When we first heard tell of a tropicalismo project happening in Toronto, we wanted to know if it was real, and if it would last. Not long after that, Tropicalia, the group of musicians and friends brought together by Brazilian popular music from the ’60s and ’70s, has opened doors on both sides of the city’s music scene. Brazilians with a special spot for the tunes Tropicalia delivers live — including covers of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes and Os Novos Baianos — gain a new window into the indie rock, experimental and fresh younger players gaining ground; meanwhile some of the previously unindoctrinated 20somethings begin to discover not only the music of the tropicalia genre, but the pure fun and general beleza of what a Brazilian style live show can be. 

Their latest gig clocks in just around the group’s two-year anniversary and finds the group amid a time of striking change and rebirth. The show is billed as “Tropicalia’s last show before like a chrysalis they undergo metamorphosis and emerge from the cocoon with antenna and eye-spotted wings.”

We put it to to lead singer, borboleta in chief and the band’s musa, Amy Medvick, to give us the goods on Tropicalia.

[UPDATE: New post January 2013: Os Tropies revive Tropicalia in Toronto (February 2013 weekly residency at The Piston for the release of the group’s EP TROPICALIA!)]

Building a tropicalia band in Toronto

This project spent a long time as an idea, a fantasy. Between myself, our keyboardist Dave Atkinson, and our most recent addition to the band on drums, Fraser McEvoy, there had been this sharing of Brazilian music of all kinds over a period of several years (and cities!). The music from the tropicalia movement always had a special appeal for each of us, and I think we each had our own fantasies of performing this music, as unlikely and untenable as that seemed at the time. Eventually Dave and I, both living and working as musicians in Toronto, were in a position to start it up for real. We weren’t sure exactly who would come and see us play this obscure style of music, or even who was going to play in the band! But I had a feeling the right people would materialize and they sure enough did, and always have. Shortly after we agreed to make it happen, we found and collected the rest of the original members, including our guitarist Graham Campbell and our percussionist Eric Woolston (we arrived at our current line-up with the later additions of Carlie Howell on bass and Fraser on drums). Though the original idea was just to do a couple of shows for kicks, we did our first gig for a lovely, supportive audience of fellow tropicalia fans — who were singing along to the Portuguese lyrics without understanding a word! It was a very inspiring thing, and from that first show I knew we had hit on something that people were going to respond to, obscurity and foreign-language not withstanding.

Approaching a semi-obscure genre within the Brazilian music universe … from Toronto

I think both our biggest advantage and disadvantage are one and the same thing— the genre itself, specifically the fact that it is relatively unfamiliar to the general population both in Brazil and Canada. Depending on the venue or event, people who haven’t been exposed to what tropicalismo is all about can be a bit confused by the mix of pysch rock, “Latin” rhythms, Portuguese lyrics and unmitigated wackiness. However, there is a die-hard core of people who love this music and love seeing it played live. With the release of several compilations of the tropicalia classics, the genre is becoming more well known, and the sounds of the music, if not the names, are spreading even further into facets of the popular music scene here in Toronto. We were lucky that we started up at the exact moment when the fans of the style were enough to build an audience, but no one else here was playing this music. And we have watched as enthusiasm for tropicalia has spread throughout our community over the two years we have been playing it.

 

Reining in wild, busy musicians

You know, every band has its challenges but I feel like we have been truly blessed. Musically we have always had the energy and the ability to play this stuff. The personnel has changed a bit over the last two years, but never for lack of talent or love. The only issue has been working with super talented people who are very busy! It can be wild working to hold such a dynamic group of people in one place for very long, but love for the music has kept us together and kept us going no matter how crazy the rest of our lives get, and the musical rewards are never lacking.

Covers, purity, singing in Farsi: Tropicalia’s take on tropicalia (or tropicalismo)

We started out mostly playing covers. We are definitely not purists, but we tend to stick close to the originals — why fix what’s already uncontrollably awesome? On the other hand, as I spent time learning more of these psychedelic tunes, my writing naturally started to incorporate those sounds. It was only a couple of months before we started bringing in original material, and now we have enough to play a set of only originals if we wanted to, with contributions from myself and our guitar player, Graham Campbell. We have also done a few covers from outside the tropicalia genre, although always bearing a strong relationship to what we are doing. For example, sometimes we play the aptly titled Beck song, Tropicalia, giving our audience something a bit more familiar or accessible that still references our main inspiration. On the other hand, more recently I brought in a song from what I think of as the psychedelic era of Iran, a tune called Mano Tou by legendary Persian singer Googoosh. I had been checking out this whole new genre of music and I started to get the feeling that they had been checking out some Brazilian music. So I thought I would complete the circle, so to speak, and bring in a tune to Tropicalia. Singing in Farsi was a challenge, but a blast— I always love to sink my teeth into a new set of sounds in a new language!

The real thrill of performance

I don’t know if there has been one performance highlight in particular, we have had a lot of great moments, if I don’t say so myself! My favourite moments, however, are always when we have a certain balance in our audience— some people who know and love us well, some who know what we are about and are curious to hear us for the first time, and some who have no idea what they are about to hear. When that balance is there and the energy on stage is right, I can feel the impact of the first notes on the audience, like a shockwave, and I see folks start to get excited. It’s really thrilling when that can happen.

… these days you are more and more likely to see me getting on stage dressed up as Queen Cleopatra or writing tunes about having a love affair with a Caveman. I think it all works in this style… Jorge Ben was writing about the Taj Mahal and desert nomads, the Mutantes about Don Quixote, and Ney Matogrosso was singing about the women of Athens while decked out in feathers and gold. I want us to continue the journey back in time into those fantasy worlds.

 

Feathers and gold: Transformative magic, new directions

We are about to go through a bit of a transformation… We are working up to the release of our first EP, and with that we are also going to be changing the band name to represent our new direction. Our focus is shifting from being primarily a cover/tribute band to working more on original material. Of course, I don’t think we will ever give up playing our favourite Os Mutantes or Novos Baianos tunes, its way too much fun! But writing in this style is truly exciting and liberating. I feel like there really isn’t any territory that isn’t open to a tropicalista, now more than ever. I’m writing in equal parts English and Portuguese and incorporating anything that inspires me. I have always drawn a lot of inspiration from ancient history and pre-history, and recently I have been looking at ways to work this into my own writing and performance aesthetic. So these days you are more and more likely to see me getting on stage dressed up as Queen Cleopatra or writing tunes about having a love affair with a Caveman. I think it all works in this style… Jorge Ben was writing about the Taj Mahal and desert nomads, the Mutantes about Don Quixote, and Ney Matogrosso was singing about the women of Athens while decked out in feathers and gold. I want us to continue the journey back in time into those fantasy worlds. Tropicalismo is full of transformative magic, expect to see us take full advantage of that!

Tropicalia is Amy Medvick, David Atkinson, Graham Campbell, Carlie Howell, Fraser McEvoy, and Eric Woolston.

Tropicalia plays the Piston (apparently for the last time as Tropicalia) on Wednesday, August 8 in Toronto

[UPDATE: New post January 2013: Os Tropies revive Tropicalia in Toronto (February 2013 weekly residency at The Piston for the release of the group’s EP TROPICALIA!)]