For Founders Of Tropicalia, Raucous Music Made A Political Statement

May 8, 2016
Originally published on May 12, 2016 5:05 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to head to South America. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are two icons of Brazilian music, and they have a new record out. The album looks back on a century of music and their long friendship. They sat down with NPR's Jasmine Garsd to talk about music and politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF OS MUTANTES SONG, "DOMINGO NO PARQUE")

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: In 1967, a young Gilberto Gil, alongside the band Os Mutantes, did something that was considered quite scandalous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOMINGO NO PARQUE")

OS MUTANTES: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: They played a televised Brazilian music festival using electric guitars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOMINGO NO PARQUE")

OS MUTANTES: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: The song was "Domingo No Parque," "Sunday In The Park." The audiences received them with a mix of claps and boos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND BOOING)

GARSD: Gil wasn't the only one plugging in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARSD: Another young musician at the festival, Caetano Veloso, also showed up with a rock band.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

CAETANO VELOSO: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: This was the beginning of tropicalia, an artistic movement that was often critical of the country's military dictatorship. Tropicalia infused rock 'n' roll with traditional Brazilian sounds. Veloso says at the time, being raucous felt like the only way to be heard.

VELOSO: The fact that we were under a dictatorship taught us what violence really meant. And we thought that the artistical (ph) reaction our colleagues were presenting was too passive. And the violent aspect of rock 'n' roll interested us more because we were seeing violence.

GARSD: What they were doing was riskier than just offending musical tastes. Brazil's military regime considered them disrespectful. The leftist opposition to the government saw rock 'n' roll as a cultural invasion from the U.S.

VELOSO: They reacted as if we had succumbed to American imperialism.

GARSD: In 1969, while the Beatles were releasing "Abbey Road," the musicians from Bahia went to jail. Gil says prison actually helped him push his musical boundaries.

GILBERTO GIL: Being in prison gave me a certain freedom, a certain liberty. Let's go exploring beyond the common sense.

GARSD: Veloso felt differently.

VELOSO: I was totally destroyed, and I almost went mad.

GARSD: Both artists were released after a few months and exiled to London. They continued their solo careers and went on to become legends of Brazilian music. Gil eventually became Brazil's minister of culture. Over the decades, they maintained a close friendship which they celebrated earlier this year with the release of an album recorded in concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARGINALIA II")

GIL: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: They cover some classics and reinterpret their own most iconic music, including "Marginalia II," penned by the poet Torquato Neto and put to music by Gil in 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARGINALIA II")

GIL: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: "I, a Brazilian, confess my guilt, my sin, my desperate dream, my well-kept secret," he sings. "My land has palm trees where a strong wind blows of hunger and great fear, mostly of death."

The apocalyptic tropical lament could've easily been written today amid Brazil's current political chaos. Neither of them wants to see President Dilma Rouseff impeached, but Veloso says Brazil remains a country with deep social and economic divisions.

VELOSO: Brazil is a very unequal country, probably one of the most unequal countries in the world. And that's the basic and only really important problem and question.

GARSD: Children also are still asking those questions, but now, Gil acknowledges, the music is more mellow and minimalistic.

GIL: Mostly due to the fact that we are just the two of us and our two guitars.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEATANO VELOSO AND GILBERTO GIL SONG, "DOMINGO NO PARQUE")

GARSD: Near the end of the record, the duo goes back into "Domingo No Parque," that song that caused so much controversy nearly half a century ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOMINGO NO PARQUE")

CAETANO VELOSO AND Gilberto GIL: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: This time the audience cheers wildly and sings along. A lot has changed in Brazil since Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil first took the stage, though some say too many things remain the same. One thing that has stood the test of time is their friendship. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOMINGO NO PARQUE")

CAETANO VELOSO AND Gilberto GIL: (Singing in Portuguese). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.