Fifth Street Tropicália (in Furs)


Tropicália in Furs, a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian record shop in the East Village, is the kind of place New Yorkers worry will disappear from the city forever. A tiny alternate universe where Technicolor dots bounce off glossy LP covers by Os Mutantes, the Cramps, and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, it’s never crowded or empty, and the same affable connoisseur is always behind the counter.

Joel (pronounced “jo-EL”) Olveira, whose old-school afro and proto-hip-hop wardrobe make him look younger than his 36 years, opened the store’s first incarnation five years ago in a flooded basement on the Bowery under the motto “Buy, Sell, Barter, Chit-Chat,” quickly attracting a following with his warm demeanor and overflowing knowledge of late-’60s psychedelic Brazilian rock. Among serious collectors and DJs, word began to spread about the unequaled treasures Olveira kept hidden in a crate in the back of the store—possibly the best collection of obscure Tropicália singles on earth.

“I’m telling you, there is nowhere else in the world where you can find records like these,” says DJ and producer Egon (a/k/a Eothen Alapatt), who runs the L.A.-based Stones Throw Records, which specializes in independent hip-hop, soul, and funk. He also co-produced Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas: Tropicalista Psychedelic Masterpieces, 1967–1976, a 16-track compilation Olveira is self-releasing in June. The compilation includes songs by some musicians who never recorded again: no-hit wonders like São Paolo–bred Marisa Rossi and Ton & Sergio, whose 10-ton feedback and devastating lyrics make “Vou Sair do Cativeiro” (“Escape From Captivity”) a key track. There are also previously unreleased songs by better-known Tropicália musicians like Paraguayan transplant Fábio, whose “Lindo Sonho Delirante” is a shimmering, trance-like promenade. The title is Portuguese for “Beautiful Delirious Dream,” but the acronym it forms, LSD, told Brazilian bohemes what it was really about. A distillation of thousands of unheard psychedelic gems, Fuzz Bananas exposes the dirty, flamboyant fringe of a subculture conceived in unrest. 

Like a halcyon explosion, the Tropicália movement was brilliant, but brief. Beginning in 1967 as a cultural response to an oppressive military dictatorship, its influence extended to film, art, literature, and, of course, music—later informing the work of musicians like David Bowie, David Byrne, and Kurt Cobain, who once tried, unsuccessfully, to bring Os Mutantes on tour with Nirvana. The sun-drenched music is shambling, dreamy, and endlessly experimental; watchful government censors, poverty, and psychedelic drugs helped beget a lyrical style that is cryptic, abstract, elegiac, and often pulsing with submerged rage. Tropicália utterly redefined Brazilian identity, but lasted only a few years: Some say it ended with the 1968 arrests of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, widely considered the architects of the movement.

Olveira came to New York from São Paulo 12 years ago with less than $200, and eventually got a job shining shoes at Goldman Sachs. He began using extra cash to buy up Brazilian records—here and back home—to sell at international record fairs for up to 10 times what he paid for them. Soon, he was selling records full-time and had fallen in love with the music he’d always dismissed. “I thought I knew Caetano,” he explains. “I thought I knew Gal [Costa]. I’d seen the album covers a million times, but I realized I had never actually heard this music.”

Much of the stuff Olveira brought back consisted of seven-inch singles; usually too poor to press more than a handful of records, Tropicália musicians would distribute a few copies to radio stations and wait to see if they got any airtime. Most of the time, they didn’t. “These were really tracks that were too much for the time,” said Olveira, who now deejays throughout the city and has a growing Internet business, an East Village radio show, and a music TV show broadcast in Brazil. “This single by Os Falloes Reais, for example, I took it home and tried to play it, but when I put it on my record player, it wouldn’t even go down, because the hole was still too small. It had never been played.”

“Joel was going around and doing the excavations, finding . . . the most progressive, experimental stuff that was only on singles, where you could take the most risks,” said Egon. “Before him—and still today for the most part—it was a bunch of old, fat, white Europeans collecting this kind of music. They don’t buy seven-inches to begin with, and they’re certainly not going to go to these obscure corners of São Paolo and Rio where they might get held up.”

After Beck released the 1998 hit album Mutations, largely an homage to Tropicália, Os Mutantes bootlegs began creeping into indie record stores and DJ booths. Several years later, Devendra Banhart drew acclaim with a freaked-out folk style heavily indebted to the movement, inspiring new waves of interest in the U.S. That affinity remains, but the 16 tracks on Fuzz Bananas have nonetheless only been heard before by a handful of people, making it a kind of Holy Grail of lost Brazilian psychedelia. For those familiar with Tropicália artists like Os Mutantes and Gal Costa, the compilation is like a sub-equatorial Nuggets, complementing the canon with gorgeous burn-out miscellany. The genre’s influence ultimately extended far beyond Brazil, but the movement originally drew energy and sustenance from youth movements sweeping the Anglo-Saxon world in the 1960s, a transference made palpable on covers of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man” by Rio surf-rockers the Youngsters, and the Rolling Stones’ “Lantern” by Mac Rybell, who cut their first single in 1967 in Assis, a town so small that locals say the population is “100, counting the dogs.”

Unable to track down many of the musicians, Olveira includes in the liner notes an open appeal for the musicians to contact him for their due cut of whatever profits might accrue. “If I could meet them, I’d hopefully give them some money,” said Olveira. “Then I’d be asking, ‘What else you got down in your basement? What else can I get out there and share?’ “