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Tropicalia and the quest for a cultural commons

About the author
Sam Howard–Spink is a writer and doctoral student at New York University.

The selection of Brazil as the host country for this year's iCommons summit comes as no surprise to followers of international machinations over Intellectual Property (IP). The country has recently emerged as one of the leading provocateurs in a global fraternity of developing nations that is challenging US and western assumptions about copyright, patents, trademarks – and cultural ownership.

The summit's headlining guest is none other than Gilberto Gil, Brazil's current Minister of Culture and vocal advocate of more open copyright systems and Creative Commons. In another lifetime, he was one of the founders of Tropicalia, a socio-musical movement which shone brightly – albeit briefly – in the 1960s before being brutally repressed by the military dictatorship of the day.

Can any parallels – and lessons – be drawn with the Brazilian Tropicalia experience and the future of the cultural commons?

This article is part of a debate exploring global digital commons and culture. For more information on the commons movement, see the iCommons website.



Join the debate in the openDemocracy forums: "Do you remix?"

Tropicalia in context

Brazil has long been characterized as a "hybrid nation" – be it of peoples, languages, cultures, or even its straddling of "developing" and "developed". In many ways, Tropicalia is emblematic of such a hybridic style. While the methods to mix and blend music may be new, the impulse is not, as Tropicalia demonstrates. Essentially, Tropicalia is "remix".

From its very inception, the movement was characterized by hybridity and the cultural appropriation of old and foreign styles – or, as it is known in the Brazilian context, antropofagia or "cannibalism", after modernist writer Oswald de Andrade's "Cannibalist Manifesto" which advanced a model for critically "devouring" cultural inflows from abroad.

As a specific genre, it emerged from a concerted effort on the part of founders Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso to develop what they called the "universal sound", which they performed during a televised music festival in 1967. The genre's emergence on television is important precisely because one of the conceptual planks of Tropicalia was not to reject mass media and then carve a space of resistance outside of it, but rather to try to blend with it, and to use it to one's advantage.

There are payoffs here of course, but the point is not about the replacement of mass media (as feared by media conglomerates), but rather a "hybridization" of cultural spheres. Indeed, Gil and Veloso proposed their innovation as a claim of participation in an international modernity.

The musicians who founded the Tropicalia movement and articulated its philosophy – principally Veloso, Gil, and Tom Ze all hailed from small towns in the Bahia region in the northeast of Brazil, the poorest area of the country (the exception being Sao Paulo rock band Os Mutantes). Bahia is the epicentre of Afro-Brazilian cultural life, the birthplace of the Candomble religion, the martial art capoeira, and the sounds of samba.

The fact that such a pervasive cultural and political force as Tropicalia should emerge from an economically and nationally marginalized region hints at an appropriate parallel with Brazil's relatively newfound role in international cultural (and therefore, in a networked information economy, political) affairs in the face of north American dominance.

It is tempting to suggest that this dynamic is already grounded in Brazilian socio-cultural thinking, thanks to Gilberto Freyre's book Casa-grande e Senzala, which made the case for understanding social relations between "the big house and the slave quarters" as a transhistorical template for Brazilian culture and society.

This begs certain questions: can the economic underdogs of the developing world genuinely locate culture as a site for progressive change? Is culture a channel they can have genuine leverage in – as New York University scholar George Yudice suggests, an expedient resource? These are intriguing queries, however one must be cautious about making overly ambitious claims for cultural movements. Another American academic Liv Sovik points out the comforting images offered by Bossa Nova of "o amor, o sorriso e a flor" (love, smiles and flowers) and "sal, sol, sul" (salt, sun, South) could not meet the challenge of tanks in the streets in 1964.

A "new language"

Tropicalia has had its share of criticism, principally on the grounds that its atemporal projection of Brazil negates any potential for social transformation, and that its open embrace of western rock music made it a disguise for cultural imperialism from the North. Such criticisms fail to recognise Tropicalia's artistic and theoretical practices as grounded in Brazilian cultural and historical specificities.

This raises new questions: will actions taken by Brazil remain only significant to itself? Or, given its powerful position in Latin America and its emerging role as a powerbroker at World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations as a counterforce to American cultural and informational hegemony, does this remain the case?

The critic Buarque de Hollanda saw in Tropicalia "a new critical language" that made interventions at the level of everyday behaviours. A new language is certainly needed in order that the importance of IP to development can find its way into the public sphere, and not remain a discourse exclusive to cultural industrialists, economists, lawyers and UN bureaucrats.

This project is already underway, and on one level, can be seen through efforts of the Free Culture movement. Moreover, intervention at the level of everyday behaviours is one of the key discursive weapons of the IP "copyfight" movement: that everyday practices of reading, experiencing and commenting on cultural forms are becoming increasingly compromised by the aggressive march of propertisation.

One of the key areas of tension in the current IP system is that of transnationalism, the negotiations over which is WIPO's raison d'etre. In Tropicalia, the transnationality of pop music is something to be celebrated; its musicians liberally borrowed from Anglo-American rock, and caused controversy with their adoption of electric guitars and other instruments. To Veloso and Gil, the pop music industry was a space in which musicians could be active artists, and was not something to be avoided for its own sake.

As in Tropicalia, there is an emergent blending of cultural and political demands for economic and policy autonomy on the part of dominated parties. During the 1960-70s, the relationship shared between culture and politics was essentially communicative, educational and in some instances counter-hegemonic – which is why the right-wing military government came to oppose the movement and exile Gil and Veloso.

In today's context of global digital networks that channel cultural works in real time and at zero marginal cost, culture and politics are even more thoroughly interpenetrated, and in fact may have collapsed into each other in the rise of the "network society". To assert the absolute need to protect IP is now a function of US and EU trade policy, and defines the starting position for a new mode of engagement in the global community.

Among the many parallels between Tropicalia and this new dynamic, one that stands out is the fact that Veloso and Gil managed to aggravate both the military right and intellectual left with their music: the former for subversion and the latter for embracing hegemonic Anglo-American rock and pop.

This is very similar to the blurred right/left lines in IP and copyright policy debates. It is an issue that produces strange ideological bedfellows, and a more helpful distinction is between "thick" and "thin" copyright as outlined by Siva Vaidhyanathan. This in turn reveals how the right/left binary becomes anachronistic in a world dominated by information flows. It also suggests the redundancy of those labels in a world of networked communication that in many ways is only tangentially subject to governmental and/or market interventions.

Strange fruit

The defining characteristics of Tropicalia are now in the ascendant in Brazil's dealings in international affairs. The gaining of the upper hand over more rigid, totalising systems backed by power of not just the state, but supranational organisations that supersede statehood. The leap is to suggest that Brazilian culture was already pre-disposed to such a formulation because of its history, ethnic makeup, and embrace (genuine or imagined) of mixture, which is now bearing actual political – and potentially economic – fruit.

Can we also speculate that the west itself might be entering a Tropicalia stage of its own, given the increasing pervasiveness of hybrid cultural and social forms? Can cannibalistic hybridity as a social force help to bring about, in the medium to long term, an amelioration of the extremist totalistic forces currently manifest in US domestic politics, and the knock-on effects this has in the global political sphere?

At the very least, we're going to hear some amazing music. It is especially tempting to explore such ideas just as Brazilian sounds find themselves on the rise in the highly hybridised global music scene. Baile funk from the Rio favelas has become the hot staple of cutting-edge dance music worldwide, and its stylizations have become popular in clubs throughout Europe, with growing interest in the US. The British-Sri Lankan artist MIA scored a hit record last year with Arular, the lead single from which makes liberal use of Baile funk horns and rhythms.

The global flows of Brazilian sounds harmonise nicely with Tropicalia, and shine a light on potential rewards for a country that can exercise autonomy over its own IP systems. On the subject of the expediency of cannibalism, in his autobiography Veloso quotes the concrete poet Haroldo de Campos on the need…

"…to assimilate the foreign experience into the Brazilian species, and to reinvent it on our own terms, with the ineluctable local qualities that will endow the resulting product with an autonomous character and confer on it, in principle, functionality as a product for export."

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