Utopian Songwriting Music, Modernity, NATION and Censorship in 1960s Brazil

Friday April 8th 8pm @ Iron Post 120 S Race St, Urbana IL

This concert/discussion explores multidisciplinary connections between music and political activism during the early years of the military dictatorship in Brazil as part of the on-going program on Global Utopias of the Center for Historical Interpretation

Co-sponsored by the Department of History, Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies and Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies



Discussion led by Prof. Marc Hertzman (History) and Prof. Mike Silvers (Musicology)


  • The Project
  • The Composers
  • Program
  • Military Dictatorship in Latin America (Jerry Davila)
  • MPB, Student Movement and Censorship

The Project

The Great American Songbook has been a connecting thread through out the history of jazz as songs written by George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and others have been recorded and performed by many of the great jazz artists. From Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, Miles Davis to Tom Harrell, Oscar Peterson to Keith Jarrett, every jazz musician who incorporates "Jazz Standards" into their repertoire is also faced with the challenge of recreating these songs in every performance, trying to present them in a unique and individual way. The Utopian Songwriting project is based on this century-long tradition among jazz musicians, focusing on Brazilian songs and songwriters. On this performance, musicians Marcelo Boccato, Tito Carrillo, Geof Bradfield, Clark Sommers and Dana Hall will collectively explore the Brazilian Songbook, creating music based on group improvisation that draws from their unique individual musical backgrounds as well as the rich and diverse universe of Brazilian popular music.

The Composers

Egberto Gismonti | Gilberto Gil | Milton Nascimento | Geraldo Vandré | Chico Buarque | Toninho Horta

Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Toninho Horta, Geraldo Vandré, Gilberto Gil and Egberto Gismonti became prominent in Brazil through the TV Song Festivals of the 1960s. Their music characterizes the diversity of a period in which concepts of modernity, national identity, and political activism in the arts were being constantly challenged and recreated.

Chico Buarque’s music is an embodiment of the Bossa Nova paradox, developing on the refinement brought by Tom Jobim and João Gilberto while remaining close to the strongest traditions of samba carioca. Milton Nascimento and Toninho Horta would become lifelong partners and were leaders of the Clube de Esquina, a musical movement originated in Minas Gerais that was able to draw from The Beatles and other modern global influences, while also representing the depth and spirituality of the state’s religious music, experimenting with a variety of Afro-Brazilian styles and navigating between simple and complex harmonic colors.

"Their music characterizes the diversity of a period in which concepts of modernity, national identity, and political activism in the arts were being constantly challenged and recreated."

Geraldo Vandré and Gilberto Gil represent the Northeastern culture in its extremes. Vandré’s “Disparada” draws from the simplicity and roughness of the style, incorporating the viola caipira and traditional percussion instruments. Gilberto Gil would become one of the faces of the Tropicália movement, and constantly pushed the limits between tradition and modernity in his music. Finally, Egberto Gismonti is one of the most versatile and prolific Brazilian musician. Having studied with Nadia Boulanger and Jean Barraque, he followed in Villa-Lobos footsteps by developing a language that combines Brazilian popular styles and classical music. He is a virtuoso pianist and guitarist, brilliant improviser and has recorded under the European label ECM. His work as a songwriter encapsulates the complexity of his musical background.


Domingo no Parque (Gilberto Gil)

Viver de Amor (Toninho Horta)

Morro Velho (Milton Nascimento)

Vera Cruz (Milton Nascimento)

Memória e Fado (Egberto Gismonti)

Disparada (Geraldo Vandré)

Sem Fantasia (Chico Buarque)

Travessia (Milton Nascimento)

Military Dictatorship in South America

Jerry Davila

"It is striking that the military regimes of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile not only occurred during a shared time period, but that they also shared an excess of violence along with radical social and economic experimentation. Their shared historical moment was one in which a radical generation inspired by events like the Cuban Revolution, as well as the wars of liberation and decolonization in Africa and Asia, embraced the possibility of instant and profound national transformation. The military regimes that fought against (and sought to exterminate) these radicals, acquired from them a sense of the boundless possibility of profound change.

If a generation of radicals sought control of government in order to transform the country, now the military in government would attempt the same, giving radical expression to their own beliefs. Members of the armed forces and the political right were also emboldened by U.S. Cold War ideology, from which they drew the moral authority to attack their opponents. These dictatorships were products of a moment in which the left and the right shared a belief that almost anything was possible, and in which the right prevailed (at least temporarily). Both sides used the rhetoric of revolution, reorganization, and salvation.

These military dictatorships shared traits that placed them in a similar straitjacket. The armed forces were not organized to function as a national government or as the channel of political debate, yet they assumed both of these roles. What resulted were regimes that were inherently unstable and narrow-minded. Competition within the armed forces substituted traditional political competition. Shielded from oversight, the dictators and their subordinates exceeded even self-imposed limits to their authority and inevitably degenerated into corruption. These were societies in which anyone in uniform believed, with considerable impunity, that he was the dictatorship. Was the general who served as president the actual commander of the armed forces, or the representative of the armed forces? Though this question was resolved differently in each country, it loomed as a central contention about the nature of each regime.

And these regimes' nature made it inevitable that they would systematically violate the human rights of their citizens. Each carne to power by defining the radical left as its foe. Each chalked up clear victories in liquidating that left. But even once the left had been decimated, each regime's national security doctrine and machinery of repression lived on, constantly looking for new targets, and etching its violence ever deeper into society. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."

"...the violence was integral to the dictatorships: they applied their goals of national transformation by deliberately torturing, jailing, and killing their foes."

"The number of victims that were tortured, killed, or disappeared by these regimes varied a great deal. In Brazil, the number is comparatively modest: there is official recognition of 356 people killed by the regime. In Chile, the number murdered ranges from 3,000 to 14,000. In Argentina, the number starts at 8,960 but more frequently, 14,000 and 30,000 disappeared is invoked. In Argentina one-third were women, half were between 20 and 30, and 12% were under 20. In turn, the lives taken by men in uniform in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile were part of a larger Cold War pattern in which hundreds of thousands were killed by their regimes across South America, particularly Guatemala, where 250,000 are estimated to have died, and Mexico, an ostensibly democratic country but one where counterinsurgency campaigns led to a larger number of deaths than in Brazil. So what is in a number?

The violence behind these numbers was not just an outcome of these regimes' policies. To the contrary, the violence was integral to the dictatorships: they applied their goals of national transformation by deliberately torturing, jailing, and killing their foes. The regimes transacted their internal politics on the bodies of the opposition, whether alive, missing or dead. In this context, judging the regimes on the basis of the relative numbers of deaths they inflicted is misleading. The loss of each life was significant to the victim and their relations, to the regime, and to the society the regime sought to remake by means of that violence.

The official numbers of victims are also misleadingly low: these were the number of people whose death at the hands of state agents could be fully documented by commissions of inquiry which published reports that are widely available, under the title Nunca Mas (Never Again, Argentina, Brazil: Never Again, and Never Again in Chile). The burden of documentation in the Nunca Mas reports meant that the number of disappeared that they reported serves simply as a starting point. These regimes often denied the existence of their crimes. The Nunca Mas reports foreclose that fiction by presenting irrefutable evidence. By way of making sure these crimes would never happen again, as the reports' titles imply, they make unambiguously clear, often in unsettling detail, that these crimes occurred."

Davila, Jerry. Dictatorship in Latin America, 2-4.

Artists, Intellectuals and clergy supported the Student Movements in Brazil during the fight against the dictatorship

MPB, Student Movement and Censorship

Despite Bossa Nova’s enormous impact in popular music and the positive reception of the movement by the public and critics, some people still questioned the music’s lack of political and social relevance. Many musicians who were at the center of Bossa Nova in its birth started to explore different ways to combine the modern elements that had recently been introduced in Brazilin popular music while also drawing from traditional samba and elements of regional and folkloric music. They would also soon incorporate social and political themes in the lyrics with a strong nationalist perspective. This process had a strong support from UNE (National Student Union) and its new founded cultural department CPC (Popular Cultural Center), which led to a larger integration of the arts and collaborations between younger musicians like Carlos Lyra, Nara Leão, Vinicius de Moares, Baden Powell, Oscar Neto and artists representing the old-guard of samba like Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho and Mangueira’s samba school.

Popular music in Brazil was changing faster than ever, and the aesthetic contributions of this group would lead to the creation of the MMPB movement (Modern Popular Brazilian Music). Later referred to as MPB, this movement challenged primarily the notions of modernity consolidated in the BN. Elis Regina is among the most influential artists of that period and became the face of MPB, due to her unmatchable ability to synthesize the many different musical influences and tensions present in popular music at that time. The large success of her show O Fino da Bossa, produced by a student organization from São Paulo, would lead to the creation of the First Festival of Popular Music, hosted by TV Excelsior. In the same year, TV Record created the weekly TV show O Fino da Bossa, hosted by Elis Regina and guest artists. This show would consolidate the presence of popular music in TVs across the nation and also solidified the TV Song Festivals as the primary space for innovation in popular music.

Artists, Intellectuals and Clergy with the Students | No More Dictatorship | Students in Retreat Attacked by the Police

The 1960s were also a period of many political changes. After the resignation of Janio Quadros, João Goulart took office in 1961 and soon received the support of a large portion of the lower classes in Brazil with a platform centered around land reform, strengthening of labor rights and larger control of the State in the economy. Political tension rose as the country became increasingly polarized and in April of 1964 Goulart was ousted through a military coup. The ties between music, student movements and political activism became even stronger at the early years of the military dictatorship as student movements took a central role in the opposition of the dictatorship. The government’s repression attacked labor unions, dissolved political parties and outlawed UNE and other student organization as well as student-led strikes and any political activities in Universities. Music became one of the unifying elements of the fight against the dictatorship, and the subtle and hidden messages in songs would become important in the mobilization of student groups. Carcará, É Proibido Proibir, and Sinal Fechado, are examples of protest songs that were presented during the Song Festivals, but no other song took such an important role as Caminhando (Walking). Written by Geraldo Vandré and also known as Pra não dizer que não falei das flores, the song became the anthem on the student movement in a year that saw increased demonstrations for democracy being suppressed by the government.

After 28 people died in conflicts with the police in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1968, students, artists, intellectuals, clergy members gathered at Marcha dos 100.000 (Protest of the 100,000) and one week later, a crowd of 60,000 people gathered again to protest against the censorship and repression from the State and the Congress showed signs of willingness to confront the Executive branch. The government responded with strength, more protesters died in the ensuing confrontation and 900 student leaders were arrested. Later that year, the AI-5 (Institutional Act 5) was enacted, giving the President the power to order the recess of Congress (the National Congress and State Legislative Assemblies were closed for one year), expanding censorship in all forms of media, made illegal any political meetings that had not been previously approved by the police and suspended habeas corpus for political prisoners.

"The first half of the 1970s represented the most violent and repressive period of the military dictatorship which reflected in music through a thematic shift: from the representation of the people's fight and the dream of the revolutionary utopia to disenchantment, lack of hope and nightmare." Memorial da Democracia

The repression reached its peak in the following years and also impacted music. Caminhando, the song that had helped propel much of the opposition’s efforts, was banned along with many other songs and its composer Geraldo Vandré went on political exile along with artists such as Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The Song Festivals had for many years provided a space for artists who represented the people's hope for democracy and in 1971 a group of composers decided to submit songs that exclusively criticized the dictatorship. Paulinho da Viola, Edu Lobo, Egberto Gismonti, Vinicius de Moraes, Toquinho, Chico Buarque, Ruy Guerra, Capinan, Sérgio Ricardo, Tom Jobim, Marcos e Paulo Sérgio Valle had their songs censured and decided to boycott the VI FIC (International Song Festival), organized by TV Globo. The Memorial da Democracia (Democracy Memorial) describes the impact censorship and repression had on Brazilian popular music: "The first half of the 1970s represented the most violent and repressive period of the military dictatorship which reflected in music through a thematic shift: from the representation of the people's fight and the dream of the revolutionary utopia to disenchantment, lack of hope and nightmare."

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