Something Good #23: Tropical Truth
In response to last week’s call for advice, requests for personalized recommendations, etc., reader Stephanie Marks writes:
I’m taking you up on the offer for book suggestions, as I just finished Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a sort of “historical fiction” as a modern retelling of The Iliad. I also just read Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces (I know, I’m so late to the party, but I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and it turned me off any wartime books for the better part of a decade). As for my literature preferences, I’m not so discerning about genre and style, just good writing and something to fall asleep to, a story to ponder over the following morning…
In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, the family delights at the thought of reading French poetry together around the fire, to fuel their dreams and keep their minds occupied while doing the following day’s mundane work… This is the kind of book I’m looking for! Ha! Thanks!
Your mention of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich unlocked something in my memory: a long, bleak winter I suffered through years ago.
Both my grandmother and one of my oldest friends had died within a few months of each other. The relationship I had been in was in the process of blowing up, lodging psychic shrapnel into my brain that it would take years to extricate.
It was a cold, dark, endless Montreal winter. I lived in a filthy hovel of my own making. My eating habits were laughable. I was unable to cook even a simple meal for myself beyond spaghetti and tomato sauce. So several nights a week I would go down the block to an almost-always-empty sushi restaurant on the corner of St-Viateur and du Parc and grimly read a chapter in The Rise and Fall about Hitler’s inexorable ascent while I ate maki rolls made with, for some reason, deep-fried onions (which I would later realize contributed to the gastric distress I was feeling all the time).
Shirer, a journalist, had been in Europe during Hitler’s rise and he documented many events as an eyewitness. He would talk about, say, seeing Heinrich Himmler walk down the road and marvel at how the very personification of evil seemed nothing more than a fussy provincial schoolteacher, a perspective I found fascinating.
This was a period when I was deeply into reading about the years between the world wars. I also had on my shelf Ian Kershaw’s massive Hitler biography, and between that and The Rise and Fall, I had to explain the swastikas on their spines more than once to wary guests and/or romantic prospects. (These incidents I later put in an unfinished script featuring a transparently gender-swapped version of myself.)
So yeah, this was a low point for me. So how did I pull out of this nosedive? In retrospect, it was a lot of things. Friends. Time. The changing of the seasons.
But at the time, I would have attributed my “regeneration”—a concept I was fixated with on the time—on two Brazilian musical movements some four decades prior.
It was around this dark winter that I seriously discovered bossa nova and its spiritual successor, Tropicália. I discovered that bossa nova, almost single-handedly invented by a couch-surfing stoner from Bahia named João Gilberto, was in fact much more fascinating and complex than the kitschy lounge-music/keyboard preset phenomenon it had mutated into after its introduction to North America in the ‘60s. Although always very… quiet… it could be strident and even political. Though I had heard of Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and a few other related artists, it was an incredible, now-defunct MP3 blog called Loronix, putatively written by a Brazilian parrot named Zeca Louro, that inducted me into the deeper mysteries of the genre. Several times a week, the otherwise anonymous author of this blog would upload rips of the most obscure bossa nova vinyl, along with light commentary. I still cherish these MP3s.
And while I didn’t, and still don’t, speak Portuguese, the more I dug into the songs’ lyrics, the more I realized was there. One of my favourite songs of all time is now Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Águas de Março;” its stream of imagistic lyrical images never fails to soothe my soul. From Jobim’s own translation:
A stick, a stone, it's the end of the road
It's the rest of a stump, it's a little alone
It's a sliver of glass, it is life, it's the sun
It is night, it is death, it's a trap, it's a gun
The oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush
The nod of the wood, the song of a thrush
The wood of the wind, a cliff, a fall
A scratch, a lump, it is nothing at all
Jobim would once say that the act of writing this song was so mentally healing that it saved him thousands in therapist bills. Listening to it had a similar effect on my mental well-being.
I was also fascinated with the musicians associated with the later Tropicália movement, a movement of artists and musicians inspired by the concept of anthropofagia, or “cultural cannibalism.” These artists were inspired by consuming everything: the new sounds coming from the U.K. and America, traditional and indigenous Brazilian music and its African and Caribbean roots. They explored, and dismantled, the kitschy concept of Brazil as an exotic tropical paradise—one of their obsessions was fruit-hatted Portuguese/Brazilian export and Hollywood star Carmen Miranda.
Musicians like Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben Jor, Os Mutantes, Nara Leão and Tom Zé, among countless others, were part of this movement, which was opposed to the ruling Brazilian military dictatorship. Many of its biggest stars were forced to flee to Europe or America; others were arrested and tortured.
There was just so much to explore; the more records I dug up, digitally or otherwise, the more I discovered. Brazil’s music culture reminds me of Jamaica in some ways: nearly-unparalleled loci of genius and innovation, with discographies that seem to go on forever. You can be into this stuff for decades and still dig up something new.
My new obsessions awakened something in myself. I had always been obsessed with music, it had always been a huge part of my life, DJing on a regular basis was something I never thought I could live without, and yet, the spark had dwindled. I felt like I was rediscovering music again—and rediscovering life.
So where does the book recommendation come in? Right—I was getting to that.
In 2002, Caetano Veloso, a towering and erudite cultural figure in Brazil, somebody who it’s pretty hard to compare to any American or British musician in terms of stature and longevity—he’s still making amazing albums!—wrote Tropical Truth, a very idiosyncratic memoir. Like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, this isn’t a straightforward telling of his career highs and lows, but something a little more probing and meandering. It’s a philosophical meditation on Brazil’s place in the world and his place in Brazil. It’s a keen and penetrating auto-analysis of Veloso’s own lyrics. I think he describes it best in this excerpt:
I am a Brazilian, and I became, more or less involuntarily, a singer and composer of songs. I was one of the creators and actors of the tropicália project. This book is an attempt to narrate and interpret what happened. João Gilberto, my supreme master, in answering a question about me in one of his rare interviews, said that my contribution to Brazilian music was “an accompaniment of thought” to his own work. Well, this book reflects my conscious effort to carry out that task… This is not an autobiography, though I do not refuse to “tell myself” with some prodigality. It is rather an effort to understand how I passed through tropicalismo , or how it passed through me: because we, it and I, were useful for a time and perhaps necessary to each other.
If that sounds interesting, I recommend you read Tropical Truth; I think that it, and especially the music of Veloso and contemporaries, should fill your mind with enough poetry to make the workday pass by with ease. This playlist should provide a suitable soundtrack to your reading.
I never finished The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (Once everyone actually went to war, I lost interest.)
I did learn how to cook for myself. My life gradually got better. Finally, at some point the following summer, I actually felt happy.
I still haven’t been to Brazil.
I don’t have any #nojacketsrequired for you this week. What I can offer you instead is the cover of The Cooking of Scandinavia, an entry in Time Life’s Foods of the World book series.
Don’t let this discourage you from sending in your jacket-free finds. You can find me, as always, at email@example.com.
While Loronix, the bossa nova MP3 blog, exists entombed on Blogspot with all of its images and download links broken (its last entry, from 2009, alluding to personal financial troubles), fortunately, the anonymous author’s YouTube channel lives on with a small selection of bossa uploads such as the above.
I invite you to continue to send me in your requests for personalized recommendations—books, music, food, life advice, whatever.
Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. If you like what you’re reading here, please tell a friend.