Thursday, September 22, 2005

Tropicalia e saudade

Very quickly, because I am running out of time at the library. During my last two semesters as an undergraduate, I took Portuguese as my foreign language because it was considered an "exotic" language and was offered in two 5-credit hour semesters, thus allowing me to fulfill my foreign language requirement and graduate.

Years later, at the Rockford Public Library I came across a collection of Brazilian music compiled by David Byrne, Brazil Classics Vol. 1, Beleza Tropical. I loved that album so much that I burned it for myself and went on to get solo CDs by many of the artists featured on it, including Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Tom Ze. The more I look into this highly politicized genre of music, the more I realize how rich it is, primarily because it is a chronicle of a poor, polyglot culture that historically is beat down by a reigning power elite. Can any of modern America's pop divas match tropicalia for desperate, heartfelt feeling. Gotta go. More later. enjoy

Brazilian Tropicalia

In 1967, singer/composers Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso introduce a new sound in Brazilian music, inspired as much by Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry as by mellow bossa nova. Along with rock musicians Os Mutantes and Tom Ze, they produce a startling collective record, Tropícalía ou Panís et Círcensís (Tropicalia or Bread and Circuses), that mingles traditional Brazilian rhythms with electric guitars and psychedelic flourishes. Their often humorous lyrics poke fun at Brazil's consumer society and other aspects of the contemporary culture.

Many Brazilians see the music as an adulteration of Brazil's musical birthright by an American aesthetic. On occasion, Veloso performs to so many boos, he stops midsong. Nevertheless, over the next year, the Tropicalistas develop a cult following that begins to spread to an entire generation inspired by their music and spirit.

Brazil's military government distrusts the Tropicalistas, who dress in the feathers and velvets of the hippie movement. Veloso's 1968 tune, "E Proíbído Proíbír" ("It is Forbidden to Forbid"), which takes its title from a slogan of the May student protests in Paris, provokes officials further, and they label the musicians a political threat and a decadent influence who will corrupt Brazilian youth.

In December of 1968, the military government consolidates power. They then arrest Veloso and Gil, jailing them without charge for several months, and then recommending they leave the country. The artists remain in exile for four years, spiriting compositions with veiled lyrics from London to Brazil for others to record and perform. Others in the Tropicalismo movement are less fortunate; several undergo torture or forced "psychiatric care." One Tropicalisto, the lyricist and poet Torquato Neto, commits suicide after such treatment.

Gil and Veloso are able to return to Brazil in 1974 and rebuild their careers. Military rule in Brazil ends in 1985 with the election of a civilian president. By then, tropicalia musicians gain worldwide attention, influencing such North American performers as David Byrne and Paul Simon.


Saudade is a Portuguese word generally considered one of the hardest words to translate. It originated from the Latin word solitate (loneliness), but with a different meaning. Loneliness in Portuguese is solidão, also with the same word origin. Few other languages in the world have a word with such meaning, making Saudade a distinct mark of Portuguese culture.

In Portuguese, this word serves to describe the feeling of missing someone (or something) you're fond of. For instance, the sentence "Eu sinto muitas saudades tuas" (I feel too much "saudade" of you) directly translates into "I miss you too much". "Eu sinto muito a tua falta" also has the same meaning in English ("falta" and "saudades" both are translated for missing), but it is different in Portuguese. It also relates to feelings of melancholy and fond memories of gone-by days, lost love and a general feeling of unhappiness.

In his book In Portugal of 1912, A.F.G Bell writes: "The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness."

Saudade is also the title of the Cape Verde Fado singer Cesária Évora's most famous song; French singer Etienne Daho also produced a song by the same name. Fado, and Saudade are two key and intertwined ideas in Portuguese culture, "Fado" meaning "Fate" or "Destiny". It is, in part, the recognition of this unassailable determinism which compels the resigned yearning of Saudade, a bittersweet, existential yearning and hopefulness towards something over which one has no control.