Essence of Tropicália


I was not my first choice for this piece. I was hoping a Portuguese speaker or, even better, someone who actually witnessed Tropicália’s birth would step up to wave the flag for the Gilberto Gil reissues. But these CDs have been sitting in the racks for months and nobody’s dancing in the streets, so you’re stuck with a fan who means to convince you that they’re not just this year’s nice old sounds. Their story goes something like this.

In 1967, Gilberto Gil and his fellow freedom fighters (Tom Zé, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa, among others) launched the Tropicália movement by hugging the music of the world. Caetano Veloso described the time in a mid-1990s interview: “We listened to Jimi Hendrix and were fascinated by his creativity; we heard James Brown and loved his energy; we heard the Beatles with their happiness and lightness and we were happy that all this existed.” They caused a riot at São Paulo’s televised 1968 International Music Festival while wearing plastic clothes and silenced hometown xenophobes by making pop records that sounded all the more Brazilian for their admixture and theft. They made some delicious pop music, oh golly. See the excellent Tropicália Essentials (Hip-O), which shares half its tracks with the collective’s less varied but equally excellent self-compiled 1968 manifesto Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis, for supporting documents of the time.

Tropicália’s recent resurgence has been bolstered by the ageless Veloso’s theater shows (documented on his new, shiny, and very Broadway Prenda Minha [Verve]) and hipsters discovering reissues of Os Mutantes, who leaned heavily on Gil and Veloso for their first and best album. The current trickle-down versions being attributed to folks like Beck and Cibo Matto are more misfiled bossa nova than new-school Tropicália. First time around, Tropicália was a hairy, gorgeous mess, and nobody embodied the mess more than Gil, the huggiest of them all. He is as big today as he was then on ’60s-associated attributes like fellow feeling, community concern, and “Let’s jam!” enthusiasm. Unlike Caetano, though, Gil hasn’t made many records I’ve wanted to hear since he traded in John Lennon for Bob Marley (though Grammy voters obviously dig his world reggae inna drum clinic style), so I’m not surprised other folks haven’t been digging in his crates.

This is sad for all involved. Even when his records haven’t served them, Gil’s songs are vigorous things, stretched between the athletic chug of forró and the sexy suspension of samba but never snapping. His quick-stepping rhythms and long-legged melodies vault right over “Ipanema” stereotypes. And Gil is easily the most rocking of the Tropicálistas: His solo acoustic shows sweat, hard. Witnesses from Rio’s 1999 carnival say Gilberto Gil doing off-the-rack reggae was still a pretty electrifying Gil. His sins of overstatement (see Quanta Live) lead him far enough away from the sangfroid and muted syncopation of bossa that you understand why indie rockers, already chary of “cheesy” emotions and expressions, have been more interested in quiet buddies like Caetano and founding stoner João Gilberto, whose new João Voz e Violão (Verve) is beautiful and mumbly enough to pull the bowlies. Bossa’s restraint is sorely missed in Gil’s music now, but you can’t blame him for getting the balance wrong. His early records worked hard to dispel the notion that Brazilian pop is a long, cool drink of water with lyrics in a funny language. Gilberto Gil’s ferocious syncretism has little use for understatement. He whoops and hollers his way through the harmonies and rhythms jammed into the corners. Gil is Tropicália’s rude essence.

Last June, Polygram Brazil released Ensaio Geral, a big, shiny, expensive box ($170 on right now) that collected the six albums Gil released commercially for Polygram between 1966 and 1977 as well as six CDs of outtakes and live material. These titles have now been released individually and are available for around $13.99 each (try or Five of the six solo records of the box—Louvação, three albums titled Gilberto Gil, and Expresso 2222—are pretty much sure bets for anyone who likes a tune and a beat. Though Gil had been writing and recording since 1965 (“Louvação” had already been a hit for Elis Regina by the time Gil’s version was released), 1967’s Louvação is Gil’s first album under his own name. Gil makes bossa celebratory, giving it his all but never giving the crowd what they already know. He sounds feather-light on “Beira-Mar” but on “Louvação” and “Roda” he establishes career tropes: fast pacing, fluid fingerpicking, and ambitious melodies. He starts coloring outside the lines, slashing at his acoustic like he’s on loan from the Feelies, sending his voice way past the written tune with ecstatic slides. Gil wants to take the music higher, and you can tell bossa won’t hold him long.

After temporarily relocating from Salvador, the capital of Bahia, to São Paulo, Gil & Co. met Os Mutantes and composer Rogerio Duprat. The collective often worked, implausibly, on São Paulo TV, appearing in national song contests and hosting variety shows, even when in political disfavor. Arranged and “directed” by Duprat and played, in part, by Os Mutantes, Gil’s 1968 self-titled album is one of the collective’s finest moments. A grainy color Xerox of English go-go rock and Bahia folk, it sounds like 1968 AM radio played over soccer stadium speakers. The opener, “Frevo Rasgado,” is a lost game-show theme that prepares no one for “Coragem Pra Suportar,” a Pavement tune 20 years early, full of scraping sounds, goofy flutes, and the “Taxman” bassline. (“Eleanor Rigby” and “Hang On Sloopy” pop up later.) In “Marginália II,” boozy horns and strings battle it out at simultaneous weddings while Gil sends his voice up like a kite in a tornado, untroubled by the hubbub.

Hardliner General Costa e Silva put an end to all this fun with the Fifth Institutional Act of December 13, 1968, which sent Gil and Veloso to jail. After their release, they were allowed to work under house arrest in early 1969 for approximately four months, each recording an album’s worth of songs with acoustic guitar and voice and sending the tapes off to Duprat, who fleshed them out (to put it mildly). Soon both hit the racks with yet another self-titled album. For a guy under the government’s thumb, Gil sounds unusually perky. Drummer Wilson Das Neves does an elastic take on Clyde Stubblefield while Lanny Gordin, a major presence on these albums, gets a lot of mileage out of one electric guitar. Hipsters will gravitate toward his free jazz codas, stereo field abuse, and other “nonmusical” signals, but the noisy bits aren’t what made these albums contemporary then and they’re not what make them current now. Without the band kicking and Duprat channeling as much pop as Stockhausen, they wouldn’t have equaled the English pop the Tropicálistas loved.

In 1972, after two years’ exile in London, Gil returned to Brazil and recorded Expresso 2222, a significant break point that coincides with Gil’s participation in the Afro-Brazilian consciousness movement, which continued through the ’70s. Gone are the soigné turns of bossa and major-to-minor pop moves; in their place is a supple Afro-Brazilian funk that Gil would favor for the next 20 years. “O Canto da Ema” is Gil bouillon, a fast-moving, long melody cycling over a Fela ostinato guitar while drummer Tutty Moreno, as major a discovery as Gordin, stutters perfectly. The album closes with two solo voice-and-guitar songs, “O Sonho Acabou” and “Oriente.” Gil’s more-is-more playing and singing style provides enough rhythm and sound to cover the lack of bass and drums. If anyone can show up with a guitar and a microphone and make a big sound, it’s Gil.

Which is what he does on O Viramundo, a live album recorded mostly in 1972. Expresso 2222 done live, it’s a keeper from the opening duet with Veloso, “Cada Macaco no Seu Galho,” to the juicy 16-minute band workout “Brand New Dream.” The band is on a par with James Brown’s best, especially on the multilayered “O Bom Jogador.” Moreno is a treat no matter how many times he channels Lenny White, and Gordin spits fire. Cidade do Salvador, a previously unreleased 1974 double album, is a calmer, more fusion-prone elaboration on Expresso 2222. The rhythms are still the people’s; Fela is very much present on the delicious “Umeboshi,” and the drums get pleasantly papery on “Essa É Pra Tocar no Rádio.” The lead track, “Meio de Campo,” and “Eu Só Quero um Xodô” made a perfect 45 when they were released together in 1974.

Even Gil’s failures can set you free: a little great artist shtick, a jam gone over the cliff, too much hope for his fellow citizen. Couldn’t the last album you bought use a little of that kind of reach? In the midst of all the humming, smiling Powerbooks, Gil’s generous, forceful abraço spills over the edges, embarrasses and suffocates you a bit. Hug it back and live large for once.