planetary manifesta- tion, that exploded in France, all over Europe, in China, Berkeley, everywhere. But the World shook first right here.” José Celso at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aQjprQ-fRHU).

  2. [Spanish-language translator’s notes: “hillside/asphalt” (morro/asfalto) is a popular way to speak of favela/city. Otário/ Malandro, in samba street poetics, are opposites. Otário is a pejorative way to speak of someone who lacks street smarts.

  3. Music by Gilberto Gil and Wally Salomão. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMoKBqy5HU4

  4. From Cruz e Souza’s 1893 poem, “Tintas Marinhas.”

  5. Even today in 2017, we’ve seen a small faction in society try to criminalize funk carioca, and dancing to it in favelas, in a reactionary and symptomatic desire to repeat the very worst of the past, another example of recent actions on the part of an exceedingly confused sector that has called for a new “military intervention” like the one in 1964.

  6. José Miguel Wisnik lo apunta en O Minuto e o Milênio.

  7. Canção Pra Niguém, music by Caetano Veloso (available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icWyjPdyOmM).

  8. Lorenzo Mammì, as published in Folha magazine (available at http://www1.folha.uol.com.br/fsp/ilustrissima/ il1007201107.htm)

  9. Music by Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes.

  10. Statement by Hélio Oiticica in O que faço é Música, a 1979 text.

  11. Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) was an important figure from Brazilian modernism. He was a poet, playwright, philosopher (see, for instance, 1950’s A Crise da Filosofia Messiânica), as well as the author of 1928’s seminal Manifesto Antropófago.

  12. “I had just written ‘Tropicália’ when O Rei da Vela premiered. Seeing that play was a revelation to me that a movement was taking place in Brazil, a movement that went beyond the realm of popular music.” Caetano Veloso in his book Antropofagia.

  13. “My experience as a marcher with the Mangueira is fundamental because I’ll always remember this: everyone creates their samba by improvising, in their own way and not following models; the people who do it by following models don’t know what samba is.” Hélio Oiticica in an interview with Mário Barata published in the Jornal do Commercio in 1967.

  14. 1959’s Manifesto Neoconcreto. Clark and Gullar invited Oiticica to join the group soon afterwards.

  15. See Suely Rolnik’s psychoanalytic text, Lygia Clark y el hibri- do arte/clinica, (available at http://caosmose.net/suelyrolnik/ pdf/Artecli.pdf )

  16. Hélio Oiticica, Aspiro ao grande labirinto (Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1986), 104-105.

  17. Caetano Veloso, Antropofagia, 54.

  18. Verses from “Divino Maravilhoso,” a song composed by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, performed by Gal Costa.

  19. Arrangements by Rogério Duprat and concrete poetry’s in- fluence on tropicalista lyrics exemplified MPB’s erudite aspect.

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