The magic of Tropicália is simply put: when you listen to it done well, you are convinced no greater music exists in this or any world. It combines the camaraderie, melodic facility and harmonic sophistication of prime Beatles, the vocal abandon and intuition of the great American jazz vocalists, the introspective yearning of Indian ragas, and a delicate rhythmic urgency all of its own. It may have been avant-garde in the 1960s, but to twenty-first-century ears there’s nothing difficult about it: the best music by Tom Zé, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso et al – and this music is not thin on the ground – sounds endlessly fresh, and will never cease to galvanise and inspire.
Tropicália’s customary vehicle is a three-minute controlled explosion of acoustic guitars, communal vocals and tasteful percussion; Gil and Veloso, two of its progenitors and its two most famous ambassadors, have spent the last year stripping it to its essence in venues across the world. Their concerts – two acoustic guitarists, a handful of mics and nothing else – vary minimally: compare their live album Two Friends, One Century of Music, recorded in August 2015, with their concert in Marciac, France, recorded a few weeks earlier and broadcast on France Inter; and note that the set-lists and performances are identical. Even the audience patter – “Mais de uma vez, para tudo mundo cantar” – is spoken verbatim in both cases towards the end of Veloso’s 1978 song Terra.
So it was at the Barbican last Wednesday, and it is testament to the power of the genre – perhaps more a spirit and a mode than a genre – that the live music radiating from the stage was some of the most sublime this reviewer has ever heard. The two “recorded live” simulacra fall flat: this music must be heard in person, where one’s enjoyment of the music is proportional to one’s proximity to the stage. I was in Row P. Don’t miss them next time they’re in town. They’re both 73.
On a table between the two stand a glass of red and a glass of white, Caetano’s and Gilberto’s respectively. Both glasses are full, and remain this way until the end of the gig, because tonight’s intoxication is not coming from the alcohol. The pair kick off with Back In Bahia, a joyous paean to their hometown; both sing, and Gil shouts and yelps near the end.
Behind them is a large patchwork pattern of black and red and green and blue and orange and white. It resembles a collection of flags, and indeed, when backlit, recognisable flags slowly make themselves visible: Finnish, Japanese, Brazilian. The backlit flags appear intermittently; no Lusophone, I assume they background only the more political songs, but can’t be sure, especially since all Tropicália is political by context and association. The geometric emblems match the utopianism – universalist in appeal, proudly Brazilian in idiom – of the black and white singers magicking heavenly sounds from some wood, some metal and a couple of mics.
I first notice the flags qua flags about seven songs in, during As Camélias Do Quilombo Do Leblon, a song Gil and Veloso wrote last year. It follows one of Veloso’s earliest songs, É De Manhã. The show has no interval, but the first half is Veloso-led, while Gil dominates the second. Early on we’re treated to a magical one-two-three sequence: Coração Vagabundo, Tropicália and Marginália II. The audience claps along to the assonant but wordless chorus of the middle song. Of the four hands on stage, Gil’s strumming hand is the most active, vigorously picking and plucking.
Other than Veloso quietly asking us all to sing during Terra (the crowd cheers; the backlit flags return), there is no conversation between artists and audience, though there is dancing, specifically dad-dancing. During the Gil-led É Luxo Só, Veloso shimmies freely in his seat, his flesh almost visibly quivering under his unironed off-white shirt.
The only time English is spoken before the encore is during Veloso’s Nine Out Of Ten. It’s imagistic enough that the English lyrics – “Woke up on Portobello Road | To the sound of reggae”, for example – don’t sound awkward. The two singers span several octaves between them vocally: Veloso goes soprano for Tonada De Luna Llena, while Não Tenho Medo Da Morte sees Gil in basso profundo mode, the stage bathed in blackness save for a spotlight glancing off his dark and shiny head.
The halfway point yields an absolute treat: Gil’s Esotérico, from his enchanting 1982 LP Um Banda Um. It’s gorgeous, tuneful, powerful – best of all, its hook is whistled. (Why don’t more musicians whistle?) It’s followed shortly afterwards by Drão, a song from the same album, and I can attest that the song’s acoustic riff was so beautiful it brought more than one person to tears last Wednesday.
During Toda Menina Baiana, two thirds in, Veloso gets restless. His sleeves rolled up, his arms engage in a slow-motion flail; he rows, he knits. Gil plucks and croons. It’s a singalong, with dancing in the aisles. This song gets the biggest cheers of the night. A few songs later, during Gil’s Andar Com Fé, Veloso shimmies to the front, and claps and dances to raucous applause.
For me, the highlight of 1970s Brazilian music will probably always be Gil’s 1975 collaboration with Jorge Ben, the double LP Gil e Jorge, its penultimate track – Filhos de Gandhi – utterly transcendent. Veloso and Gil cap their pre-encore set with a joyous singalong rendition. There is no chorus in recorded music more memorable than the wordless chorus of Filhos de Gandhi.
The first encore – Desde Que O Samba É Samba, Domingo No Parque and A Luz de Tieta, a Veloso-Gil-Veloso sandwich – is quietly radiant, and during the last song Gil begins throwing shapes, resembling a middle-aged man willingly mowing the lawn. But it is Veloso’s O Leãozinho, which initiates the second encore, that sends shivers down our collective spine. Gil’s crowd-pleasing rendition of Marley’s Three Little Birds indulges his longstanding reggae obsession, and features some great scatting. But it’s too familiar. The spell is broken. We stand, and, after the bows and the thank-yous, we shuffle out.
But the music of Brazil does not leave our minds. Slowly, the lilting, languorous Lusophone melodies return to us, and we sing and hum them all the way home.