Lately, all needles have been spinning towards Brazil. Nominally, I suppose it’s Wes Anderson’s fault, for finding an excuse for Seu Jorge to sing beautiful Portuguese David Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic. But, really, I’m sure I would’ve found it anyway. It’s pretty big. And, as I said, there’s something inevitable about the place. Not long after, in rapid succession, came the discovery of Os Mutantes and the psychedelic tropicalia movement of the late ’60s, a blog posting connecting former tropicalista Gilberto Gil with the techno-hippie free culture movement in a most curious way, a new album by Tom Zperhaps their weirdest member), and all manners of subtler convergences (such as being emailed a random Mutantes track by a friend).
In some ways, it was no different than finding any scene of interconnected musicians who all show up for each other’s recording sessions and live gigs, be it the jambands or Manhattan’s downtown jazz crew or the Elephant 6 Recording Company. Quickly, it became apparent that, while they may’ve been their country’s equivalents to Jagger and Lennon and Zappa, they were drops in the bucket, warranting barely 20 pages in John Krich’s loving survey of Brazilian music, Why Is This Country Dancing? (which conveniently turned up in a used bin during the aforementioned sequence).
Recently, I arrived home from a long plane flight to another convergence. Having spent most of the flight reading Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, the autobiography of Caetano Veloso, another tropicalista, I was intent on renting the favela drama City of God. When the store didn’t have it, my mind blanked on any of the numerous Brazilian films Veloso had mentioned in his book. Dejected, I rented something else, only to have a roommate coincidentally get back from work with a copy of Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’s 1959 setting of the Orpheus myth atop Rio’s Carnival celebration.
Ah, yes. Veloso had written of this, too. ‘I laughed along with the entire audience,’ he recalled, ‘and together we were shamed by the shameless lack of authenticity the French filmmaker had permitted himself for the sake of creating a fascinating piece of exoticism.’ Even so, Veloso acknowledges, it is an intriguing film. There is something powerful about exotica (just ask Wes Anderson and Seu Jorge). It is, after all, exotic. It’s hard to beat the Antonio Carlos Jobim-enhanced soundtrack, too. ‘How is it possible,’ Veloso asks, ‘that the best and most genuine musicians in Brazil could have agreed to create masterpieces to adorn (and dignify) such a deception?’
As it happens, it would be hard to sell Brazil’s music short, even accidentally. By way of comparison to Brazilian bossa nova, Veloso writes, ‘rock in its essence was a rejection of all sophistication, and continually proves to be so whenever it seeks its own reaffirmation, as the wildly commercial and regressive music it was from the beginning.’ Bossa nova, he wrote, with its complex rhythms, was ‘an almost antithetical impulse.’ That is: even the blandest of Brazilian music has something unique to latch onto, especially for we brutish Americans who can barely clap in 4/4 time.
There’s a transparent creativity at work in the Mutantes’ records, from the circus kaleidoscope of their self-titled debut to the reacquisition/proto-sample of the ‘Satisfaction’ riff on Mutantes’ ‘Magica.’ Of course, I don’t understand Portuguese, so I’m sure I’m missing plenty (especially because all of the English translations seem pretty interesting). Or maybe I’m not. To a non-speaker, Portuguese is a beautiful tongue. Maybe I’d hate their political lyrics. But, even if I don’t understand ‘em, I at least know that they had to be doing something right, because — in the late ’60s — both Veloso and Gilberto Gil were jailed by the country’s military dictatorship and later exiled. The tropicalistas weren’t some half-baked student movement: the government thought it necessary to arrest them.
Of course, as Veloso or Gil would be happy to tell you, Brazil is a funny place. Just as it is interesting and notable that Brazil jailed their leading psychedelic musicians as political prisoners in the ’60s, it is equally interesting and notable that one of them — Gil — became the country’s Minister of Culture in 2003. While American rock stars might direct abstract movies (like Bob Dylan) or display their photography (like Lou Reed) or endorse vague political philosophies or lobby for the occasional bill, short of Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic or, um, Sonny Bono, rarely do they actually, literally, become involved in the government.
Sure, musicians can be gateways to other artists. How many people have read Rimbaud because of Dylan or Patti Smith? Or checked out Robert Wilson’s theater or Philip Glass’s minimalism because of David Byrne? But musicians providing links to campaigns that focus equally on ‘the music industry’s myopia over downloading [and] the recent efforts of one agribusiness firm to patent basmati rice, then charge farmers for the privilege of growing it’? It is a turn that most musicians are uninterested in, away from an abstract universe of what is ultimately entertainment (no matter how refined) towards real world problems.
What’s the difference between reading about some band’s obscure side project and a country’s application of open source philosophy to wean their government computers off of Windows systems, or free themselves from the vice-grip of international pharmaceutical concerns? They seem equally connected to the core of tropicalia and whatever it is that intrigued me about it to begin with. They’re just as easy to keep up with, too. One just has to turn to a different part of the internets.
Following a country, so to speak, has been fun, though I’m increasingly aware of how little I know. It’s one thing to read about a country’s progressive policies, another to really understand how they operate on street level. I’ve been having an intellectual affair with Brazil without ever having been there. I have few hopes of going, too, at least not without learning Portuguese first, since it is said that English speakers in Brazil are rarer than Portuguese speakers in the States — which only makes me more impressed at a country seemingly doesn’t tolerate ugly Americans. Is the obsession just another form of exotica?
In 50 years, City of God will probably seem like exotica, too, or at least quaint. I still haven’t seen it. The video store across the street seems to be missing its only DVD. My roommate was going to bring it home last night from the place down the block from where he works, but all six copies were out. He’s going to try again tonight.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com