The Virtuoso Veloso

The late Sixties was the age of the concept album, with songs arranged around grand schemes or connected by themes. In 1967 the Beatles experimented with drugs and correspondingly avant-garde sounds, releasing the seminal Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts' Club Band. In the United States Brian Wilson may have been indulging in even more drugs than his British brethren; in 1966 he created the groundbreaking Pet Sounds. Meanwhile in Brazil Veloso and his crew were fomenting unrest and working on their own project. In 1968 they released Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis, which translates to Tropicalia or Bread and Circuses. One ironic lacerating tune melded into another in this compendium of songs. "Superbacana" ("Supercool") satirized technological advances designed to make lives easier. Veloso's now-classic pop ditty "Baby" ripped consumerism and deflated young people's pretensions to hipness. The track "Tropicalia" portrayed the Brazilian experience with a voice reading "The Letter of Pero Vaz Caminha," colonial Brazil's first literary document, and ended with the exclamatory refrain: "Long live A-Banda da-da! Carmen Miranda-da-da." The album's title played on words by the Roman poet Juvenal, who lamented the masses' desire for nothing more substantial than "bread and entertainment."

The tropicalistas had the rare privilege of alienating both the right and left wings. Conservatives thought them self-indulgent and dangerous. The left was convinced their cultural cannibalism belittled Brazilian society. The masses may have been put off, but their hunger for amusement was far from satiated. Gil and Veloso soon found themselves stars of Divinho Maravilhoso (Divine, Marvelous), a wacky TV variety show that had a two-month run in late 1968. By that year's end, though, the tropicalia movement fell apart. In December the government passed the Fifth Institutional Act, creating a total dictatorship. Harsh censorship was imposed and dissent, musical or otherwise, was not tolerated. Gil and Veloso were jailed for 60 days in Rio. Afterward they were placed under house arrest for four months in the Bahian city of Salvador. Forced into exile in 1969, the two settled in London, where Gil easily adapted but Veloso always felt uneasy.

"Once you've been the voice of a generation you never recover," observed expatriate songwriter-producer Arto Lindsay during a recent radio interview, when asked to address the legacy borne by Veloso in his native Brazil. In 1972 Gil and Veloso were allowed to go home. Calmly they returned to avid music-making, moving on from the highly ironic sounds of tropicalia. Ten years after that the high esteem Veloso merited with his countrymen was clear when songwriter Djavan's tune "Sina" ("Fate") spoke of "wanting to Caetano-ize what is good."

These days the mature Veloso is no longer so overtly political about his music. Oddly in the early Nineties, "Alegria, Alegria," the tune that had stirred so much controversy 25 years before, became the theme song during demonstrations that called for the ouster of Brazilian President Fernando Collor. In 1993, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of tropicalia, Veloso teamed with Gil for the album Tropicalia 2: Caetano Veloso e Gilberto Gil. A showcase for Veloso's and Gil's soft voices against a backdrop of smart, vital, melodic tunes, the album glances backward at styles like bossa nova and samba and includes a mishmash of instrumentation such as traditional percussion, brass, strings, and electric guitar. Tropicalia 2 was critically well received, but ironically, Veloso had his best-selling album ever the following year with the Spanish language Fina Estampa, a collection of tunes by Hispanic composers from the Forties and Fifties.

From the moment he blossomed on the musical scene, Caetano Veloso has been a contradiction: poet, social historian, rock star. He's the kind of entertainer who David Byrne admires for his ability to be "radical politically, culturally, and musically -- yet still be romantic and love a beautiful, sensuous melody." That much is evident in Veloso's most recent release Livro (Book), which highlights the artist's consummate merging of text and music. Written at the same time he completed his more than 500-page memoir Verdade Tropical, the album contains rich orchestral arrangements matched with percussion and electronic instruments. "Livros," Veloso's rhythmic homage to his cherished books, features a Portuguese rap. In "Pra Ninguem" ("For No One") Veloso pays his respects to another favorite Brazilian composer, bossa nova pioneer Jo‹o Gilberto. After going down a list of famous colleagues and the songs associated with them, Veloso concludes: "Better than this there is only silence/And better than silence only Jo‹o."

Once thought of in his country as the embodiment of boorishness and rebelliousness, Veloso has shown he can give a gracious nod to the past while still keeping his gaze resolutely focused on the future. He has spent more than a generation making music, with more than 30 records to his credit, but the man inextricably linked to one of the most significant movements in Brazilian popular music still has doubts about the power his songs will exert on listeners outside the confines of his native Brazil. "I've always thought that what I do could only interest Brazilians," Veloso claimed recently. "For two reasons: because of the words and because of the knowledge of our history and our problems. Outside of that, I couldn't see any appeal in my work." The world, fortunately, disagrees.

Caetano Veloso performs at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, July 17, at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets range from $25 to $75. Call 305-673-7300.

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