Get to Know a Brazilian – Torquato Neto

This week’s “Get to Know a Brazilian” focuses on Torquato Neto, a figure whose contributions to the Tropicália movement are even more overlooked than those of Rogério Duprat. Some of the most moving, daring, and playful compositions of the Tropicália sound came from Neto’s pen.

Torquato Neto (1944-1972), whose lyrical contributions to the Tropicália movement were vital yet remain overlooked.

Like many of his fellow tropicalistas, Torquato Pereira de Araújo Neto was born in the Northeast, in the state of Piauí, to a middle-class family. His father was a public defender, and his mother was a primary school teacher, one of the more common “acceptable” jobs for married women at the time. Like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso before him, Torquato Neto moved to the city of Salvador in Bahia when he was sixteen, and forming a lifelong friendship with his classmate Gilberto Gil. During his time in Bahia, he also met Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, creating the bonds that would tie him to the Tropicália movement of the late 1960s. However, Neto was not a musician, and originally got his entrance into Brazil’s countercultural scene as he worked as an assistant for budding film-maker Glauber Rocha on his debut film Barravento before relocating to Rio de Janeiro to study journalism. Though he did not finish his degree, he did work for several newspapers and became an outspoken defender of Brazilian avant-garde movements in music, poetry, and art.

With his past friendships with Gil and Veloso and his preference for new artistic forms, Torquato Neto soon became an important part of the Tropicália movement. Though not a musician or singer himself, he began writing lyrics for his friends even while defending their new sound in public. He wrote an essay in Portuguese titled “Tropicália for Beginners” that defended the sound, proclaiming it finally provided a genuinely-Brazilian form of popular music. In 1968, Gil’s self-titled album featured Torquato Neto compositions “Domingou” and “Marginália II” (a song Maria Bethânia also covered that year), as well as the song “A Coisa Mais Linda Que Existe.” Likewise, Caetano Veloso’s “Soy Loco Por Ti, América,” a playful ode to Latin America that pointed out the regions contradictions, featured lyrics by Torquato Neto. And on Tropicália ou Panis et Circenses, the album that brought together Gil, Veloso, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, and Rogério Duprat, Neto contributed worked with Gil on “Geléia Geral” and Veloso on “Mamãe, Coragem,” providing enough input into the album to earn a place on its cover.

Torquato Neto’s appearance (wearing a black cap and seated on the right in the second row) on the cover of the groundbreaking album “Tropicália ou Panis et Circenses” made clear just how central a figure the lyricist and songwriter was in shaping Tropicália’s content and sound.

With a growing respect for his work, Torquato Neto also helped write lyrics for songs by Luiz Melodia, Edu Lobo, Geraldo Vandré, Jards Macalé, João Bosco, and other performers. However, by the early-1970s, Torquato Neto’s life was taking a darker turn. With Veloso and Gil in exile in Europe, Torquato Neto and his wife traveled through the United States and Europe. On returning to Brazil, however, he found life increasingly troubling. Though he continued to write, publishing a recurring column in the Rio newspaper Última Hora, defending the Cinema Novo movement throughout 1970 and 1971, he also felt himself increasingly hemmed in both by the  military regime, then in its most repressive phase, as well as by the dogma of the radical left. Sliding into depression and turning increasingly to alcohol, in 1972, Torquato Neto committed suicide one day after turning 28, leaving behind his wife and his young son.

In this way, Neto became the first member of the tropicalistas to die. Though his name is not known throughout the world in the way Gil’s, Veloso’s, Os Mutantes’, or Tom Zé’s names are, his contributions to the movement are undeniable, and his songs continue to be reinterpreted by Brazilian artists today, becoming standards in the Brazilian catalog in ways that few composers ever achieve.

Torquato Neto and Gilberto Gil in happier days.

This is part of an ongoing series. Previous posts have focused on Princess Isabel, who abolished slavery in 1888, and Gilberto Freyre, whose work on race and ethnicity shape Brazilian ideas of nation and race even today.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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One Response to Get to Know a Brazilian – Torquato Neto

  1. lostsambista says:

    Reblogged this on Lost Sambista and commented:
    Torquato Neto,,, an important figure of the Tropicalia

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