There was no musical Tower of Babel, or, if there was, our instinctual craving for rhythm and melody long ago overcame the effects of its destruction. The contemporary marketing category "World Music" is meaningless: All music is of the world and in it. Um Kulthum cassettes might take a circuitous route to reach me in Boston, but as psychedelic-record collectors everywhere know, Sgt. Pepper's has likewise traveled, leaving a glowing trail of influence across the planet.
Nevertheless, there are many aspects of music that remain embedded in local culture and resist easy translation. Lyrics, obviouslyóthanks to Babelóbut also all the historical and cultural markers that require what cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz called "thick description." Popular song is particularly steeped in this sort of extramusical information, which is probably why it is so crucial to subcultures; perhaps there is no way to convey fully to an outsider the import of a song that binds you to others. Greil Marcus's courageous attempt with Bob Dylan's "Basement Tapes" in Invisible Republic demonstrates how elusive a thorough explanation might be, even within the confines of one's own subculture.
The late-'60s Brazilian pop music movement known as Tropicália or Tropicalismo isólike Dylan's "Basement Tapes"óhighly "overdetermined," as they say in grad school, and therefore a good candidate for a Geertz or Marcus-like "unpacking." But Christopher Dunn's book on the subject, Brutality Garden, which began life as a doctoral dissertation, never reaches those fanciful heights. This is not to say that Dunn isn't in possession of valuable knowledge for non-Brazilian fans of this music, just that the cautious and formal academic tone of his book obscures the fruits of his research. Countless asides, like "In Hegel's formulation, the slave could only comprehend his/her reality as a reflection of the master's will and therefore lacked historical subjectivity and agency," dull one's attention and weary the soul. Likewise the many scholarly tics in his writing, such as the use of "reference" as a verb or the closing of each chapter with a section called "Conclusion." His numerous allusions to Adorno, Benjamin, Bourdieu, Horkheimer, Jameson, et al. do not advance the argument of the book; rather they seem intended to justify its subject as worthy of study.
No such excuses are necessary. There is a dearth of information available about Tropicália in English, and I suspect there are many people who, like me, are hunting for more. Tropicáliaócharacterized by a genre-bending passion for both low and high culture, colored by kitsch but also by political urgency, its youthful interest in outrageous costume and style countered by a maturity in its lyrics and melodiesóhas in recent years attracted the excited attention of a wide range of musicians and music fans in the US and UK.
What historical material can be gleaned from Dunn's book is helpful, but it left me wishing for, if not the ideal thick description, at least a more thorough factual account of the era. Facts are needed to help overcome Northern assumptions that don't necessarily apply. Across the looking glass of the equator, the events of 1968 in Brazil might seem familiar but were in actuality disturbingly different from contemporaneous events in the US. The rise of student youth culture led to widespread experimentation with drugs and new social mores . . . and a declaration of martial law. The leader of a radical political movement working for greater equality between rich and poor was assassinated . . . by government agents. Some fabulously original singer-songwriters rose to sudden popular prominence . . . and were arrested, jailed, and sent into exile with shaven heads. Dylan may claim to have suffered at times from his fame, but he never had to hear prison guards mock him with one of his own songs, which is what happened in Brazil to founding Tropicalista Gilberto Gil.