The Critics Multiply

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"The Critics Multiply"

Political Terrorism in Brazil

Magazine interview

By: Tom Zé

Date: May 19, 1999

Source: Interview with Tom Zé, published in the Minneapolis-St. Paul City Pages.

About the Author: Brazilian musician Tom Zé was born in the Brazilian state of Bahia in 1936. Along with musicians such as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Zé was at the forefront of Brazil's Tropicalista movement, a wide-ranging social and artistic phenomenon which gained momentum as an agent of protest against the Brazilian military dictatorship that seized power in 1964. Zé was discovered by North American audiences in the early 1990s, when his music was promoted by the musician David Byrne.


"Every chord in a song had five bombs, ready to throw at the military headquarters." The words of Tom Zé reflect the mood of Brazilian artists and musicians who were critics of the Brazilian military government as the country entered 1970.

In the wake of the ouster of the democratically elected national government in 1964, the Brazilian military began to limit many personal freedoms. Under the leadership of General Costa e Silva, the government imposed Institutional Act No. 5. Known as AL-5 when proclaimed into law in December 1968, the act suspended the Brazilian constitution, closed the Congress, and broadened powers of search, arrest, and detention. AL-5 also censored the arts and the press in an effort to suppress public protest and opposition to the government.

The Tropicalia movement arose in the mid 1960s, as a form of Brazilian artistic nationalism, a fusion of older Brazilian forms with more modern influences. With the imposition of laws such as AL-5, "tropicalistas" such as Zé, Gil and Veloso, through music that was often harshly satirical in its form, became regarded as agents of protest and of change in the country. Their manner of conveying intensely critical images of the military rulers and the government made these musicians famous.

Tropicalia was not geared to violence; however, songs such as Veloso's é Proibido Proibi (It is Forbidden to Forbid) provoked stern government sanction. Veloso, Gil, and other musicians were exiled, often after being arrested and detained for period of time. Zé received similar treatment and left music altogether to work for what he thought would be the rest of his existence in a family gas station in Brazil, until his career was revived in North America in the late 1990's.


CP (City Pages): Given the relative freedom you grew up with, how did the government repression of the late '60s affect you?

Zé: Well, it was the I-5 [Institutional Act No. 5] that made the dictatorship more rigorous. We were like boxers who were close to being knocked out, but we couldn't really calculate how strong that hook would be. That law made our lives an absolute hell. The funny part, which is always part of the tragic, is that I would go through the street in '69 and I would see the newspapers. You had to read them like an algebraic formula, which reminded me of my teachers in high school. We didn't know if we had to be worried about the censorship of our texts, or worried about our sisters involved in resistance who were incarcerated. I had two female friends who were jailed, then fled to Chile. Then, when Allende died, they fled to France. Everybody was saving up money to send them to safety.

It's as if the military was producing a show. One funny thing that doesn't come out in the papers is the way they extorted money. The phone would ring, and someone would say, "Tom Zé, this is Colonel So-and-so. I have a pair of knitting needles for you. But they're very special knitting needles. They're for you to use with French or English yarn. And you have to deposit so much money in such-and-such an account in a bank tomorrow so that you can have these needles, so they can knit the yarn of your life." This was the fear and the surrealism that we were going through. And sometimes we would actually deposit the money.

CP: What was your reaction to Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso being jailed?

Zé: With Gilberto Gil and Caetano, it was never explained—not when they were arrested, nor when they were set free—why this happened. When I was incarcerated for a few days in '71, they interrogated me on the day I was set free. And they asked me, like, if this or that star on TV in Brazil was actually nice in person. You were so scared that you didn't even ask them, "Why the heck was I in here?"

CP: What do you think the government feared about Tropicália?

Zé: Things worked in an organic manner. First they were afraid of ideas, then of youth, then of modernity. Then they were afraid of the Moon and the race to the Moon. We were making music that was a novelty in the aesthetic world, and it seemed that every chord in a song had five bombs ready to throw at the military headquarters.

CP: How did Tropicália change Brazil?

Zé: It had an effect on people, on business, on the whole concept of innovation. It influenced Brazilian engineering, which produced technology that had not been seen anywhere else in the world. Tropicália enabled them to build the bridge between Rio de Janeiro and the City of Niterói. And there was also simply a joy in knowing that this kind of music existed. It fed our resistance like some kind of protein or antibiotic.


It is noteworthy that the opposition to the policies of the Brazilian military regime took a number of years to find a voice after the 1964 coup. When that voice was discovered, the loudest protests were initially those of artists and musicians. Violence, in the form of both political terrorism and of government counterinsurgency, came to Brazil in its most dramatic form in the period from mid-1970–1972.

Protests against government censorship and the suspension of civil liberties, as had been previously guaranteed in the suspended constitution, were unsuccessful both in the short term as well as in the succeeding period of years. Brazilian newspapers and television outlets continued to be the subject of rigorous government restrictions for over ten years after the imposition of AL-5. The first true democratic election was not held until 1989.

Paradoxically, as government restrictions on expression gained greater traction, the Brazilian economy began to grow at a record pace. Commencing in 1970, the Brazilian Gross National Product climbed at a rate of 12% per year for the next seven years.

Also, the focus of the criticism of the Brazilian artistic movement, the AL-5 legislation, was in some respects a touchstone for neighboring countries that also installed a form of military rule after 1970—Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Uruguay all imposed legislation similar in effect and in scope to the Institutional Act of Brazil.



Avelas, I. "The Muffled Cries: The Writer and Literature in Authoritarian Brazil, 1964–1985." Hispanic American Review. (2001): vol. 81, 82, p. 418.

Web sites

MIT Western Hemisphere Project. <http//> (accessed July 5, 2005).