“She was a typical girl from Rio, born in Portugal, who, using a blatantly vulgar though elegant stylization of the characteristic baiana—Bahian dress—conquered the world and became the highest-paid woman in the United States. Carmen conquered white America as no other South American had done or ever would. She was the only representative of South America who was universally readable, and it is exactly because of this quality that self-parody became her inescapable prison.”
“Nevertheless, in 1967 Carmen Miranda reappeared as a central figure in our aesthetic concerns. A movement that came to be known as Tropicalismo appropriated her as one of its principal signs, capitalizing on the discomfort that her name and the evocation of her gestures could create. We had discovered that she was both our caricature and our X-ray, and we began to take notice of her destiny.”
“In Carmen’s day it was enough to make a percussive din that was recognizably Latin and Negroid. By bringing the musicians from Bando da Lua with her to the United States, however, she represented less the adulteration alleged by her critics than a pioneering role in a history that is still unfolding. It is the history of the relationship between a very rich music from a very poor country and musicians and audiences from the rest of the world.”
Quoted from “Caricature and conqueror, pride and shame” by Caetano Veloso (The New York times 20 October 1991).
When tropicalismo erupted on the horizon of Brazilian popular music in the late 1960s, the Brazilian military dictatorship was in full swing. Not surprisingly, resistance, irreverence, and political confrontation became defining features of the movement, which in turn led the military government to pay very close attention to tropicalismo’s protagonists.
Gal Costa’s career unfolded in this highly charged context. She was the only female performer who was associated with tropicalismo from the very beginning and throughout the movement’s traumatic developments, and therefore became the muse-in-residence for all the tropicalists, and the most revered interpreter of their works.
Costa had an enormous impact on the reception of tropicalismo and its aesthetics, especially through her irreverent stage presence and performing style. She took to heart the confrontational aspects of tropicalismo and embodied them in her stage persona, which was constructed from a combination of musical, visual, and theatrical elements.
One of the most distinct aspects of her performances was the intense sexuality and eroticism that emanated from her onstage. She was a very accomplished guitarist, and for most of her early career she would accompany herself on the guitar, playing the instrument as she sat with her legs widespread and animated by a sensual, provocative movement that made many conservative spectators a bit uncomfortable. Her mass of unruly hair added an animalistic intensity that was made all the more vivid through her wild and aggressive vocalizations.
Costa gave voice to several of the iconic songs of tropicalismo, many of which were composed specifically with her vocal qualities in mind. In her first live album, Fa-tal: Gal a todo vapor (1971), she crystallized all the defining elements of her style. The album became a classic in the history of Brazilian popular music, and was ranked the 20th greatest Brazilian album of all time by Rolling Stone Brasil.
The tropicália movement of the 1960s, which coincided with a period of intense cultural and political unrest in Brazil, emphasized the country’s multiethnic identity by incorporating the entire spectrum of Brazilian music. Although the movement had an ostensibly political framework of national scope, many of its products had deep roots in the traditional music of Bahia, the most important reservoir of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Among tropicália’s most important figures were Afro-Brazilian singer-songwriters such as Gilberto Gil and Tom Zé; several other artists connected with the movement hailed from Bahia. An overview of song texts and musical features of tropicália shows that the influence of Bahia’s traditional music and culture remained a strong factor behind even the most avant-garde experiments of the various artists who converge under that rubric. The website Tropicália is an extensive resource for exploring tropicalismo, the aesthetic of tropicália.
This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.
Below, Gil speaks about Bahia, tropicália, and political suppression. Many thanks to James Melo for his help with this post!
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