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Geek obsession: Tropicália

Why it’s daunting: Tropicália, or tropicalismo, as it is sometimes called, is not the rhythmic Carnival music of samba, nor its gentler successor, bossa nova, though it sometimes contains elements of both. It is just one brief offshoot of musica popular Brasileira—MPB—the catchall for the country’s post-bossa pop music. Being from Brazil, the tropicalistas sang in Portuguese. They were psychedelic dabblers, part of a broader art movement that included poetry, spontaneous theater, and pop art. They had political notions that grew out of the worldwide revolution of 1968. 

Tropicália was an extremely short-lived movement that brought the new permissiveness of the international underground to Brazil’s eternally summery popular music. Sprung by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, two advocates for a new national consciousness, the style drew from the avant-garde concept of antropofagia—having an omnivorous appetite for all culture. To the co-founders, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles embodied that spirit of inclusion. Their own new music combined their country’s indigenous sounds—the unmistakable sound of the cuica, or “laughing” drum, for instance—with the polyglot, fuzzed-out production of Rogerio Duprat, an LSD enthusiast who studied with Stockhausen and earned a reputation as the Brazilian Brian Wilson. 

Possible gateway: Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution In Sound

Why: This two-disc 2005 survey from the impeccable British reissues label Soul Jazz deftly bundles the prime movers of the genre—Veloso, Gil, Gal Costa. Os Mutantes’ Beatlesque “Panis Et Circenses,” with its chirpy “Penny Lane” trumpets and sound-collage finale, is included, as is Gil’s “Bat Macumba” and the Veloso composition that gave Tropicália its name. Also featured are three songs by the willfully weird Tom Ze, a Zappa-like figure whose career was revived by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label when the ex-Talking Head became infatuated with Brazilian pop. Jorge Ben, who was somewhat older than the tropicalistas, became a kind of honorary movement member and had several songs covered on their albums. He’s represented here by his hip, big-band-y “Take It Easy My Brother Charlie.”       

Next steps: Tropicália enjoyed a rediscovery in the ’90s, when Kurt Cobain implored the members of Os Mutantes to reunite and Beck released his 1998 album Mutations (which featured the single “Tropicalia”). That year, Polygram put out a five-disc box, Tropicália: 30 Anos, packaging early albums by Veloso, Gil, Costa, and Os Mutantes with Tropicália: Ou Panis Et Circensis, the compilation that defined the movement. 

A decade prior, David Byrne established the tastemaking cred of his new world-music label, Luaka Bop, with its first release, Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical. The compilation, with liner notes by Byrne and another Brazilophile, Arto Lindsay, sampled latter-day tracks from Veloso and Gil alongside songs by fellow travelers Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, and Chico Buarque.

Nascimento and Lo Borges, both natives of the inland state of Minas Gerais, co-founded Clube da Esquina (“Corner’s Club”), a musical collective that paralleled, if not quite approached in terms of eccentricity, the Tropicália movement. Their collaborative double album from 1972, Clube Da Esquina, remains one of MPB’s creative high-water marks.    

Tropicália lost its momentum when Veloso and Gil, disruptive forces that they were becoming, were forced to spend two years in exile in London. In 1994, the two creators celebrated the 25th anniversary of their aesthetic with a well-received collaborative album, Tropicália 2. Today both men are considered elder statesmen in their native country. Gil served for several years as Brazil’s Minister Of Culture; Veloso’s first son, Moreno, makes excellent Tropicália-influenced music with two partners, each taking top billing by turns (Moreno + 2, Domenico + 2, Kassin + 2).   

The Red Hot organization has gotten plenty of mileage out of Brazilian music. Fifteen years after the release of the bossa nova-flavored Red Hot + Rio celebrated the jet-setting ’60s with interpretations by David Byrne, Stereolab, and others, the brand-new Red Hot + Rio 2 brings together an intriguing mix of founding tropicalistas (Veloso, Ze, Mutantes) and present-day admirers (Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, John Legend, Devendra Banhart).   

Where not to start: True to their name, Os Mutantes made fractured, madcap music that was sometimes only vaguely humanoid. Fans of early Zappa or, say, some of the wackier Elephant Six releases will speak their language. For others, it’s an acquired taste.