Ambitious futures for (digital) education: Perspectives from Tropicália – Part 1 of #domains19 keynote

[Slides and notes from my recent #Domains19 keynote on June 11, 2019 in Durham, NC. Part 1Part 2 Video forthcoming! A huge thanks to that amazing and supportive community. Giving this talk was a real treat and only possible because of that community of people.]

You’re hearing the dulcet, and sometimes intentionally off-key tones of João Gilberto, who is considered by many to be the father of Bossa Nova in Brazil. Bossa Nova was a Brazilian samba-based sound, influenced by American jazz and blues and by modern European composers like Debussy. It was characterized by lyrical conversation between natural voices and instrumental accompaniment. It was praised and loved in Brazil, and eventually around the world, called by some Brazil’s first cultural or poetic export. Bossa Nova raised the profile of Brazilian music in places where the only cultural icon people knew was Carmen Miranda, who was a campy and exaggerated persona.

In the 1960s, Brazil’s political situation changed, and so did Bossa Nova. As American economic interests in Brazil began to shape its government, a new cultural milieu began rejecting what it saw as imperialist cultural influences of American artists like Elvis and Bob Dylan and European rock music. That rejection led to an extremely nationalistic turn in Brazilian music, including in Bossa Nova.

The globally-influenced Bossa Nova, like João Gilberto’s here, was superseded by a nationalistic Bossa Nova and became known as MPB (which stands for Musica Popular Brasileira or Brazilian Popular Music). It was through this MPB that young people protested the authoritarian American-supported government.

Both forms of Bossa Nova–the original and the new nationalistic one– set the stage for a revolutionary cultural movement, one that defined the 1960s in Brazil one that still reverberates today: Tropicália. [slide2]

Today, we’ll go back in time to 1960s Brasil to explore Tropicália, which rose up as a form of resistance both to authoritarianism imposed by a military dictatorship and America’s colonizing influences and to far-left nationalism that was opposing the dictatorship. In the face of intense polarization, Tropicália served as a creative force to imagine new futures for Brazil–ones not being imagined or advanced by the dominant political and cultural waves. 1960s Brazil is also the era in with critical educator Paulo Freire launched his literacy program to help marginalized Brazilians liberate themselves from oppressive forces. As political and social turmoil were heating up, Freire’s work and the creations of the Tropicalistas became vehicles of opportunities and freedoms for Brazilians caught in the middle of the polarization. My goal today is to help us explore what is needed in education today at this time of intense polarization. As a critical education, who has studied and hoped to emulate Paulo Freire, I look now to the Tropicalistas for creative inspiration for resistance to today’s political and societal challenges.

Beyond drawing inspiration from Tropicália for critical educators, I turned to the movement to try to better understand my own history. You see, my family was part of the American imperialist efforts in Brazil. Rather than economic imperialism, however, we were part of religious colonialism. My parents were missionaries in Brazil for most of my childhood. [slide3] Embarrassing childhood photos in 3…2…1… I grew up in the 1980s post-dictatorship Brazil in a time of a budding democratic republic and extreme economic depression, repercussions of the dictatorship’s failures. The music of Brazil, the music of my childhood, still lives in my heart, still guides my dancing feet. But it was not until I became a critical educator, reading and studying Paulo Freire from that lens, did the music begin to connect to a deeper understanding of that world. It was a world I sang by heart but that I understood so little about. As I struggle to make peace with–or maybe denounce–my family’s work in Brazil, I feel compelled to explore its past and its present. And yeah, I also just love that country.

[Slide 4 & 5] So let’s go there—back in time to just outside of Salvador, Bahia, in the year 1959. Salvador, the colonial capital of Brazil from 1500 until 1763, was where many of the 5 million African slaves who were brought to Brazil arrived (by comparison, the estimated number of slaves who went to North America during that time is half of 1 million). Salvador was the epicenter of the tensions and amalgamations of colonialism in a tropical paradise, and by the mid-20th century it had a thriving Afro-Brazilian culture. It’s important to highlight that the Tropicália movement emerged from people who grew up there.

The João Gilberto song that you heard at the start of this talk is being played at a bar, where a young man and his friends have gathered. Though they are in high school, they gather at the bar because it’s the only place with a record player they can use. The students have pooled their resources to buy Gilberto’s LP, Chega de Saudade, and now play it on the bar’s sound system. The young man at the bar, heavily influenced by João Gilberto’s global Bossa Nova, would eventually become the leader of the Tropicália movement. This young man’s name was Caetano Veloso.

Just a few years later, in 1964, a military coup supported by the U.S. government, introduced a military regime, one bent on “squashing communism” and allowing America’s economic interests to flourish. The country was polarized between people who supported the military dictatorship and welcomed America’s capitalism, and those who opposed it, a nationalistic strand of communism that found itself among university students and lower economic classes.

Caetano Veloso, now a young man, was at a training for people who wanted to teach literacy using Paulo Freire’s pedagogical methods. Illiteracy was a basis of discrimination in Brazil, keeping people from voting and participating in social change. Veloso found the literacy aims of Freire’s work to be important for Brazil’s progress. Freire’s approach involved developing people’s ability to read by engaging them in dialogue about their world–awakening their consciousness and helping them to add to the world through acts of creation and re-creation (see Freire’s Education for Critical Consciousness, p. 41).

As Veloso and others arrived for the training that evening, March 31, 1964, word of a military coup began to spread across the university. Classes were cancelled, including Veloso’s training, and people were sent home. Many went into hiding.

[slide6] Veloso had also become involved in a local theater in Salvador along with his sister Maria Bethania, a fellow named Gilberto Gil, and a singer named Gal Costa. Veloso and Gil wrote music to accompany theater productions. Maria Bethania and Gal Costa often performed the songs in the theater. Through those engagements, the four gained notoriety. As unrest grew in the country, the four were invited to help with a new theater group in Rio de Janeiro that was writing plays to protest the military coup. It was through this engagement that they encountered the emerging nationalist Brazilian popular music scene–MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira).

MPB was popular music that sought to reject Americanization and embrace Brazilianness, well, an imaginary notion of Brazil painted by MPB. MPB hosted weekly local events, supported artists to record albums, and televised music festivals (which were contests pitting MPB artists against each other to win over judges, the audience in the room, and those watching on TV). All of these forms of MPB were intended to reach the masses with a message counteracting American influence and the military regime. MPB saw themselves as guardians of national culture and they rejected emerging forms of brazilian popular music, like brazilian rock-and-roll, which was called iê-iê-iê (pronounced yeah-yeah-yeah, because that’s what the Beatles said). Anything that drew from global music, especially American and European music, was seen as counter to the movement.

Veloso in particular took issue with what he saw as a backwards-looking nationalist turn. He and Gil saw MPB as regressive and counter to goals of Brazilian liberation from dominant forces. In the liner notes for his first album Domingo, Caetano Veloso wrote: “My inspiration does not want to depend any more on nostalgia for times and places but rather to incorporate this longing in a future project.” With that credo, Veloso launched the Tropicália movement.

Veloso saw a new form of music was needed–one that wasn’t beholden to a particular political view, but that saw progress as the outgrowth of tensions and contradictions. Tropicália became a cultural movement that emerged from the tensions of modernity and history; of colonialism and freedom. It documented the failures of modern society and the ascension of an authoritarian regime, (Dunn)  but did not capitulate to narrow interests of dominant groups, whether leftist or rightist.

[slide7] Christopher Dunn, author of Brutality Garden: Tropicalia and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture, wrote that Tropicália was “both a mournful critique” of failed efforts to transform Brazil into a sovereign and equitable nation, “as well as an exuberant, if often ironic, celebration of Brazilian culture and its continuous permutations…The tropicalists purposefully invoked stereotypical images of Brazil as tropical paradise only to subvert them with pointed references to political violence and social misery.” But the movement was not stuck in a critique of Brazil as it was in the past or in the present–it had a hope for Brazil’s future. And because of that hope, artists like Veloso and Gil bucked the regressive MPB trend to form this new Brazilian music.

[slide8] It’s now 1967, three years into the military reign. Our Tropicalista friends are exploring what will become one of the key characteristics of the Tropicalia: Anthropophagia. Anthropophagia, or cannibalism, was a term used by poet Oswald de Andrade to describe a strategy of consuming cultural products and technologies from around the world and using them to create new forms of art. The idea was inspired by coastal natives who would devour their captives, including their Portuguese colonizers. It was a model for cultural production that was neither subservient to colonial influences from America and Europe, yet also not defensive or narrowly nationalistic. (Dunn) It pushed back on an imaginary notion of ‘Brazilianness’ that was being used to protest imperial American interests and the dictatorship.(source) As a creative strategy, cannibalism instead “devoured” the colonizer’s political, economic, and cultural power, thus inverting or eroding the colonizer/colonized binary.

Playful language and art–humor and parody–were used in anthroprophagia. In Oswald de Andrade’s Cannibalist Manifesto, he states: “Tupi or not Tupi, eis a questão” [slide9] Tupi were the largest family of indigenous tribes in Brazil; and of course, the wordplay is on Shakespeare. The goal is to digest the information coming from the colonizer and ”regurgitate a new, finished product that is original, innovative, and Brazilian.” (source)

For Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, anthropophagia meant consuming Brazil’s musical past and present, along with global music, to create a new sound. Veloso wrote in his memoir, Tropical Truth, “The tropicalistas decided that a genuine blend of the ridiculous aspirations of americanophiles, the naive good intentions of the nationalists, traditional Brazilian backwardness, the Brazilian avant-garde—absolutely everything in Brazil’s real cultural life would be our raw material.” (Veloso, p. 20) Mixing Brazilian mythical creatures with Coca-Cola, or layering Brazil’s shiny new capital city on a slab of Formica, subverted expectations and the goals of the opposing political and cultural movements. And it created a new Brazilian sound to launch a movement.

In 1967, Veloso and Gil launched their new sound at one of the live TV MPB contests. And, as you can imagine, it arrived to very mixed reactions.

Read Tropicália keynote – Part 2

featured image by Randy Laybourne

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