To Understand Brazilian Music: The March Against The Electric Guitar

Some events in history seem to carry with them a representation of a whole culture. Looking at those moments is a way to get a glimpse of several aspects of how a culture operates. One of those events was in June of 1967 when the musical elite in Brazil went to the streets in a march that became known as the “march against the electric guitar”. Today’s eyes cannot see that as anything but absurd. However, there is a lot more to that story than what first meets the eye.

Elis Regina, Jair Rodrigues, Gilberto Gil, Edu Lobo and Zé Ketti during the march

To talk about that march we need to go back 3 years before it happened. In March 31st of 1964 the democratically elected president of Brazil was deposed by the military. The seat of the president was declared “vacant” while the president was in the south of Brazil. The president decided not to challenge and instead fled the country.

His decision, we now understand, may have prevented a civil war. And he had reason to believe on that scenario because he was informed the US military had three warships on Brazil’s coast. That happened after a continued ideological campaign, which we now can tell was financed by the CIA, thanks to FoIA requests.

The Brazilian military positioned themselves as populist-nationalists, eventually running ads that read “Brazil: love it or leave it”. There was, however, one inconsistency in that position, which was the relationship of the military government with the United States, which contradicted the nationalist discourse in a fundamental way.

Propaganda during the military government: Brasil, Love-it or Leave-it.

And it is in the context of protesting what was understood as imperialism from the United States that a large group of musicians went to the street to march against the hegemonic influence of the entertainment industry. The march was built on the concept of acculturation and alienation, hallmarks of the structuralist school, and in that sense, it was a very elaborate and subtle critique of the government.

The concepts of cultural appropriation, acculturation, alienation are central to most of the political discourse in Brazil for most of the 20th century. The march against the electric guitar was a natural consequence of the concept that an imperialistic force would supplant the local culture in favor of a hegemonic entertainment industry.

Even though Gilberto Gil actually took part of the march, he has stated that he went to support Elis Regina, whom he admired very much. Caetano Veloso, on the other hand, stayed on the hotel observing the march by the window. He later stated that he was shocked, he thought “it looked like a fascist march”.

The alternative interpretation and the reaction led by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to the march is the point of this event that, to me, illustrates a lot about the Brazilian culture, and that repeats itself over and over on several other occasions. Caetano and Gil’s perspective was not only informed by the fact that the Beatles’ album Sargent Pepper was very influential for them, but it was also informed by a long Brazilian cultural tradition of internalizing and reconstructing external influences from a local perspective. A tradition that was originally called the Anthropophagic movement during the Modern Art Week of São Paulo in 1922.

Abaporu — “the man eater” from Tarsila do Amaral, part of the Anthropophagic movement

Their most concrete response would come in the Brazilian Popular Music Festival in 1967. Both Caetano and Gil decide to bring in rock bands to do their numbers. Caetano, doing “Alegria, Alegria” (Joy, Joy) with the Beat Boys. and Gil doing “Domingo no Parque” (Sunday in the Park) with the Mutantes [footnote: Mutantes would then become one of the most influential bands in Brazilian music history].

Caetano Veloso — Alegria Alegria
Gilberto Gil — Domingo no Parque

But the value of their response was not just in playing with a rock band in their number. The value of their response was in making the statement that fundamentally challenged the idea of acculturation. They took the electric guitar, electric bass and drums, took their influence of the popular and traditional music from Brazil and produced a fusion that would eventually receive the name of Tropicalia. They took the lesson of the Anthropophagic movement from 1922 and wrote their own page with it.

This process of “eating the world”, as the participants of the 1922 art week would say, is probably the most fundamental aspect of how popular culture in Brazil operates, and although Tropicalia is one of the most remarkable instances of that process, it is pervasive throughout several different movements in music, theater, literature.