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.
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.