Say what you will about despots, but at least they inspire flippin’ great music — think the blues, pre–Pol Pot Cambodian garage rock, and especially Tropicália, the late-1960s Brazilian stew of psychedelia and native beats. Even four decades later, Tropicália buzzes in your brain like Red Bull: bubbly, organ-drenched f-yous by Brazilian hipsters to the country’s military dictatorship, heavy on the chord play and politics. It shimmered brightest during those Manichaean years, 1967 and 1968, spurred on by musical titans Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil (now Brazil’s Minister of Culture), Tom Zé and other assorted maniacs. And then the despots got mad: They imprisoned Veloso and Gil but allowed the Tropicálistasone final show so they could raise funds for airplane tickets to England, where the despots deported the two. Nice despots!
Tropicália bubbled up stateside from time to time in the ensuing decades, thanks to musical misfits like Beck and David Byrne or the occasional compilation, but the music usually came devoid of context. That now changes, thanks to U.K.-based Soul Jazz Records (best known for its badass Studio One reggae series). Its anthology Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound squeezes together the best of the era and a 50-page picture-filled booklet that retells the Tropicália story. You know the Soul Jazz folks know their shit just by the album’s cover: red-tinted silhouettes of club-wielding policemen walking over the Brazilian lefty slogan “É Proibido Proibir” (“Prohibiting Is Prohibited,” which Veloso turned into a song that’s strangely missing from Tropicália).
From here, the joyous anarchy of Tropicália flows forth, as the artists hoot, pluck and shake out their charm. Os Mutantes easily live up to their reputation as the Brazilian Beatles — dig their fuzz-guitar freak-outs, bubblegum vocals and sugary prose on “A Minha Menina” (“My Girl”): (“The silver moon hid/And the golden sun appeared” as a chorus shoo-be-doo-wahs in the background). Veloso strums out the wistful ballads that make him such a Royce Hall favorite but also stuns with the namesake anthem “Tropicália,” a samba–bossa nova manifesto where he emerges from a haze of blips to howl his movement to the world. Tom Zé is . . . Tom Zé — strained duck vocals, moody fables of consumerism, and “Jimmy, Renda-se,” ominous bass-governed proto-funk with Zé breathlessly muttering “Janis Chopp” during the song’s crescendo (a play on Janis Joplin translating as Janis Draft Beer). And unappreciated diva Gal Costa contributes three irrepressible tracks — try “Sebastiana”: coos, sighs and laughs driven by an out-of-tune guitar and bumpy Carnaval drums.
The only sin Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound commits is brevity. There’s just one track by samba-soul pioneer Jorge Ben and two by Gilberto Gil. No live tracks. No excerpts from the Tropicálistas’ surreal television show Divino Maravilhoso or even Costa’s killer version of the title song with the sexy-serious refrain “Attention, everything is dangerous/Everything is divine marvelous.” But it’s okay — one can only ask so much from the guardians of the most beautiful music on Earth.