This is a deleted chapter from Julian Palacios's book, Beck: Beautiful
Monstrosity. You can buy the book over at Amazon.
I got this chapter from
Tropicalia: Saudaces, terraqueos <<Greetings, Earthlings>> The Brazillian Interlude from 'Beck: Beautiful Monstrosity' (Note: this was cut from the final draft because of space constraints) 'Tropicalia was a bit shocking,' we came up with new things that involved electric guitars, violent poetry, bad taste, traditional Brazilian music mass, low-class successful music, kitsch, tango, Caribbean things, rock and roll and also our avant-garde, so-called serious music.' Caetano Veloso On November 3rd 1998, Beck released Mutations, a comparatively low-key album, which he described as 'space age folk music'. Critical accolades matched its high placing on the pop charts, proving, if anything, that Beck's artistic aims were resonating in the popular culture. One track that stood amidst Mutations elegant orchestral space folk was 'Tropicalia', an electronic bossanova with intriguing, convoluted lyrics that marked a decisive step forward in Beck's progression. The song itself is an oblique paean to the 'Tropicalia' movement in Brazilian popular music during the late 1960's; a feverish attempt to merge high and low brow taste, folk music and city sophistication with avant-garde string arrangements atop complex African rhythm patterns. The song, although a bossanova, perfectly captures the distended poetry and alternately romantic and corrosive imagery of tropicalia. Like Fluxus, 'Tropicalia' slots in perfectly with Beck's quest to make treasure out of trash, using the discarded elements of pop and traditional culture to fashion something relevant and modern. And Beck refrained from stepping into the 'exotica' trap by making a pastiche of hot tropical beats or some other cliché picked up off the back of a Varig airline brochure. He studied his Brazilian shit and got it down before stepping to the mike with this, a monstrously good song. Writing this, I'm struck by the similarities between 1967 in Brazil and today, wherever you're reading this. There are parallels between the trajectories of Caetano Veloso (tropicalia's singular poet-songwriter) romantic revolt, and Beck's reinvention of the musical alphabet. When Veloso played Los Angeles in September 1999, he made a point of inviting Beck onstage to play some of his songs and jam with Veloso's band on an instrumental version of 'Tropicalia', Veloso paid Beck a very high honour indeed. Veloso performed an instrumental version of Beck's 'Tropicalia' before calling Beck up. 'Beck had suggested four songs of mine for us to do, and I found his choices very interesting,' Veloso told Wire magazine. '"Coracao Vagabundo", "Super-Bacana" (which is a song from my first solo album), "Baby" and "Maria Bethania", which was my favourite of his choices because it was a song that I wrote when I was living in England and I used to be ashamed of those songs.' Like Beck's performance with Koerner, Ray and Glover this was a vital connection to past traditions. Beck's position as fly in the ointment of popular music paralleled Veloso's own in Brazil, and it was most welcome for Beck to receive this sort of acknowledgment from such a masterful and iconoclastic musician. Like Beck's shows, Veloso's tour had a similar air of suggesting that most anything was possible, not only in music but in the larger scope of day to day life. 'When all the musicians danced, I invited Beck to dance', Veloso recalled. 'He was very good doing his version of breakdancing [...] it's very interesting that these young guys are interested in what we were doing in the Sixties. It's a way of acknowledging the richness and importance of Brazilian music as a whole.' Beck said, 'I grew up in a Latin district, with Salvadorians, Mexicans, And all of the music that I heard has an African rhythm,' Beck told Blitz in 1998. 'This is fusion music par excellence. Brazilian music is simultaneously Western and African. In Tropicalismo, all the sounds from West to East converge. This music is extremely contagious, it has enormous happiness, and it's genuine and human. We're not allowed to broach similar happiness in rock, to us it isn't allowed. It's why I play this music, that I write songs like this, since emotions can be expressed, emotions that it's not possible express by others music. This music implies love for life, unconcern, sexuality and intelligence. To me, my heart beats with the sound of this rhythm.' Rita Lee, one-time vocalist with radical Brazilian Tropicalia group Os Mutantes, credits the current resurgence of interest in Tropicalia to the times we're living in: 'It must have something to do with the turn of the millennium, the rising curiosity and re-reading the best of what the 20th century has produced, art wise, all over the world. When I first heard Beck I really felt a musical familiarity with what Os Mutantes used to do 25 years ago, I'm sure he hasn't listened to us before, so there's really something in the air making what was a flash future music into a new/old awakening.' And of course, destroying the boundaries between new and old was exactly Beck's line of work. Clearly Brazilian music got under Beck's skin from an early age and stayed there. 'One of my best friends, David Brown, who plays in my band as well, went to Brazil and came back six months later fluent in Portuguese, and with a sack full of cassettes of early 70s Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso', he told Ray Gun magazine in early 1999. 'It was just one of those things were you hear it and it instantly attacks your immune system until you are completely at its mercy. For years, it was pretty much the only thing I would listen to. It seemed like it had all the elements – the groove, the beats, and an insane melodic flair. And when I could get people to translate lyrics, the lyrics had a humour and soulfulness. the music in general had an incredible uplifting effect without being cloying or too sentimental. The music is incredibly simple on one level, but so much of it embraces complexity and is harmonically ambitious, but at the same time is really basic. It's also music that was created under incredible oppression and poverty. it's transcendent music.' It was 1967 in Brazil. As the military tightened its grip on freedom, the youth rebelled. The repressive regime of General Artur de Costa e Silva sparked off student protests. One form of that rebellion was music. Tropicalia was a spontaneous movement in culture and music, typical of the sixties. Its two leading figures were Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Veloso said, 'Tropicalia was a bit shocking we came up with new things that involved electric guitars, violent poetry, bad taste, traditional Brazilian music mass, low class successful music, kitsch, tango, Caribbean things, rock and roll and also our avant-garde, so-called serious music.' ('Cry of Conscience' by Scott Adams, Arete 1990) Tropicalia also made great use of Brazilian modernist concrete poetry, particularly that of Brazilian poet, Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954). Andrade was a guru for the movement, conspicuous by his physical absence but omnipresent in his influence. Andrade's 1924 manifesto 'Pau Brasil' called for Brazilians to become cannibals of culture. To eat the West, the East and expel it as something wholly Brazilian; cultural anthrophagy. For music that sought to incorporate chaos, much of Tropicalia was well structured and thought out according to dictates of concrete poetry, the rigour of the avant-garde and magnificent orchestrations. The Veloso-Gil song 'Bat Macumba' strung together words in joyous abandon around a tight structure, each verse dropping words until the middle word was 'bat' and then rebuilt word by word to the end, making an bold, emblematic 'K' when written on paper. Tropicalia is pervaded by the thin flat guitar that laced even the most romantic ballad with harsh and astringent tones. Gil's interest in the Beatles and folkloric Brazilian rhythms rubbed shoulders with Veloso's twin strains of romanticism and insurrection, contemplation and calls to action. The movement drew its name from the works of artist Hélio Oiticica, a Bahian artist, and maker of installations. In 1967 he installed 'Tropicalia' inside the august surroundings of the Museum of Modern Art in Rio. The installation illustrated the crash collision of old and new, of a Brazil rapidly modernising into cities of chrome and glass while every hillsides was ringed with the favelas, the tin shacks of the urban poor. Oiticica invited the viewer to step inside, take off their shoes, and walk around. There were lush tropical weeds underfoot, gravel, tin roofs, bland pre-fab constructed walls, and in the back, a dark room where one walked into only to find a television blaring. After that, the exit. Born near the city of Bahia in 1942, Caetano Veloso was deeply influenced by that city's music. In Brazilian during the times of slavery, the African slaves had been allowed to retain their families, instruments, music and culture, unlike in the United States, where they lost all. In Bahia, the propulsive African rhythms were merged with lyrical, melodic strains of Portuguese white European music, and further down the road, the lilting, otherworldly flutes and berimbau of the Amazon Indians. Veloso soaked it all in. He went to art school, and when his sister, singer Maria Bethania went to Rio in 1965 to take part in a musical play called Opinion, he accompanied her. At first the audiences laughed at the simple country girl, with her embroidered dress and dowdy centre parted hair and plain shoes, but when she opened her mouth they were shocked at her deep resonant voice, full of mastery and power. She achieved rapid success and recorded a few of Caetano's songs and he was launched by association. Caetano won a few contests on television variety shows which were hugely popular during 1965-9, beginning with his song 'Boa Palavra', performed at the Popular Music Festival. The Festival would help spawn the categorisation under which Veloso's generation of talented singers and songwriters would become known, the rubicon of 'MPB' (Musica Popular Brasiliera'). In 1966, he signed a contract with Phillips. Veloso's main musical influence at the time was the intellectual, plaintive strains of bossa nova (the 'new thing' in Portuguese). Bossa nova's main composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and guitarist Joao Gilberto produced some of the most memorable popular music ever; fantastic songs that even made it into the pop charts in the States and Europe. Brazilian singer Astrud Gilberto's version of 'The Girl From Ipanema' went top ten in 1964. She was backed by one time bebop and cool jazz saxophonist Stan Getz, and other kindred spirits like Laurindo Almeida and Charlie Byrd. Veloso's first album 'Domingo' (1967) a collaboration with the exquisite singer Gal Costa, singing bossa nova with acoustic guitars and romantic lyrics of wandering hearts, 'Coraćčo Vagabundo' dedicated to Dedé. But Veloso's mind was itching; on the liner notes to his first album, it was clear that Caetano was looking for something new. He wrote, 'My inspiration is not to live only in the nostalgia of times and places, to the contrary, I want to incorporate this longing into a future project'. Veloso had dabbled in journalism and read extensively on poetry, philosophy and the avant-garde. He also began to look outside Brazil for inspiration, as well as looking back to his childhood love of Latin ballads, French movies and American comic book characters. He took stock of Brazil's rapid fire drive toward modernisation, for better and for worse. He saw repression creeping up simultaneously, with the military government cracking down on dissent. It was one of those moments that creates art movements, times of repression and progress, economic prosperity, cultural stagnation creating a vacuum where foreign influences flood in, a need for a new dialectic to explain changes. Plus, he was questioning everything and not sitting still for a minute. It was the sixties now, and everywhere in the world it was the same for one instant. Under the influence of a lot of dope smoking and the steady stream of psychedelic rock from the US and the UK, Veloso along with a band of friends including Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Tom Zé starting cobbling together the disparate elements of what would become known as Tropicalia. Gil was obsessed with the Beatles 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' as well as African rhythms and the folk music of backwoods Brazil, like the north-eastern variant known as forro, propelled by accordions into something akin to zydeco or polka, music of rail workers and the poor. Veloso and Gil never lost sight for a moment of the music that had brought them thus far, praising slightly older songwriters like Jorge Ben and Roberto Carlos. Their interpretations of older songs were marvellous, with their version of Jorge Ben's 'Que Pena', sung by Gal Costa being a remarkable reinterpretation of the original. Costa sounds like freedom itself, what writer Jim Irvin called 'the spirit of Ecstasy on skates'. Veloso's manager Guilherme Araujo also helped push him toward the avant-garde, the polemicists and artists of Sao Paulo. Sao Paolo's relatively liberal, avant-garde and intellectual climate turned up unlikely collaborators such as Rogerio Duprat, an avant-gardemusician and devotee of Cage and twelve tone Euro classical, who fashioned extraordinary string arrangements for their songs. Veloso and Dedé split for Sao Paulo full time in 1968, just as his song 'Alegria, Alegria' was awarded 4th prize at the third Music Festival of TV-Record. It marked the very first appearance of electric guitars in the festival circuit, enraging leftist intellectuals who felt Veloso was co-opting bourgeois Anglo-American idioms that had nothing to do with traditional Brazilian music. None the less, Caetano Veloso was now a star, and they strolled the streets, clubs and cafes of the city wearing hippie clothes and long hair. A new twist for Veloso and friends came with the sudden appearance of Os Mutantes, the Mutants. A proto-pop-punk band, Os Mutantes had started out covering the Beatles, Stones and the Ventures, and were now taking the stage in their native city of Sao Paolo with their inspired derailed pop, punctuated by blasts of found sound and sound processing. They were loud, poppy, internationalist, experimental, rude and funny. Led by two moody brothers who made their own guitars, and with a gossamer voiced singer Rita Lee, Os Mutantes skirted the fringes of pop music, familiar enough to gain mass popularity and experimental enough to bridge the gap to the avant-garde. Veloso and Gilberto Gil freaked out when they heard Os Mutantes, a band of youngsters named for a science fiction book called O Planeta dos Mutantes. For Gil and Veloso, Os Mutantes opened doors they didn't even know were there. Rita Lee: 'Os Mutantes were a bunch of politically alienated teenagers. When Gil first heard Os Mutantes during a record session he got really impressed with our home-made instruments and our sane insanity, so we soon began a real rich partnership. I would say that Os Mutantes gave the Tropicalia movement a new expansion by using electronic instruments for the first time in the Brazilian music panorama without even worrying about prejudice, facing this struggle like clowns in the middle of the reactionaries. By doing so, we've caught much more attention to the powerful and beautiful lyrics, to the strong and daring messages of the Tropicalia movement. We were straight to the point, to reach lots of desperate people longing for some enlightenment at the end of Darth Vader's tunnels.' (Raygun) Veloso married his girlfriend Dedé in a wildly original hippie wedding ceremony, the very first Brazil had ever seen. Caetano's first solo album 'Caetano Veloso' (1968) marked out straight off what made his music compelling; heavily poetic lyrics, with deeply melodic arrangements and his weird, sometimes slightly out of tune voice over the top. Very idiosyncratic, and cool. He ran into controversy immediately with his 1968 agit-pop song, 'E Proibido Proibir' ('It s forbidden To Forbid'). Some people loved it and other hated it, always a good sign that you are moving into new territory. When he performed the song at the International Song Festival the audience booed him mercilessly. Only the year before Caetano and Gal had been singing bossa nova with acoustic guitars now here he was on stage with Os Mutantes backing him with a cacophony of self-made electric guitars, dressed in plastic suits and singing lyrics of insurrection inspired by the May 1968 student demonstrations in Paris, the title of the song itself a Situationist graffito scrawled on the walls of the Sorbonne. A recording of the performance, available on 'A Arte de Caetano Veloso' (Verve), echoes the 1912 premiere turned riot of the Ballet Ruses Rites of Spring', written by Stravinsky, with its great atonal clashes of cymbals and discordant strings, and danced by the great balletomane Nijinsky, possessed by his own demons of incipient madness. The audience makes merry with their disapproval until Caetano snaps and runs to the edge of the stage and harangues them for five minutes: 'So you are the future of Brazil? We're done for! You understand nothing! Nothing! Absolutely Nothing! I say it's forbidden to forbid. No to no! Gilberto Gil and I are here to save Brazilian music!' His next song, written with Gilberto Gil, was 'Divino Maravilhoso', which their friend Gal Costa sang and won a prize for. The Tropicalia crew would always be a tight knit bunch, writing songs for each other, hanging out constantly, getting into all sorts of trouble and playing music. The military government didn't take to the Brazilian hippies very kindly, noting with immense displeasure how much the young people of the country liked them. They had been instituting censorship on radio, television and music, and month by month the repression grew. It was at least partly the impending end of creative freedom that gave Tropicalia its manic joyfulness; as if they were determined to have the best time possible as the clock of repression ticked menacingly. The tropicalistas accordingly recorded their manifesto, the 1968 album 'Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis' a creatively anarchic explosion of an album. Everyone pitched in, with Veloso and Gil writing the bulk of the songs, mixing in folkloric traditions, ballads, astringent electric guitars, the avant-garde noise blasts of the Baptista brothers, the string arrangements of Rogerio Duprat and the slinky stylings of Gal Costa and Nara Lečo. Poets Torquato Neto and José Carlos Capinam wrote lyrics, and the wonderfully eccentric songwriter Tom Zé contributed 'Parque Industrial'. The government finally liberated freedom, by abolishing it, in the sinister guise of the Ato Institucional No. 5 (Institutional Act No. 5). Brazilians, with their love of acronyms, quickly dubbed the spectre AI-5. Accordingly, the government censor/droogs paid a visit to Gil and Veloso, arresting them and humiliating them by shaving their heads. They were thrown into a dank Bahian jail cell with common criminals. Gil and Veloso spent two months in prison, and four more months under house arrest. At the end of the four months, the military basically offered them an ultimatum. Either they got out of the country with all their freaky clothes, guitars and incense or the military would keep them in jail indefinitely, as they had begun to do students by the hundreds throughout Brazil. Young people were being arrested, beaten, going missing, found killed by the side of a deserted country road or just never seen again. Wisely, Gil and Veloso decided to go into exile. In one of those curious Brazilian twists befitting a nation deeply enamoured of music, the military let them perform a farewell concert at the Castro Alves Theatre in Bahia and the show was recorded and released as an album, 'Barra 69'. Its angry, defiant music and vital listening. The next week Gil and Veloso left for exile in London. The military actually did them and Brazilian music a big favour, because the pair arrived in London at the tail end of the psychedelic underground and were able to freak out in grand style, jamming with acid rockers and wandering around, 'digging the vibe' as they used to say then. It enriched their music significantly. But a sadness is pervasive throughout their albums made in exile, as they sing in faltering English and Caetano bitterly intones 'Everybody knows our cities were built to be destroyed.' Back home things were grim, with the military throwing more students into prison and torturing them. Gil and Veloso stayed tuned to what was going on back home, and sent back a steady stream of songs back home for others to cover. Caetano send songs to the brilliant Elis Regina ('Nao Tenha Medo'-'Don't be Afraid')and Gal Costa ('London London', and 'Voce Nao Entende Nada'-'You Don't Understand Anything!'). Caetano himself had a big hit with 'Irene Re'. The double meanings of a lot of those songs, a covert middle finger to the military, was understood by everyone, and they loved it. The military censors were vexed that they couldn't prove the songs were anti-government, because the songwriters had cloaked them in metaphor three layers thick or just skirted direct criticism. In 1971, Caetano was allowed to come back and visit his sick Mum, but he was under house arrest for the duration of his stay. A soldier was posted outside the door of the family house to make sure he didn't get out. But everyone was allowed to come and see him. Another of those odd Brazilian paradoxes. Furthermore, he was allowed to appear on television and chose to sing, of all things, 'Coraćčo Vagabundo'. In 1972, back in London, he received a call from the Brazilian Embassy. The government was allowing them back, unconditionally. So Gil and Veloso went back and became stars, mixing everything from funk, ska, metal, and Michael Jackson into their music, but that is another story. Caetano's lyrics are intriguing, to say the least. In his song 'Vaca Profana' ('Profane Cow') Veloso strings together a series of disjointed images depicting his fascination with the world, in all its majesty and sickness. He name checks Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, extols the praises of the Brazilian province of Belo Horizonte, sings about the punks of Naples, the poverty of the third world. And all done without rancour or spite, just observation and reflection. Its hard to imagine flavour of the month bands writing a song with a tenth of the intrinsic worth of 'Vaca Profana'.