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Explaining, only to confuse

In the 1970s, MPB found different ways to re-create tropicalistic experimentation

File photo/ AGÊNCIA O GLOBOTom Zé on stage in Rio de Janeiro in 1973File photo/ AGÊNCIA O GLOBO

“I’m explaining/To confuse you/I’m confusing you/To make it clear/I’m illuminated/To become blind/I’m going blind/To be able to guide,” sings Tom Zé, somewhat out of tune, in “Tô,” the fourth track on his 1976 album Estudando a samba (Studying the samba). This refrain by the Bahian singer could have referred indirectly to the impact of the musical production by the artists selected by historian Herom Vargas, a full professor in the master’s in communication program offered at the Municipal University of São Caetano do Sul (USCS) and the Methodist University of São Paulo (Umesp), as the focus of a research project entitled Experimentalismo e inovação na música popular brasileira nos anos 1970 (Experimentalism and innovation in Brazilian popular music in the 1970s). In addition to Tom Zé, the Novos Baianos, Walter Franco and the Secos & Molhados, these comprise a disparate bunch, but this disparity tells a story about the creativity and experimentation that took place in Brazilian music during a period when the record industry in Brazil was expanding and becoming more concentrated in terms of ownership.

In his 1994 paper entitled O berimbau e o som universal (The berimbau and the universal sound), Enor Paiano, author of Tropicalismo: bananas ao vento no coração do Brasil (Tropicalism: tossing bananas to the winds in the heart of Brazil), published by Scipione, cited figures that demonstrate the growth in the Brazilian record market at the time: 444.6% between 1966 and 1976, in a period when cumulative growth in GDP was 152%. Among the companies that experienced the most robust sales was Continental, a Brazilian recording company founded in 1929 and based in São Paulo that had popular and regional artists in its portfolio of artists. “Continental was the biggest Brazilian record producer of all time,” emphasizes Eduardo Vicente, professor at the School of Communication and Arts of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP). He is author of the 2002 research project entitled Música e disco no Brasil: a trajetória da indústria nas décadas de 80 e 90 (Music and disco in Brazil: the trajectory of the industry in the 1980s and 1990s).

Around 1970, Continental decided to expand beyond its cast of regional artists and record new artists. Walter Franco, the Secos & Molhados, the Novos Baianos, and Tom Zé had little to no access to the larger multinational recording firms, such as Philips, that were starting to enter the market,” Vargas explains, in justifying his choice of names for analysis in the research project.

But there were two other factors, in addition to market realities, that influenced the emergence of that experimental generation. “The military dictatorship was severely repressive in the first half of the 1970s. These artists, like others in popular music, were going to try to get around the issue of censorship. But unlike Chico Buarque, they had no declared political bias, they operated through the loopholes. They worked up the lyrics of a song as a means of provocation,” Vargas recalls.

Lastly, there is also the international context of the counterculture—the term referring to the set of attitudes and new social, and artistic, relationships that began to take shape in the second half of the 1960s in Europe and the United States and reverberated in different ways in the rest of the world, from the May 1968 events in France to Brazilian tropicalism.


Speaking of this new generation, the researcher used the term “post-tropicalism,” saying: “The term ‘post-tropicalism’ has been used with reasonably accurate insight to designate a segment of the musical production of the period that, in some way, followed some of its steps,” he wrote in the article Categorías de análise do experimentalismo pós-tropicalista na MPB (Categories of analysis of the post-tropicalist experimentalism in MPB [Brazilian Popular Music]). Tropicalismo created its novelties within the context of televised music festivals, very often in a criticism of the Left itself. The Novos Baianos, for example, did that within its songs, in a more musical context,” Vargas points out.

The duo Luiz Galvão and Morais Moreira is emblematic of that transition. Formed in 1969 in Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, they moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1971. Under the influence of João Gilberto, they began to incorporate different elements of the samba into their rock music in albums such as Acabou chorare (Ended up crying) and Novos Baianos FC. “Take their re-recording of Dorival Caymmi’s O samba da minha terra (Samba of my homeland). When Pepeu Gomes comes in with his guitar you hear riffs, solos, that use the language associated with rock. But the piece is still a samba,” says Vargas.

Besides music, the behavior of the group—which for a while lived collectively on a small country estate in Rio de Janeiro—was also important to the continuity of tropicalism. “The Novos Baianos introduced what we might call the ‘Brazilian version of the counterculture,’” says Unicamp professor and researcher José Roberto Zan. “Life in a collective, the drugs, the tropicalist habit of combining musical elements from international pop with Brazilian music (samba, and regional genres like the frevo) make up a style that expresses the way that the counterculture resonates in our popular music.”

Another group that expressed its disagreement via the physicality of its performance style—and, inevitably, via rock music, was the Secos & Molhados. Mixing progressive rock and blues, incorporating Luso-Brazilian folk references (in “O vira” – [name of a Portuguese dance]) and by the constant inclusion of poetry—by names like Vinicius de Moraes, Manuel Bandeira and Fernando Pessoa, among others—the trio enjoyed a meteoric career, with two albums released between 1971 and 1974, and an enormous popular success driven by the visual appeal of their makeup and the sexually ambiguous theatricality of vocalist Ney Matogrosso.

Ronald Fonseca/ Agência O GloboThe Secos & Molhados appear at Maracanã stadium in 1974Ronald Fonseca/ Agência O Globo

The black-and-white makeup that marked the signature look of the group was chosen almost by chance. Prior to the success of the Secos & Molhados, Matogrosso had been an actor and, in a show by the group at the Casa da Badalação e Tédio, a club next to the Ruth Escobar Theatre, he arrived late, having come straight from a children’s play in which he had been acting.  In his haste, he took the stage still in full makeup. João Ricardo, founder and lead composer of the band, and fellow band mate Gérson Conrad were excited by the audience reaction and decided to adopt that style.

That artifice was amplified by Matogrosso’s stage and television performances themselves. Early in the 1970s, he had demanded a newly hegemonic role. In the article Corpo e performance no experimentalismo do grupo Secos & Molhados (Body and performance in the experimentalism of the group the Secos & Molhados), Vargas describes the singer’s posture with precision: “His figure is arrogant (bulging bare chest, head held high), even with bare feet. His eyes are wide open, the shrill voice is remarkable, the exaggerated movements of his mouth emphasize the pronunciation of the words, hip movements insinuate other codes, feathers, beads and sequins jangle with his body, a series of dance movements or completely free movements on the stage become codes for freedom. These weren’t rehearsed moves, that always stayed the same.”

Instead of driving away the public in a country that was still conservative, the effect was the opposite: sold-out shows all over Brazil, a tour in Mexico, hundreds of thousands of albums sold. “The two LPs by the Secos & Molhados were perhaps the biggest phenomenon experienced by the Brazilian recording industry in that period,” Zan observes. “I think the experience of that group set new standards for the staging of songs at a time when television was coming into its own as the principal medium of mass communication in this country. At the same time, the performances anticipated the invention of the video clip, a new component of the language of popular music.”

In contrast to those cases in which experimentation translated into popular success, Walter Franco provides an example of how the more aggressive radicalism found no echo outside the members of the vanguard, who were ultimately baptized, especially because of their confrontational posture, as “cursed.” The São Paulo-native composer began to gain attention projection with his 1972 appearance at the Seventh International Song Festival, sponsored by the Globo TV network, in which he introduced the song Cabeça  (Head).  A song without lyrics, the track was a collection of phrases and fragments placed over a layer of synthesized sounds. Despite being booed by the public during the presentation, the song was viewed sympathetically by the jury chaired by Nara Leão, but to prevent the controversial work from receiving an award, the network dismissed the jury, heightening the controversy.

After this episode, Franco won a contract with Continental, where he would launch two albums: Ou não (Or not), in 1973, and Revólver (Tossing and turning) in 1975. “One could draw a parallel between concrete poetry and Franco’s work, especially in terms of conciseness,” Vargas notes. “He uses only a few notes, a very limited melody, and most of his lyrics are short. But he demonstrates the meanings of the song in the arrangement, in the performance. Cabeça, for example, has no lyrics. It’s just a phrase, but with each repetition in a live performance, he gives it a new meaning. Concrete poetry is like that: the message needs to be concise but at the same time, it has to contain a lot of meaning in order to be understood by the public.”

File photo, Agência Estado/AEThe Novos Baianos at a 1972 rehearsalFile photo, Agência Estado/AE

The preoccupation with words and the experiments with atonal compositions and with collages influenced a later generation of musicians, members of the so-called Paulistano Vanguard, at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. “It seems there was a dialogue going on,” Zan notes. “It’s worth listening to and comparing Franco’s composition Cabeça with ‘Minha Cabeça (My head) by Luiz Tatit and Zé Carlos Ribeiro, who appear on the 1981 LP Rumo (Direction).”

Another musician whose 70s work would later influence Brazilian music is Tom Zé. A participant a the very center of tropicalismo, joining the Mutantes and recording, in the 1968 manifesto-album Tropicális ou panis et circensis (Tropicalia or bread and circuses), this Bahian musician, a disciple of Hans Joachin Koellreutter, had an especially creative phase—but one of little immediate impact—during the 1970s.

In albums such as Todos os olhos (All the eyes) and Estudando o samba, Zé chose songs as his vehicle for experimentation and criticism. His aim was to redraft what he himself would later call the “tacit agreement” between artist and public in which there existed a preconceived notions of what a song is “in fact” and what “is not music” – an accusation he had heard from time to time from the audience as they booed at festivals any and all music that departed from that inscrutable “standard.”

Therefore, Tom Zé looked for different resources with which to deconstruct a song from the inside. “One example is the use of the ostinato, a rhythmic and melodic motif that repeats during the entire song. He uses this in several compositions from the period, and with each repetition something new happens in the music. That use is not very common in popular music, which usually has a structure that is divided into first and second parts, refrain, solo, etc.,” Vargas observes.

In addition, Tom Zé made extensive use of “non musical” objects within his compositions, adapting proposals from the erudite vanguard. “What saved me was that I am a terrible composer, a terrible singer, and a terrible instrumentalist. And so, for someone who’s very bad, it doesn’t make much difference whether I play the piano or a floor polisher!” the musician said in 2006, explaining his choices.

A third point that Vargas likes to recall in the work of the composer during that period is a certain mixture of signals, with Tom Zé inverting, mixing, and appropriating features related to different popular genres. In Estudando o samba that vocation appears with vigor and the artist analyses, decomposes, and recomposes “rhythmic structures, melodic and thematic features, instrumental timbres, and traditional forms of interpretation of the samba,” as Vargas explains in his article As inovações de Tom Zé na linguagem da cançao popular dos anos 1970. (Tom Ze’s innovations in the language of popular songs in the 1970s). “On that record there’s a version of Tom Jobim’s and Vinicius de Moraes’s Felicidade (Happiness). He takes the song apart, it gets strange, he mixes the binary rhythm of the samba with a guitar in the three-part beat and introduces noises, recorded sounds.”

That phase of music is bound to continue to spark new discussions. “I want to study further the conditions under which those artists of the 1970s developed and talk more about Continental and the dictatorship, the recording companies, and the backdrop of the era,” says the researcher.

Experimentalism and innovation in Brazilian popular music in the 1970s (nº 2009/18261); Grant mechanism Regular Line of Research Project Award; Coordinator Herom Vargas – Methodist University; Investment R$ 11,587.00 (FAPESP)