Analepse Tropicália: Gilberto Gil and his songs of exile

This is the third in a series of posts on Tropicália and the Brazilian counterculture under the dictatorship, based on my study with Dr. Talia Guzman-Gonzalez at the University of Maryland. Some posts are in English and others are in Portuguese. I have provided my own English translations for all the lyrics quoted, including a few songs that I have not found in translation elsewhere.

“Only Cannibalism unites us. Socially. Economically. Philosophically.”

In gruesome narratives no doubt meant to shock readers back home, early Portuguese explorers described Brazil as a land of cannibals. Four hundred years later, Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Cannibalist Manifesto riffed on these famous accounts, asserting that Brazil was a nation defined by cultural cannibalism — a nation that had devoured European, indian, and African cultures, producing something entirely unique.

The tropicalist artists of the 1960s took this manifesto and set it to music. From 1968 to 1975 they produced an eclectic series of albums that are infused with music from the exterior (rock, psychedelia, jazz, soul, and Indian music) while remaining distinctly Brazilian.

Gilberto and Caetano in London, 1969

I’ve been listening to Gilberto Gil’s 1972 album Expresso 2222 a lot recently, so in this post I’ll explore three of Gil’s songs. Expresso 2222 came at a unique point in Gil’s career. Tropicália was born in 1968, the year the dictatorship began to crack down on protestors and dissident intellectuals. In 1969, the dictatorship branded Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil subversives and forced them to leave the country. They went to London together and spent three years there marinating in late-sixties rock n’ roll and hippie culture.

This exile and the period immediately afterward was an extremely fruitful period for their songwriting. Caetano produced two albums in London, Caetano Veloso and Transa, in which he experimented for the first time with English lyrics. Gil began work on his album Expresso 2222 [amzn], most of which was completed after his return. When they were finally allowed to return in 1972, they gave a series of concerts in which they presented their new songs to an adoring fan base who had not forgotten them. Many of their songs “cannibalize” the music and counterculture they were exposed to in England and Europe.

But before we get there, let’s go back to 1959 to look at a song that predates tropicália but is all about musical cannibalism: Chiclete com Banana.

Chiclete com Banana

Chiclete is a clever song cowritten by Bahian composer Gordurinha, who was known for his humorous lyrics, and Jackson do Pandeiro, a virtuoso pandeiro player from Paraíba who helped to popularize the musical styles of the arid sertão.

The song humorously explores the fusion of American and Brazilian music and culture through the metaphor of chiclete e banana (bubblegum and bananas). Gordurinha cleverly mixes references to three American musical styles of the 1950s — bebop, boogie-woogie and rock — with references to Brazilian samba, by way of the instruments of the samba batucada (percussion section): tamborim, pandeiro, zabumba, violão, e frigideira. In the lyrics, cities stand in for countries — Copacabana for Brazil, Miami for the U.S. (a strangely prescient choice given that funk carioca arrived in Rio’s favelas by way of Miami bass, resulting in a more contemporary Brazilian-American fusion).

Só ponho bebop no meu samba
Quando o tio Sam pegar no tamborim
Quando ele pegar no pandeiro e no zabumba
Quando ele entender que o samba não é rumba
Aí eu vou misturar Miami com Copacabana
Chicletes eu misturo com banana
E o meu samba vai ficar assim

I’ll only put bebop in my samba
When Uncle Sam picks up the tamborim
When he picks up the pandeiro and zabumba
When he understands that samba isn’t rhumba
Then I’ll mix Miami and Copacabana
I’ll mix bubblegum and bananas
And my samba will go like this:

Bop, Bebop, Bebop
Quero ver a grande confusão (I wanna see the great confusion)
Bop, Bebop, Bebop,
É o samba-rock, meu irmão (That’s the samba-rock, my brother)

Mas em compensação
Quero ver o boogie-woogie de pandeiro e violão
Quero ver o tio Sam de frigideira
Numa batucada brasileira

But in return,
I want to see the boogie-woogie with pandeiro and guitar
I want to see Uncle Sam play the frigideira
In a Brazilian batucada

Implicit in the lyrics is a criticism of the one-way nature of the cultural exchange between the U.S. and Brazil. While jazz and early rock n’ roll from America were becoming popular with bubblegum-chewing Brazilian teenagers, there was less cultural exchange in the other direction. It’s true that thanks to the popularity of Latin movie musicals, Americans were taken by a series of Latin dance crazes: tango and rhumba in the 30s, conga and samba in the 40s, mambo in the 50s. But, as the films of Carmen Miranda show, there was often little specificity about the national and cultural origins of each dance, and the distinct musics of Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina became conflated in the American mind into an undifferentiated category of “Latin music”. The result, as mentioned in Chiclete com Banana, is that few Americans may have understood the musical and cultural differences between samba and other musics like rhumba.

Soon after the song was written, the cultural situation would change somewhat as Americans became fascinated by Bossa Nova and began to incorporate bossa and samba rhythms into jazz music (the classic album Getz/Gilberto is one example). Bossa Nova’s vivid connection to Rio’s beach neighborhoods and samba’s starring role in the popular film Black Orpheus perhaps led to greater recognition of a distinct Brazilian musical culture.

Although the lyrics of Chiclete speak of musical syncretism between samba, rock and jazz, the song itself is a fairly traditional samba-coco, a northeastern dance music somewhat similar to forró. Despite all the references to samba and rock, to cosmopolitan Copacabana and Miami, Jackson do Pandeiro is singing from somewhere in the geographic middle: the rural sertão.

Gilberto Gil covered Chiclete com Banana on his 1972 album Expresso 2222. Considered one of the classic tropicália albums, Expresso 2222 captures Gil’s feelings upon returning to Brazil after two years of exile in London, during which he and Caetano Veloso had immersed themselves in the world of British rock n’ roll. In songs like Back in Bahia, Gil speaks of his homesickness for Brazil while also cannibalizing elements of rock n’ roll: the 12-bar blues form, electric guitars, drug references, and English lyrics. (Caetano did the same in songs like London, London).

Gil’s cover of Chiclete com Banana extends the musical cannibalism of the original by making the song itself an example of the “samba-rock” proposed by the lyrics. He exchanges the frenetic forró rhythm for a more relaxed samba beat, substitutes his guitar for the accordion, and adds a rock drumset and piano to the mix, creating a hybrid genre that manages to sound distinctly Brazilian while incorporating non-Brazilian elements.

Back in Bahia

Many of the songs on Expresso 2222 show off Gil’s percussive vocal & guitar style. The rhythmic playfulness of the album is startling even today — Gil seems to enjoy playing tricks on the listener’s sense of timing in the best malandro tradition. A listen through reveals numerous surprises: uneven phrase lengths, extra bars, odd meters, things that sound like they should be odd meters but aren’t, polyrhythms, and my favorite trick: songs that open with just percussion and guitar, establishing a groove — except that when the vocal finally arrives, the downbeat turns out to be a half or a whole beat off of where you thought it would be.

Listen to the opening of Back in Bahia, for example, and try to guess where the downbeat is:

Back in Bahia is an infectious rock song in 12-bar blues form, except that Gil repeats the final 4 bars over and over, turning it into a stream of percussive Portuguese trochees filled with internal rhymes and alliterations. The music might be all rock n’ roll, but the lyrics are pure brasilidade, an expression of the immense saudades Gil felt for Brazil and Bahia in particular:

Lá em Londres, vez em quando me sentia longe daqui
Vez em quando, quando me sentia longe, dava por mim
Puxando o cabelo nervoso, querendo ouvir Celly Campelo pra não cair…

Over there in London, every now and then I would feel far away from here
Every now and then, when I felt far away, I started
Pulling my hair nervously, wanting to hear Celly Campelo to keep from falling…

Celly Campelo was an early rock singer from São Paulo. The lyrics are filled with images and memories of Bahia:

Naquela ausência de calor, de cor, de sal,
de sol, de coração pra sentir
Tanta saudade preservada num velho baú de prata dentro de mim
Digo num baú de prata porque prata é a luz do luar
Do luar que tanta falta me fazia junto do mar
Mar da Bahia cujo verde vez em quando me fazia bem relembrar
Tão diferente do verde também tão lindo dos gramados campos de lá
Ilha do Norte onde não sei se por sorte ou por castigo dei deparar
Por algum tempo que afinal passou depressa, como tudo tem depassar
Hoje eu me sinto como se ter ido fosse necessário para voltar
Tanto mais vivo de vida mais vivida, dividida pra lá e pra cá

The picturesque tone of longing for the heat/colors/salt/sun/sea/moonlight/green of Brazil is reminiscent of Gonçalves Dias’ famous 1843 poem Canção do Exílio, in which he pines for his native Brazil from far away in Portugal:

My land has palm trees
Where the thrush sings.
The birds that sing in here
Do not sing as they do there.

Our skies have more stars,
Our valleys have more flowers.
Our forests have more life,
Our lives have more love.

In dreaming, alone, at night,
I find more pleasure in there.
My land has palm trees
Where the thrush sings.

Oswald de Andrade himself remixed this poem to create his Canto de regresso à pátria. It’s hard not to imagine that Gil was consciously referencing these poems in his own “song of exile”. But that he chose the language of rock and blues to express these sentiments is telling. He may have been pining for Brazil, but he was nonetheless changed by his time in London. He returned to Brazil more worldly, having gained some fluency in other musical languages and cultures.

Just for fun, here’s Gil’s 1972 tv performance of Back in Bahia. Halfway through, a very, um, uninhibited Caetano Veloso comes bounding onto the stage and starts dancing around. It was the early 70s, after all:


In one of the more experimental tracks on Expresso 2222, Oriente, Gil turns to the East for more material to cannibalize. Gil was fully involved in the culture of drug use and fascination with Eastern religion that artists like the Beatles were also exploring. The song opens with a meditative passage of guitar work resembling an Indian sitar raga. He experiments with quartal harmonies, a fluid meter, falsetto shouts, and lyrics that suggest a grounding in the southern hemisphere, while simultaneously “orienting” oneself toward the East (specifically Japan and India):

Se oriente, rapaz
Pela constelação do Cruzeiro do Sul…
Considere, rapaz
A possibilidade de ir pro Japão
Num cargueiro do Lloyd lavando o porão
Pela curiosidade de ver
Onde o sol se esconde…

Orient yourself, young man
By the constellation of the Southern Cross
Consider, young man
The possibility of going to Japan
In a Lloyd barge washing the hold (?)
For the curiosity of seeing
Where the sun hides itself

Expresso 2222

If Oriente is an eastern meditation, the title song Expresso 2222 is a full-on LSD trip, represented lyrically by a train that runs from Bonsucesso (a neighborhood in Rio’s Zona Norte) straight into the future, and perhaps into the hereafter as well. Gil has said that the song was inspired by memories of the trains that ran through Bahia during his childhood.

Musically, the song is a forró, which you might not realize until the triangle comes in at the end, but the lively tempo, simple harmony and syncopated melody give it away. (Forró is a musical style from the rural northeast that features the accordion, triangle, and a drum called the zabumba. Here is a video of a forró group that I shot at Rio Scenarium in Rio’s Lapa neighborhood; you can clearly see all three of these instruments). The website Lyrical Brazil, which has very good English translations and interpretations of Brazilian songs, has already written a thorough post about Expresso 2222, so I won’t say much more about it except to note that Gil’s delivery of the lyrics has that surprising syncopated flow to it that is so wonderfully characteristic of Brazilian music. You can never quite predict where the stress will fall in each line, and he never sings it the same way twice.

malandragem & sacanagem

Choro musicians call this playful unpredictability in the melodic line malandragem; it’s a sort of showy cleverness that awes the listener and causes the musician to smile mischievously: “Ah, you didn’t see that coming, did you?” Like a master capoeirista, the musician should always be on their toes while improvising, attempting to surprise and delight with virtuoso moves.

Another mark of a good choro performance is sacanagem, a flirtatious behavior that can arise between skilled musicians playing live music, where one may try to impress or one-up the other in increasingly bold ways. When two musicians have been playing with each other for a long time, sometimes that bond expresses itself musically and visually in the performance through sacanagem. I should add that, while there are now a good number of women who play choro, sacanagem is still something that seems to happen almost exclusively between male musicians. I’ve noticed that there is greater acceptance of a certain kind of intimacy in male-male friendships in Brazil that is not the norm for male-female relationships, and that may have something to do with it.

Both of these qualities — the mischievousness and the flirtation — are spectacularly on display in this video of bandolinista Dudu Maia and violeiro Douglas Lora. Notice everything that goes into this performance beyond the music itself: the mischievous glances, the smiles, the body-language, the one-upmanship. That’s all part of choro performance practice, and as much fun as it is to watch, imagine what it feels like to play! Notice also how the contrapuntal nature of the music enables this exchange — the 7-string guitar’s role is to play basslines that fill in the gaps between the bandolim melody, creating a sort of call and response dialog between the two musicians which you can hear at [2:34] and [3:47]. Finally, note how Dudu squishes and stretches time like a true malandro, at times rushing ahead with the melody [2:04], at other times holding back [2:46]:

You see a certain something, too, in this video of Gil recording in the studio, when suddenly Caetano walks in and begins to dance samba. The energy that they share in this clip says more about their friendship than any words could:

For me, this is the grande delícia of much Brazilian music: a participatory musical culture where the relationship between musician and audience is sometimes less important than the relationship between musician and musician. A stroll through Rio on any given Sunday will illuminate this public musical life, from the group of friends sitting around a table drinking choppe and playing samba na mesa in Copacabana, to the public roda de choro in the Praça São Cristoval in Laranjeiras, to the funk carioca pulsing from the ladeiras of Santa Teresa by day and the becos of Lapa by night.

Finally, if you’re a fan of Gilberto Gil, let me recommend two books, both of which are unfortunately quite difficult/expensive to purchase in the US. Gilberto Gil: Todas as Letras is the definitive Portuguese language book on his songs, with photos, interviews and notes on each song. And for musicians, Almir Chediak’s Gilberto Gil Songbooks are, like all of Chediak’s books, meticulous and authoritative. Next time you’re in Rio, drop by Bossa Nova & Companhia in Copacabana where you can browse these sorts of books for hours.

And, ok, just one more final thing. I absolutely cannot mention musical malandragem without linking to one of my favorite things:

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3 Responses to Analepse Tropicália: Gilberto Gil and his songs of exile

  1. Great article, congrats! I came here looking for what might be meant by “Quero ver o tio Sam de frigideira” and I think your translation sounds right. The rest of the analysis seemed spot on too.
    One quibble: it’s not really forró. I read that the original Jackson do Pandeiro version in the ’50s was labeled as a “samba-coco”, which I would agree is more accurate. Here’s the link for that:
    Same geographical area and mindset though, and divisions between genres are always squishy (in spite of what that song’s author might wish).
    Expresso 2222 is definitely forró, and such a lovely one.
    Maladragem is something I’ve had to translate in several samba de gafieira festivals. “Cleverness” and “sneakiness” are good; I went with the slightly invented “badassery”.

    • Lauren says:

      thanks Mose for the correction and for linking me to that really interesting samba-rock paper! I definitely don’t know my northeastern styles as much as I would like to. And yes — ‘badassery’ is pretty much perfect. Saúde!

  2. Maria says:

    Yes! Everyone should learn the moves and then recrod them so it can be like we’re dancing together all over the world from Hot-Lanta to Brasilia to Petrolinaaaa (all hot btw)!!!Thanks for the comments ladies I’ll keep the choreography commin

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