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What is Tropicália? An Intro to Brazil’s Most Beautiful Music

Country Walkers Brazil: Royal Route, Salvador, and Chapada Diamantina trip has a staggering number of highlights to recommend it—from baroque villages and historic opera houses deep in the jungle to hidden waterfalls and lush botanical gardens. No wonder National Geographic Traveler just listed it as one of their “50 Tours of a Lifetime!” Still, the element of this adventure that excites me the most is one that’s easy to overlook. For two nights and three days in the middle of this trip, you stay in the vibrant city of Salvador. And while Salvador is renowned for a great many things, my favorite of them is Tropicália.

Tropicália is a style of music started in the 1960’s by teens in Salvador. Though under-recognized outside of Brazil, it has been phenomenally influential on everyone from Paul Simon to the Talking Heads and was seen as so revolutionary in its day that its proponents were thrown in prison and even exiled from Brazil. Now, it is considered an essential piece of Brazil’s artistic identity and Salvador, its birthplace, is considered the country’s cultural capital.

Sonically, Tropicália is like Brazil itself: a blend of influences simultaneously European, African, and Native American—with a heavy sprinkling of North American pop as well. In its heyday, it combined live music with theatre, poetry, and the bright colors of 60’s era pop art to create a psychedelic and sophisticated experience. Its songs range from plaintive and soulful ballads influenced by bossa nova to infectious rock and roll heavily influenced by the Beatles. For example, check out this catchy song by the band Os Mutantes:

A Minha Menina by Jorge Bem

Perhaps the two most renowned proponents of Tropicália were the musicians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who met in Salvador while in college and instantly became close friends and collaborators. Together, they put out an album in 1968 that collected the work of a number of their cohorts and served to greatly expand the music style’s popularity. Their brash, fresh sound and political lyrics—they were highly critical of the military government that had come to power in 1964—became a national craze and soon they had regular spots on a television show called Divina Maravilhoso and a slew of hit songs.

Batmacumba by Gilberto Gil

Leaozinho by Caetano Veloso

However, all of this popularity didn’t sit well with the censors in the military government and, in 1969, a number of Tropicália musicians including Gil and Veloso were rounded up and thrown in prison. Many were tortured and even confined to mental institutions. Eventually, Veloso and Gil were forced to leave the country and moved to London, where they continued writing music in exile.

London London by Caetano Veloso

Their story has a happy ending, however. After four years, Gil and Veloso were able to return to their homes in Salvador, where they redoubled their advocacy work. Eventually, Gil went into politics and held elected office. In 2003 he was appointed Minister of Culture for Brazil. He was only the second person of color ever to serve in the country’s cabinet. Veloso, for his part, still tours internationally, has won 11 Latin Grammees, and in 2012, was voted the “Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year.”

Today, Tropicália’s influence can be heard everywhere from American pop (the Talking Heads regularly credited the movement as being formative for them) to the streets of Salvador, where a new generation plays this distinctly Brazilian brand of music. You can hear all manners of Brazilian music—including a live Samba performance, on our Royal Route, Salvador, and Chapada Diamantina trip.

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