Tropicália 101, Part Two: Religion and the Supernatural

os mutantes a divina comedia - tropicalia and religion
We untangle the complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory messages regarding religion, the occult and the supernatural that came from Tropicália in Part 2 of our Feature Series on Tropicália.
Tropicália’s relationship to religion, the occult, and all of the socio-political issues that are interwoven in the concept of religion and Brazil is of course complex, but once you become familiar with each original founder of Tropicália, the less mystifying this topic becomes. In short, each person obviously had different attitudes about religion.

Tropicália 101 Feature Series
Table of Contents
0. Part Zero (the Intro): The Art Movement and Cultural Setting Behind Tropicália
1. Part One: Birth of a Unique and Unifying Brazilian Identity
2. Part Two (You are here): Tropicália, Religion and the Supernatural

Tropicália Playlist: Part Two

Below is Part Two. Check out the combined 55-song playlist here.

Click the Spotify Plus Button in the playlist above to Save and Open List in your Spotify App, or login to Spotify on your browser to listen to the playlist directly.

Quick Background: Brazil’s Religious Landscape during Tropicália (~1967-1969)

Combining Catholicism and Candomblé (a prominent sect of Macumba, a term that Brazilians often use to represent all African religions), the two belief systems described the vast majority of Brazilian spiritual devotion in the 1960s. These two religions are not mutually exclusive, in fact they are inseparable in Brazil. In my own personal experience living in Brazil a few years in the late 90s, I new many people who prayed to Catholic Saints for positive things to happen to themselves and loved ones, and then proceed to pray to various Macumba Saints (many of which are the Africanized versions of the Roman-Catholic standard Patron Saints) for bad things to happen to their enemies.

According to a Pew Research study, Evangelical, Pentacostal, and other Protestant Religions made up less than 5% of the population, with less than 2% being unaffiliated during the years of Tropicália (late 1960s). The remaining 92% of Brazilians publicly identified with the Catholic Church and a large portion of them privately attended Macumba rituals (often on Friday nights).

Caetano Veloso (left) and Gilberto Gil (right) are both from Bahia where Macumba originates, and co-wrote the iconic song “Bat Macumba“.

As we discuss in our intro about Tropicália, the Tropicália movement was preceded by a military coup in 1964 (partially orchestrated by the US) that put a new right-wing regime in power. This unelected dictatorship had the full support and blessing of the Roman Catholic Church, who has been an integral part of Brazilian government since its colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With such a large population of devoted Catholics, no government could exist without the Roman Catholic Church’s blessing.

Escaping a False Dichotomy through the Avant-Garde

The relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and Brazilian Government was more characterized as a fully-integrated partnership than two separate entities. Unlike in the US where politicians at least pay lip service to a separation of church and state, Brazil’s new regime did not pretend to require any separation. The result of the harsh regime which began to censor many forms of expression was to either agree with the restrictions or be anti-religion (as was the sizeable communist opposition). As I listen to how the different voices of Tropicália confront the issue of religion and the occult, perhaps the only consistent theme that comes through is that this pro/anti religious dichotomy of the mid-20th century Brazil was an insufficient framework for the people of Brazil to work through the increasingly polarizing socio-political setting (sound familiar?).

Os Mutantes Magic and Religion
Os Mutantes perhaps had the most perplexing message about divinity, magic and cult worship for the 1967-68 Brazilian popular audience. The desired effect, at a bare minimum, was to derail the stale conversation about religion in Brazil.

Instead of marching alongside either the pro or anti side of the new right-wing theocracy, Veloso, Gil, Costa, Os Mutantes and others approached the topics with a fresh and avant-garde perspective. These new and unrecognizable avant-garde expressions did not sit well with the audiences of their first shows: college students who largely leaned left. The ambiguous and confusing messaging along the lines of religion, magic and other supernatural topics (all of which were completely embraced by the much larger lower class) did not find an audience until the early 70s after several years of evolving popular perspectives and the influence of psychedelic rock from the US and UK. In other words, Brazilians at large were not prepared for these expressions and many in this camp did not recognize the art form as legitimate or meaningful, as is the constant burden as well as the agent of change, of avant-garde expression.

On the cover of the movement-defining release Tropicália ou Panis et Circenses, Rogério Duprat can be seen holding a chamber pot up to his face as if he’s about to take a sip of café. This was clearly a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 landmark avant-garde work Fountain, which was essentially a rotated urinal to reverse its purpose (and challenge the definitions and boundaries of what could be considered art). It’s a signal to us as an audience that we should proceed with a mood of irony.

Notes on Select Tracks

By all measures, the founding members of Tropicália successfully disrupted the problematic dichotomy of religion vs anti-religion. Rather than address either side of the tired argument, Veloso, Gil, Os Mutantes, Costa, Ze, and others come at it, each in their own way, each at a sideways and unexpected angle that dissolves thought-killing clichés.

We look at a few of these songs in more detail below:

“Alfômega”

Written by Caetano Veloso, performed by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil
First appeared on the album Caetano Veloso 1969

Alfômega is a word that combines the words Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the greek alphabet and the self-given title of the God of the Bible. The song repeats these phrases, also amalgamations:

Lyrics:
O analfomegabetismo
Somatopsicopneumático

The word analfomegabetismo is an amalgamation of the word analfabetismo (the word for illiteracy, alfabetismo being the alphabet) and the phrase Alpha and Omega, which Christians will recognize as one of God’s self-given titles (which symbolizes the beginning and the end, forever). The combination of words suggests an illiteracy of God’s ways or meanings.

Somatopsicopneumático is an amalgamation of two ideas: the body-mind dichotomy (soma meaning body and psico meaning mind or soul), and pneumático which describes a system or machine operated or powered by air pressure. Although it’s unclear, it’s possible that he’s referring to pneumatic tubes which in his day were largely used in large buildings to pass information from one location to another. These tubes still exist in bank drive-throughs all over the US and it was how they ’emailed’ each other in the 1960s. Back in those days the term “pneumatic” would have been synonymous with these information systems. He may also be referring to the information system between the mind (which the common Brazilian interchanges freely with ‘soul’) and the body. He goes on to say that he has no knowledge of his death, no connection between his mind and his body.

Pneumatic tubes were the information delivery system in large buildings. Veloso was likely referring to information delivery in a modern office, comparing that to the frustrating lack of knowledge and understanding coming from the Catholic Church for how ordinary Brazilians could make sense of the human condition.

Que também significa
Which also means

Que eu não sei de nada sobre a morte
That I don’t know anything about death

Que também significa
Which also means

Tanto faz no sul como no norte
It’s just as well in the south like in the north

Justamente, que também significa
Justly, which also means

Deus é quem decide minha sorte
God is who decides my fate

The song continues on the theme of information and meaning (or lack of information and meaning). The speaker fatalistically decides that there’s no meaning to be had in life, no control his mind has over his body and therefore God will decide his fate.
There’s a reason that one of the most common phrases heard spoken by Brazilians is: “Se Deus Quiser” (“If God Wills It” — For instance: “I’ll see you tomorrow if God wills it.”). There is a sense of helplessness and fatalism in Brazil, even down to everyday idioms, especially amongst the poorer classes. The Catholic Church and European Colonizers used this form of mind control to quell slave uprisings in the 18th-19th century and later to placate the poor masses from revolt.

This style of fatalism has essentially been the playbook of the Catholic church throughout the dark ages: keeping the masses illiterate and allowing only a small group of people in control of the Church and Government that could read and understand the meanings in the Bible. Keeping the masses in the dark about their own beliefs keeps them docile and fatalistic (feeling no control over their destiny). The less the people knew, the more they would simply trust in God and go about their daily business.

Portuguese language forums and blogs have varying takes on this song and many puzzle over the meaning of the song, knowing that Veloso himself is an outspoken atheist. Understanding the song in these terms helps to understand that Veloso isn’t trying to come to any conclusions about the nature of deity, but about the nature of the religious right-wing regime and how it seemed to remind him of the dark ages. Keep in mind, he recorded this song while being held under house arrest for supposed anti-patriotic actions.

Bat Macumba

Written by Gilberto Gil, First Appeared on Tropicália (1967). On our playlist we use the version performed by Os Mutantes on their album “Os Mutantes” (1968)

In Gilberto Gil’s book Todas as Letras he describes the process of coming up with this iconic song:

“Caetano and I sat on the floor of his apartment, on São Luis Ave. in São Paulo, composing music. We wanted to make a song that was stripped-down (without ornamentation), something that could be sung by a non-musical group, something tribal, that would be related to a symbol of our popular culture, such as ‘macumba’- this term that represents all African religions (non-Christian), which Oswald de Andrade had used. Oswald de Andrade was very present in that time; we were discovering his work and were enchanted by his prescience- the idea of reuniting the ancient and the modern, the primitive and the technological, which was portended in his philosophy; ‘Batmakumba’ was inspired by Oswald, and Concretism (poetry)”

Oswald de Andrade was the author of the Manifesto Antropófago which argued that colonized people (such as Brazilians) should cannibalize the culture of their oppressors as their oppressors have feasted on their indigenous and African cultural roots. This concept of cultural cannibalism resonated with Veloso and Gil a great deal, and it is the reason the repeating phrase seems to disappear and reappear during the course of the song:

Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba obá
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba obá
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba obá
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba oh
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macum
Bat Macumba ê ê, Batman
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat
Bat Macumba ê ê, Ba
Bat Macumba ê ê
Bat Macumba ê
Bat Macumba
Bat Macum
Batman
Bat
Ba
Bat
Bat Ma
Bat Macum
Bat Macumba
Bat Macumba ê
Bat Macumba ê ê
Bat Macumba ê ê, Ba
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat
Bat Macumba ê ê, Batman
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macum
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba oh
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba obá
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba obá
Bat Macumba ê ê, Bat Macumba obá

The subtext of this song and perhaps its shock value is derived from the lively and seemingly capricious treatment of a taboo topic amongst Brazilians. Although Macumba is practiced by millions, there’s a certain shame or stigma that is attached to the practice. This light-heartedness (in both Gil’s and Os Mutantes’ recordings) in treating the taboo subject gave room to new ways of discussing religion and the occult amongst the younger generation.

The song itself practices cultural cannibalism by appropriating the blues-rock distorted guitars and combining them with tribal percussion, combining the ancient with the modern. The idea behind Antropófago or “cultural cannibalism” is to remind the world that ‘we were here first, and we will always be here,” a message that is almost identical to the “afro-futurism” art movement. By combining these and other forms/tropes of the Christian European/American colonizer with the percussive-heavy instrumentation and loose structure of indigenous and African drum circles, Gil and Os Mutantes disrupted a number of stale two-sided conversations in the country ranging from musical tastes to the realm of religion, history and politics, essentially showing a model of how one might hit the reset button on an old and stale conversation.