Olsson’s Books and Music was a special place in the 1990s. It was a modest local Washington chain, with smallish, cozy branches in Georgetown, Metro Center, Dupont Circle and Old Town Alexandria. Unlike many hipster-run establishments–which seem to embrace either an overstuffed, chaotic and lunatic horder aesthetic or a spare, sandblasted-clean Nordic one–each Olsson’s looked tidy, professional, and even slightly generic.
If you were an educated or curious reader or listener, however, the environment was almost embarrassingly rich. All around the store were dozens of books and compact discs on display, with brief reviews of each from the well-educated and hip staff on colored paper hanging beneath them.
These staff recommendations were a staple of mom-and-pop video, book, and record stores in college towns and urban areas–basically anywhere there was a surplus of young people who are obsessed with films, literature and music who could be hired for relatively low pay. Seinfeld’s 1997 episode, “The Comeback,” lampooned the seriousness with which some took their recommendations, as Elaine memorably falls in love with video store clerk Vincent through his movie picks.
I didn’t fall in love with anyone at Olsson’s, of course. Maybe I was too young, too busy, or too shy in those college days; I never got to know the staff there at all. In the 25 years since then, however, it’s wild to look back on how influential those two- or three-sentence reviews were.
The first album I saw featured was June Christy’s “Something Cool”—the original 1953 mono 10” with at least 15 more tracks of bonus material, presented on CD all out of order–but I didn’t know that at the time. I bought the disc, shoved it into the Discman, and “Whee Baby” blasted from the speakers. Like everything I discovered at Olsson’s, this album was everything I was looking for but had no idea I’d needed.
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All of this, it turns out, is a windup to the best record I found at Olsson’s—and certainly the most influential for me—thanks to the few sentences sketched-out in pen on that small, 3×5 card: the startlingly ambitious 1968 album, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis. [Link to Spotify or Tidal]
The record was a group effort–a musical and topical manifesto–which announced a new artistic movement in the Brazil of the late 60s. Aesthetically, Tropicalismo or Tropicalia was several things at once: a revolution against the subtle, hushed tempos and sophisticated harmonies of bossa nova; an shot of the psychedelic and acid rock then flowering in California and London, both in music and lyrics; and a reappraisal and appreciation for both the raw authenticity of Brazilian folk music and the tropical kitch of Carmen Miranda.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil emerged as pathbreaking composers and performers whose songs were brilliant enough to be both modern, post-Beatles pop songs and eminently Brazilian at the same time.
Alongside Caetano and Gil–who have been, in the decades since, legendary and towering figures in Brazil–were collaborators like Gal Costa, whose singing alternated between sexy, pure and piercing; the whispering and delicate voice of the already-famous so-called “muse of bossa nova,” Nara Leao; the virtuosic avant-rock band Os Mutantes; Tom Ze, the master of a very particular and imaginative intimate weirdness; and, perhaps most important of all, composer and arranger Rogério Duprat, who created one of the most evocative–and tight–musical universes in all of music.
There would be many more collaborations over the years, in different sets and groupings, but this album stands on its own as a kaleidoscopic tour–not just of Tropicalia itself, but of what is possible within the framework of popular music. It’s so cinematic and fun, you can enjoy getting stuck in any of the album’s musical cul-de-sacs for years at a time.
Gil’s “Miserere Nóbis” opens Side 1 and explodes from the speakers with anthemic confidence, thanks especially to the backing vocals of Os Mutantes. By the time the turnarounds from the B and C sections transition back to the A, the result is so satisfying, the fade-out can only be accompanied by the dull and low sound of exploding bombs in the distance.
Mutantes’ “Panis et circensis”—written by Caetano and Gil–is so alternately catchy, weird, and childlike, it ended up becoming one of the songs most identified with Tropicalia. In the early 90s, Marisa Monte performed the song on tour, signaling an embrace of a 60s past that had fallen out of fashion with young listeners.
“Parque industrial” by Tom Ze transitions from one sound-world to another with such skill, it’s barely noticeable. Vocals are tossed around from Gil to Gal to Caetano, back to Gil, then to Tom, and finally back to Gil.
Caetano’s musical romanticism comes through on the ballads “Lindonéia” and “Baby,” written for Leao and Costa, respectively. The first is immediately appealing, and doesn’t take Leao very far away from the breathy bossa nova that made her famous in Rio, and then on television. Unlike many of their contemporaries in America or England, Caetano and Gil were fluent enough with prior forms to be able to craft a sophisticated song in that musical language.
“Baby” has become one of the most famous Brazilian songs in the post-bossa era. Caetano’s work here is a masterpiece of simplicity, with one of the most beautiful string arrangements ever heard on any pop song from Rogério Duprat. In order to contrast with the bombastic and emotive sound of the time, the lyrics are deliberately simple and casual—almost uncomfortably so. The switch to English for the chorus (“Baby, baby, I love you!”) is a masterstroke. To drive the point home about the then-controversial influence of American music in Brazil, at the end of the track, Caetano enters to briefly sing a countermelody of Paul Anka’s 1957 hit, “Diana.”
His “Enquanto seu lobo não vem” is a dream-like song nobody else could’ve done and, in the coming decades, Caetano would mine this delicate musical strand into a body of work that rivals anyone in the last century.
He and Gil trade verses to slyly cover a translated-into-Portuguese “Três caravelas” in a very Cuban arrangement that manages to sound very swinging 60s without any of the shmaltz. It’s catchy as anything.
And Gilberto Gil–whose contributions to this set seem to age better with each listen–show that he was the primary musical instigator in this scene, mastering the perfect synthesis of Brazil and Beatles at the compositional level. He was equally adept at anthemic, tightly crafted rockers (“Geléia Geral” and “Miserere Nóbis”) and loose, groove-oriented, nearly-wordless pieces like “Bat Macumba,” which would seem at home in Haight Ashbury rave. Gil’s contributions brim with life and fun; without them, this music wouldn’t be possible.
How this late 60s Brazilian one-off LP wound up as a recommended purchase more than three decades later–and on a silver, digital disc in another hemisphere, at Olsson’s Books and Music in Dupont Circle–is also the result of open-minded browsing for records and chance.
As the legend goes, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne found himself rummaging through stacks of vinyl at a record store in Rio de Janeiro sometime in the late 1980s. Whether his friends on the Brazilian music scene hipped him to some old records or–as some have been known to tell it–he gravitated towards old albums with interesting and provocative psychedelic covers, he walked out of the shop with a stack of records. It was to be one of the most influential shopping trips in the history of pop music.
Back in New York, Byrne fell in love with the music he heard. His label, Luka Bop, released Beleza Tropical, a compilation of music from Brazil–focusing on the key figures of Tropicalia, as well as other geniuses like Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, and others–and spanning their work in the 70s and 80s. The interest (and sales) this release generated opened the flood-gates, causing an explosion of interest in Tropicalia and then in post-bossa nova Brazilian music in general.
Somewhere in Washington, DC of the mid 1990s, some hipster read a review, bought the record, and told everyone he could. More than two decades later, I’m still listening.
In the decades since, much has been written about Tropicalia, both inside and outside of Brazil. The politics of art, music and cultural critics is notoriously left-wing, and it’s perhaps inescapable that the global cultural press has, unfortunately, promoted the movement’s brilliant protagonists less as musical heroes than as political ones who can be jammed into the Left’s needs at the current moment.
Februrary’s New Yorker profile of Caetano Veloso–on the occasion of his quite brilliant 64th album release–contained some detailed reporting and was written very well; nevertheless, the songwriting genius was, sadly and predictably, enlisted into a fight about global nationalism–as if the artist is useful primarily as a partisan cudgel.
While it’s certainly true that Caetano and Gil, especially, have been outspoken men of the Left–with Gil serving as Brazil’s Minister of Culture under Lula’s left-wing government–at the end of the day, we only know who they are because of the music they created. For those who don’t speak or understand the Portuguese language, this is even more true.
As the Boomers fade amid the notoriously short shelf-life of music journalism, however, the music will be left without commentary or hype. Access to this music will come from searches, playlists or suggestions from YouTube and streaming services like Spotify and Tidal; or from recommendations like this one.