Gilberto/ Veloso / Gil / Bethânia – Brasil | Review


João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil & Maria BethâniaBrasil Philips 6328 382 (1981)

There is an old observation that the (western) musical stars of the 1950s and 60s often struggled for relevance in the 1980s.  Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan…these aging stars may have retained some popularity but their work in the 80s is generally critically reviled — and they were definitely less popular and less commercially successful than before.  But why?  My own view is that these changing perceptions and fortunes rested on wider changes in the sociopolitical context, namely the ascendancy of neoliberalism as represented by a shift in a balance of power between labor and capital that undermined the relative power of these stars’ old audiences bases.  At least, all this makes perfect sense when looking at the United States, where those older popular music stars were once associated with revolutionary and iconoclastic new ideas that challenged establishment power.  What about Brazil though?  Brazil was ruled by a reactionary military junta from 1969 to 1985.  Every one of the top billed musicians on this collaborative album Brasil was associated with the (intellectual/middle class) political left — Veloso and Gil were jailed and/or exiled by the junta for a time and Gilberto went into self-imposed exile too.  But by the 1980s, the junta was fading and its power loosening.  In other words, the sociopolitical climate in Brazil was changing in a manner directly opposite to the United States.  No doubt, the junta still held power in 1981 and, in a way, Brazil was changing in order to converge and collaborate with the neoliberal Washington Consensus.  But the sociopolitical vectors here were nonetheless in opposite directions.  This was much like the situation in Spain with the decline of the fascist Franco regime.  So comparisons to, say, the Spanish flamenco artist El Camarón de la Isla are apropos.  New opportunities were presenting themselves in Brazil and Spain that instead seemed to be becoming foreclosed in the United States.

Brasil is a collection of collaborative recordings that speak to a sort of traditional pop sensibility but with a modern (leftist) twist.  Most of the artists here were already starting to drift into irrelevancy, except for João Gilberto who maintained a quite isolated independence and made some of his very best recordings in the coming years.  The problem was also that in the absence of the junta these artists mostly just accommodated themselves to neoliberal imperatives and their music was accordingly listless and vapid, though sometimes adequately mediocre.  But on Brasil there is a spark of challenge.  There is a sense of courage in making a limited yet persistent challenge to the ideology of the reactionary junta.  As someone later said about Greece decades later, “To persist in such a difficult situation and not to leave the field is true courage.”  This album represents a unique historical juncture when challenges to the junta’s regime had potential, and this album reflects those possibilities.  Sure, it occasionally drifts into regrettable synthesized production treatments so common of the day, but only slightly and not to much overall detriment.  The subversive aspect of this album is, unusually, its laid-back demeanor, which instills both a sense of introverted, existential anxiety and a relaxed charm that suggests social changes will still offer an environment that is enjoyable.  It also melds the old and the new in a way that has a high degree of difficulty.

Gilberto Gil – Gilberto Gil [Cérebro eletrônico]

Gilberto Gil [Cérebro eletrônico]

Gilberto GilGilberto Gil [Cérebro eletrônico] Philips R 765.087 L (1969)

With vocals recorded while Gil was under house arrest by the Brazilian military junta (using a metronome — audible in places), and later orchestrated by Rogério Duprat, Gilberto Gil’s second self-titled album (sometimes referred to by the first song “Cérebro eletrônico” to distinguish it) is more intensely rocking and more overtly filled with electronic effects and musings than its immediate predecessor.  Duprat may have had a freer hand here given Gil’s jailing, which is fine — Duprat was a genius, so who is to complain?  The music also veers more toward private musings and existential concerns.  Eclecticism remains, but the album also somehow manages to feel more cohesive that its predecessor, with sustained emphasis on rock and experimental composition.  This remains one of the best offerings from a very fertile time in the Brazilian music counterculture.

Gilberto Gil – Gilberto Gil [Frevo rasgado]

Gilberto Gil [Frevo rasgado]

Gilberto GilGilberto Gil [Frevo rasgado] Philips R 765.024 L (1968)

Of the albums to emerge from the tropicália movement, Gilberto Gil’s first self-titled album (sometimes referred to by the first song “Frevo rasgado” to distinguish it from his other self-titled albums) is one of the most playfully upbeat.  It is also one more clearly indebted to The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour) than most.  Of course, arranger Rogério Duprat is on board and he deftly brings together all the disparate elements, from anachronistic afoxé/baião/folk musics of Bahia (Gil’s home state in northeastern Brazil) and cultured bossa nova to stately horns and refined strings to edgy psychedelic rock, gritty jovem guarda and energetic iê-iê-iê (Brazilian rock ‘n’ roll forms), in a way that totally sublimates the jarring discontinuities — epitomized on the iconic pastiche “Marginália II” (which goes as far as to quote military march music akin to “Marines’ Hymn”).  There are jumps between styles within songs, and also across the many songs on the album.  The rude and groovy psychedelic guitar riffs and rumbling samba drum beats of “Procissão” give way to “Luzia Luluza,” a delicately intricate baroque pop ballad with interspersed field recording/found sounds, lush and melancholic string arrangements, and alternately bright and fluttering wind instruments.  The sheer breadth of this music is staggering.  Yet it doesn’t exactly beat the listener down with heavy-handed pretensions.  Much of this has a goofy irreverence that undercuts what might otherwise be dour seriousness with music this ambitious.

Christopher Dunn‘s excellent book Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (2001), citing Lídia Santos, describes the tropicália movement’s satirical use of kitsch:

“One of the central aesthetic operations of Tropicália was the irreverent citation and celebration of all that was cafona (denoting ‘bad taste’) or kitsch in Brazilian culture.  The kitsch object bears the mark of a temporal disjuncture, often appearing as anachronistic, inauthentic, or crudely imitative.  The tropicalists’ calculated use of kitsch material was highly ambiguous and multivalent.  First, it served to contest the prevailing standards of ‘good taste’ and seriousness of mid-1960s MPB.  In this sense, it was a gesture of aesthetic populism because it acknowledged that the general public consumed and found meaning in cultural products that many critics dismissed as dated, stereotypical, and even alienated.  Second, the tropicalists incorporated kitsch material as a way to satirize the retrograde social and political values that returned with military rule.”  (p. 124).

Dunn further stresses “the ambiguities of tropicalist song, in which the line between sincerity and sarcasm, complicity and critique, was often blurred.”  (p. 153).  He also refers to some of these same techniques as illustrative of the use of allegory.  (p. 86).  He traces the roots of the musical movement to things like the 1928 “Manifesto Antropófago [Cannibalist Manifesto]” of Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade and French playwright/actor Antonin Artaud‘s Theater of Cruelty.  (pp. 17, 78).  There are many latter-day analogues, such as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.  But there is a question of whether “cynicism” is the right term here.  Ariel Pink’s music might be described as using what Peter Sloterdijk calls “kynicism” (or classical cynicism), which has been summarized as: exposing the self-interested egotism and claims to power behind official discourse by holding it up to banal ridicule.  Miloš Forman‘s early films made behind the Iron Curtain did this too.

The tropicalists did all this within a somewhat specific context of the Third World Project and Non-aligned Movement (for that history, see Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (2007)) and colonial liberation movements in the spirit of Frantz Fanon et al. Those efforts were all about casting off the yoke of colonialism with both a materially independent (yet not isolationist) economic system and a psychological break from a colonized mindset.  This was a musical project with similar aims.

My pal Toni encapsulated the heart of the matter in a review of Tom Zé‘s debut album:

“So what makes tropicalismo so unique? Is it the Bahia folk influence, the focus on emotional expression rather than rock ‘n roll grooves? Those too, but I think the most important difference is the songwriting & the arrangements. Brazilian songwriters never seem ashamed to use extravagant horn & string sections on their albums, or restrain from including folk & tribal parts in the songs. Avantgarde, African & ‘alternative’ music all melt together to form multi-dimensional music that you can’t pigeonhole, which is I guess why mostly nondescript names such as tropicalismo and ‘musica popular brasileira’ get thrown around.”

The tropicalists adopt all sorts of things, without guilt about doing it.  This is what made them so radical.

Dunn’s book puzzles over the censorship and arrests of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, claiming that such government action was “arbitrary and misinformed” (p. 147) in view of the more obvious protest music that was not treated as harshly.  But, I think, this is a wrongheaded approach.  Caetano Veloso, in his memoir Tropical Truth, takes a contrary position when he recounts an episode as he and Gil were about to be released from imprisonment by the military, about being called to the office of a captain who had underwent special anti-guerrilla training in the United States, “He said he understood clearly that what Gil and I were doing was much more dangerous than the work of artists who were engaged in explicit protests and political activity.”  Dunn overlooks a possibility here, one that is explained by Slavoj Žižek, whose In Defense of Lost Causes (2008) discusses the curious difference between composers Sergei Prokofiev [Сергей Сергеевич Прокофьев] and Dmitri Shostakovitch [Дми́трий Дми́триевич Шостако́вич] in the Soviet Union:

“what if what makes Shostakovich’s music ‘Stalinist,’ a part of the Soviet universe, is his very distance towards it?  What if distance towards the official ideological universe, far from undermining it, was a key constituent of its functioning?  ***  If there is a lesson to be learned from the functioning of Stalinist ideology, it is that (public) appearances matter, which is why one should reserve the category ‘dissidence’ exclusively for the public discourse: ‘dissidents’ were only those who disturbed the smooth functioning of the public discourse, announcing publicly — in one way or another — what, privately, everybody already knew.  ***  What if the Stalinist rejection of both Prokofiev’s propagandistic and intimate works was right on its own terms?  What if they wanted from him was precisely the coexistence of two levels, propagandistic and intimate, while he was offering them either the first or the second?  ***  Nonetheless, the subjective position of Prokofiev is here radically different from that of Shostakovich: one can propose the thesis that, in contrast to Shostakovich, Prokofiev was effectively not a ‘Soviet composer,’ even if he wrote more than Shotakovich’s share of official cantatas celebrating Stalin and his regime.  Prokofiev adopted a kind of proto-psychotic position of internal exclusion towards Stalinism: he was not internally affected or bothered by it, that is, he treated it as just an external nuisance.  There was effectively something childish in Prokofiev, like the refusal of a spoilt child to accept one’s place in the social order of things . . . .  What if . . . Shostakovich’s popularity is the sign of a non-event, a moment of the vast cultural counter-revolution whose political mark is the withdrawal from radical emancipatory politics, and the refocusing on human rights and the prevention of suffering?”  (pp. 236-246).

The parallels aren’t exact here, but Gilberto Gil’s music on his first self-titled album — like much other music of tropicália — puts an emancipatory agenda on the table by drawing no high/low cultural distinctions between music of the poor in Brazil, officially sanctioned music, and popular music of the core economies of the global West.  He simply refuses to internally accept any boundaries of that sort.  Yet the Brazilian junta depended upon a distinction between core and peripheral economies.  As the Brazilian political economist Ruy Mauro Marini noted just a few years before Gil’s album was released, the Brazilian military state engaged in a kind of collaborationist “sub-imperialism” that involved collaborating actively with (core economy) imperialist expansion, assuming in that expansion the position of a key nation.  RM Marini, “Brazilian Interdependence and Imperialist Integration,” Monthly Review, Vol. 17, No. 7, p. 22 (Dec. 1965).  Gil’s music may present a “public” discourse that is ambiguously involved with parts of the traditions of Brazil and its colonial past, but its “internal” stance stands apart from the ideology that sustained the authoritarian, conservative, “sub-imperialist” junta.  So, contrary to Dunn (though later in his book he briefly acknowledges a view of Gil’s “symbolic” interventions), I think the censors in Brazil were actually quite astute in their persecutions of Gil and Veloso, who presented a much deeper problem for the military regime than did the protest signers of the time, who like “beautiful souls” accepted an outsider position that paradoxically helped sustain the regime.

Of course, the tropicalist movement evaporated in only a matter of years, as Gil and Veloso were jailed and then exiled.  Gil in particular is often accused of giving up on the emancipatory project after his return from exile in favor of a tepid acceptance of the center-liberal “refocusing on human rights and the prevention of suffering” and wholesale adoption of typical “Western” (core economy) musical values.  But, none of that had happened yet with Gilberto Gil, and that album still sounds daring nearly a half-century later.

Gilberto Gil & Milton Nascimento – Gil & Milton

Gil & Milton

Gilberto Gil & Milton NascimentoGil & Milton WEA 857382810-2 (2000)

Brazilian tropicalia legend Gilberto Gil teams up with longtime Brazilian pop star Milton Nascimento for Gil & Milton. The results are unspectacular. At times the record is downright boring but not without the occasional gem. As nothing more than a slick commercial album, dredging through the entire album is a chore. This is a far cry from the vibrant music these fellows made in their youth.  The main problem here is the heap of gloomy songs lacking an edge. There just is not enough camp to salvage this one from easy listening hell. There is much better tropicalia/bossa nova type stuff out there than this trite, sentimental crapola.

“Trovoada” is brilliant (by far the best song). It features split songwriting by the duo. On the next cut, the watery reggae on a cover of George Harrison’s “Something” spoils the moment. Then drum machines pop up in annoying fashion on “Maria.” You may get your hopes up occasionally but those good vibes fade quickly. Generally, the new compositions are the better tracks. Even those better ones hardly deserve a yawn.

Superb individual vocals are wasted. All the arrangements are predictable, save some nice instrumental moments — like Gilberto Gil’s accordion on “Duas Sanfonas” and acoustic guitar on quite a few others. The duo almost never sings harmony. They trade verses but in an eerie way never seem to sing together. Vocal recordings happened separately and only came together later on a mixing board, much to the chagrin of listeners.

Without any offense to some fine artists, this is a poor album. At best, Gil & Milton sounds like self-parody. Some of the lyrical impact may be lost on those of us who only speak English, but no lyrics could rescue Gil & Milton. This album is quite a disappointment.