90 years of Tony Tornado: With his Afro James Brown Influenced Soul
Note from BW of Brazil: He spoke about black pride, exposed racial discrimination, wore a large afro and was persecuted by the government’s intelligence agency. Just from the description, one would think I was talking about a 1970s black revolutionary calling for equality for African-Americans in the United States. Well, the era, the 1970s is correct, but the country was Brazil and the man was Tony Tornado.
In those days, before he would later become a B-list actor, Tony, born Antônio Viana Gomes, was pumping his fist in the air, leading a cultural movement known as Black Rio and provoking fear in the military regime of the time that a black revolution would soon arrive in Brazil. If Tony Tornado had been American, his incredible story would have probably already been turned into a book and at least a documentary. But as Brazil continues to ignore its own Black History and important black cultural and historical figures, Tornado may never receive the recognition he deserves for being a key player of an era when Afro-Brazilians were openly beginning to accept their blackness as they grooved to American Soul/Funk rhythms.
As I detailed in a previous piece, I first heard the name Tony Tornado in about 2003 and even having learned a lot about his life and career, there are several other noteworthy details about his life and career that I’d like to further explore. I would be posting a much more in-depth report on Tornado in a coming post, but for now, the article below serves as a brief introduction as to why Tony should be celebrated when the topic is Afro-Brazilian history. On May 26th, Tony turned 90 years old. Happy belated birthday to the man who sometimes referred to as the “James Brown Brasileiro”.
90 years of Tony Tornado: With his afro, James Brown-influenced Soul, singer’s style and music ushered a new era of black pride in Brazil in the early 1970s
Inspired by the social struggles of black Americans, Soul Music conquered Brazil in the 1970s. Toni Tornado raised this flag
By Sandra Pelegrini and Amanda Palomo Alves
In a throwback to the 1970s, Tony Tornado, dressed in black power style and extravagant clothes, sang the song “BR-3”. The fictitious scene was shown in early 2010 in the novela (soap opera) Cama de Gato, shown on the Globo TV network. But the emotion of the actor and singer was real: in October 1970, he had performed, along with the sibling group Trio Ternura, the same song at the 5th International Song Festival (FIC), at the famous Maracanãzinho futebol (football/soccer) stadium, in Rio de Janeiro. The first place given to Toni at the festival marked not only the launch of a star, but also a moment of affirmation of the ethnic identity of black Brazilians.
With songs and attitude inspired by the black American movement and lyrics like “Would you have this same love for him / If Jesus were a man of color?”. Toni Tornado challenged the military regime that ruled Brazil at the time (1964-1985), was run in and questioned by the political police of the time – Departamento de Ordem Política e Social (Dops or Department of Political and Social Order) -, had his records seized and faced exile in the early 1970s in countries like Uruguay, Angola, Egypt, Czechoslovakia and Cuba.
Before becoming known, Toni performed songs by the likes of the American Chubby Checker, considered the ‘father of the twist’, and participated in the Brasiliana dance group, with which he toured Europe for about three years. But it was only at the age of 34, in 1965 – shortly after the coup d’etat that inaugurated the military dictatorship in Brazil that he had direct contact with black American culture that would inspire him for the rest of his life.
Toni risked his luck as a illegal immigrant in the United States, living off of his manual labor, in addition to learning about racism and the contempt of whites, lived with political and social challenges from blacks engaged in the struggle for civil rights. He made contact with the revolutionary group the Black Panthers and listened closely to the proposals of the Black Power movement that was demanding control of political and economic institutions for African Americans. Toni also had the chance to meet one of the greatest leaders in the struggle for American civil rights, Stokely Carmichael, while living in Harlem, New York’s black neighborhood. It was Carmichael who coined the expression Black Power in 1966.
Toni was also introduced to Soul, a musical rhythm that comes from the fusion of Gospel – born in Protestant churches frequented by blacks in the United States – with Rhythm n’ Blues and that acted as the glue of African-Americans around a common identity. Soul fashion and music served to raise black people’s self-esteem. In Brazil, where this movement would gain more force in the 1970s, it also won over young blacks who wanted to have social recognition. A report by Jornal do Brasil, written by Lena Frias in 1976, entitled “Black Rio – O orgulho (importado) de ser negro no Brasil” (Black Rio – The (imported) pride of being black in Brazil), says that Soul aroused the perception of the ethnic identity of Afro-descendants. When Tomado returned to Rio de Janeiro in the late 1960s, the black movement was still not as popular in Brazil. The colorful clothes he wore, accompanied by extravagant accessories and voluminous afro hair, were seen with astonishment.
Toni’s appearances caused a stir for the style – hats, glasses, colorful platform shoes, long coats, bell-bottom pants and T-shirts painted with African motifs, all combined with eccentric body expressions – and also for his content. In his songs, the singer didn’t hide social problems and questioned the “racial democracy” propagated by the authorities of the military government. Just like black music, the songs interpreted by Tornado called into question the existence of “solidarity between the races” and brought up the problem of social exclusion.
With the notoriety he acquired, the singer came to be seen by the military authorities as a black leader capable of inciting the formation of political organizations in Brazil such as the Black Panthers. It’s not surprising that he was arrested many times in the following years and had songs from his repertoire such as “Se Jesus fosse um homem de cor (Deus Negro)” (If Jesus were a man of color (Black God)), composed by Cláudio Fontana, censored. Even so, it was in this phase that he experienced the peak of his musical career. In 1971, he recorded his first album, the self-titled Toni Tornado. The opening track, “Juízo final” (composed by Renato Corrêa and Pedrinho), has a strong social appeal and drew attention to discrimination, as in the verse “A water fountain quenches thirst, it doesn’t choose color”. Drinking fountains were a hallmark of racial segregation in the United States, where there were some for whites and others for blacks.
A similar argument appears in “Uma ideia”, composed by the brothers Marcos and Paulo Sérgio Valle, featured on his second album, also self-titled, released in 1972. The verse “I know that the shadow of the hands put the same color on the ground” is another mention of the fact that all men are the same, no matter the color of their skin. The lyrics, instrumental and vocal arrangements bring a Gospel feel.
Toni’s greatest protest was held in 1971, when he performed with the popular MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) singer Elis Regina (1945-1982) at the Fifth FIC song festival. The two interpreted the song “Black is beautiful” by the Valle brothers, which says: “This morning, on Rua do Ouvidor / How many horrible whites I saw / I want a man of color / A black god from Congo or from here.” While she sang, Toni jumped up on stage and clenched his fists in the air – a characteristic gesture of the Black Panthers. He ended up being handcuffed, arrested and taken out of the auditorium.
Five years later, he recorded four-song compact single that included the song “Se Jesus fosse um homem de cor”, composed by Cláudio Fontana. The idea was not so new. In the 1950s, Brazilian writer Ariano Suassuna had already considered this possibility when he portrayed a black God in the book Auto da compadecida. But Toni Tornado’s interpretation of that song on television shows bothered military officials and the most conservative groups in society.
The compact single “Deus negro “(black God) ended up having its distribution prohibited and copies destroyed. Tornado and Fontana were summoned to testify to the Federal Police. After suffering threats, the singer was exiled in the early 1970s, as he himself revealed in an interview given in Rio de Janeiro in 2009: “They (the military) took the opportunity because ‘man, this negão is agitating, let’s send him away. He’s telling blacks to not to straighten their hair anymore. He’s saying that the way of dressing is different’… understand? ‘He’s pernicious'”.
Toni returned to Brazil in 1972 and started acting in films and novelas (soap operas). His singing career was interrupted, but his contribution to the history of black music in Brazil is undeniable. His songs must be analyzed as a whole – lyrics, sound and interpretation – and in the light of the historical context in which they were created. After all, artists are influenced by the aesthetic, social and political transformations of their time.