By Kat Bein
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Prominent American musicians wax lyrical over him. In his own country a colleague wrote a tune about him, transforming his name into a verb. Lately it seems that people all across the world have become "Caetano-ized." But for Brazil's Caetano Veloso, the universal embrace that he's currently receiving has been long overdue. For the past 32 years, the 57-year-old Veloso has been continuously creating provocative, fascinating work. Long before the mass hype that has befallen the supremely gifted lyricist, musician, arranger, and singer, he had a slew of admirers who had already anointed him the poet laureate of Brazilian music. But who outside of Brazil knew?
Thank heavens for erstwhile Talking Head David Byrne. Donning the proverbial pith helmet and safari jacket, Byrne became the Henry Stanley of world music in the Eighties. His treks to strange lands allowed him to soak up "exotic" sounds and led to Veloso being "discovered" yet again. ("Tropicalismo, I presume?") Byrne began ferreting out Brazilian pop and formed his own imprint, Luaka Bop, to release what he found. In 1989 the label put out the compilation Brazil Classics I: Beleza Tropical. For those who considered Sergio Mendes and Brazil '66 the pinnacle of that nation's musical output, the album was a revelation. It sold nearly 300,000 copies, impressive numbers for world music. Featured among its "finds" were songs by Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Maria Bethánia, and Caetano Veloso. Perhaps the most astonishing fact Beleza supported: Brazil may always have been musically ahead of the rest of the world.
Twenty-one years back, in 1968, Caetano Veloso established his position at the forefront of Brazilian popular music. Born in the northeastern state of Bahia, Veloso, intent on pursuing a musical career, moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1965, the year after a right-wing military coup took place in his country, imposing strict censorship laws on its citizens. In Rio Veloso embarked on the conventional path taken by most aspiring young songwriters of the time. He participated in the first of the annual songwriting contests sponsored by the city of Rio and by television stations in S‹o Paulo. Finalists won the chance to perform on TV, allowing them increased exposure and the potential for a recording contract. Ruled by stylized folk tunes and the gentle sounds of bossa nova (then the prevailing popular musical style), the competitions were meant to foster nationalistic music and looked askance at anything new or different, especially plugged-in instruments such as electric guitars.
Veloso followed the unwritten festival rules in 1965, entering his bossa nova-tinged song "Boa Palavra" ("Good Word"), which grabbed fifth place. The following year his composition "Um Dia" ("One Day") earned him a prize for best lyrics. By 1967 though, Veloso drastically changed his tune, raising the hackles of judges at the competition. That year's entry, "Alegria, Alegria" ("Joy, Joy"), was a typical Brazilian march with a twist: rock and roll instrumentation. The song portrayed the urban experience through fragments of images from news publications, ending with the question "porque n‹o, porque n‹o?" ("why not, why not?").
The unconventional "Alegria, Alegria" revealed the restless stirrings of the nascent musical movement tropicalia. Veloso and his frequent collaborator Gilberto Gil headed a collective consisting of singers Gal Costa and Nara Le‹o, lyricists Torquato Neto and Jose Carlos Capinan, songwriter Tom Ze, psychedelic trio Os Mutantes (the Mutants), and composer-arranger Rogerio Duprat. Copping their name from an ambient art installation by Helio Oiticica featured at Rio's Museum of Modern Art in 1967, this assemblage merged high and low culture in an attempt to create sophisticated songs that incorporated Anglo-American psychedelic rock while exploring the diverse strands of Brazilian music.
Influenced by avant-garde poetry, popular culture, folklore, the mass media, rampant materialism, other Brazilian musical genres such as samba and bossa nova, kitsch, and melodrama, the tropicalistas created musical montages, encompassing everything from indigenous percussion to sound clips (now known as samples) to ambient tones from nature. They revered figures like Carmen Miranda -- held as "cheesy" by their countrymen -- and mentioned cartoon characters such as Batman in their songs.
"What we did in the late 1960s was a very complicated -- not so sophisticated but complicated -- comment on the history of music in Brazil," Veloso said in a recent interview. More than just making complex pronouncements, the actions the collective undertook sometimes got out of hand, as happened at the 1968 songwriting competition held in Sao Paulo. Accompanied by Gil, Veloso went onstage in a green plastic outfit and unleashed a raucous rock song called "ƒ Proibido Proibir" ("It's Prohibited to Prohibit"), which took its name from a slogan popularized during the Paris street demonstrations that May. The audience got nasty, shouting the pair down. A livid Veloso yelled back, delivering a scathing tirade that still rings in the ears of many Brazilians. "So these are the young people who say they want to take power!" he blared. "You are out of it! You don't get anything! ... Gilberto Gil and I are here to do away with the imbecility that rules in Brazil! If you are the same in politics as you are in music, we are done for!" Little did Veloso realize the movement he helped found would soon be but a memory.