Caetano Veloso sang these words last year at an outdoor concert in his home state of Bahia in Brazil. "It was a special, magical night on the eve of my birthday," reminisces the 60-year-old icon over the phone as he prepares to embark on his biggest U.S. tour ever, which ends in Miami. ("I love [Miami]," Veloso tells New Times. "It's beautiful and as humid as Brazil. I love the color of the sea, and the temperature of the water is so much like Bahia.") The tour promotes Live in Bahia, the album that captures those two enchanted summer-night performances in Salvador, released last October to coincide with the publication of the long-awaited English translation of his memoir, Tropical Truth (first published in Portuguese in 1997). "People in the audience were singing along, so the record company decided to record it and then afterward they played it for me," says Veloso. "I hesitated a little to come out with it, but then I said 'Let it be.'"
Considered Brazil's premier songwriter, one of the finest poets in Portuguese, and an international pop musician on par with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bob Marley, Veloso is a restless intellectual who delves deep into his nation's psyche. He is constantly exploring, experimenting, provoking, questioning, and challenging, be it through his music, writing, films, or political activism.
Charles A. Perrone, author of Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB, 1965-1985, observes that Veloso has always been ahead of his time. When traditional sounds were popular in Brazil, Veloso focused on international trends. When musical militancy and activism were in vogue, he explored romantic and spiritual themes. Faced with sentimentalism, Veloso turned his attention to materialism. And when consumerism came under scrutiny, Veloso's taste for the avant-garde resurfaced.
Born in 1942 in the Bahian countryside of Santo Amaro da Purificação, Veloso quickly gained recognition as a composer in the early 1960s when his sister, singer Maria Bethânia, recorded his songs for a music show in Rio. In the following years Veloso competed in pop festivals and made movie soundtracks. In 1967 he recorded his first LP, Domingo, with the collaboration of singer Gal Costa. Soon thereafter Veloso found himself at the forefront of Tropicalia, a cultural movement of artists including Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, and poet Torquato Neto, that turned Brazil inside out.
Born into an oppressive atmosphere, Tropicalismo faded fast. With few supporters outside Brazil, the movement soon found itself between a rock and a hard place. The left criticized it because it embraced U.S. culture, and Brazil's right-wing military government objected to its open, often outlandish expression. Still Tropicalismo stirred a new national discourse and left a lasting imprint on the arts.
"When I started composing and singing for audiences I was already impregnated with so many different things that I filtered through my point of view and aesthetic inclination," Veloso relates. "All of these experiences had an impact on me and I was never afraid or ashamed to show it. Tropicalismo was based on the courage of facing [the world] without fear. We took to international influences without prejudice in our hearts."
But Veloso paid a price; in 1969 he was arrested by the military regime and sent into exile in London along with Gilberto Gil. The cold, rainy European metropolis didn't dampen Veloso's curiosity, though. He evolved from a rebellious, counterculture guru into a cultivated and worldly artist. Upon his return to Brazil in 1972, Veloso began experimenting with reggae, afoxé (Afro-Brazilian drumming), and eventually with rap. Active and innovative throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Veloso won a Grammy for best world music in 2000, for his 1998 album Livro. He won a Latin Grammy for best Brazilian popular music for his 2001 studio album, Noites do Norte (Northern Nights), a reflection on Brazilian attitudes about race, slavery, and the quest for a national identity.
On Live in Bahia, Veloso's flowing falsetto ranges over the five-decade span of his celebrated songbook. He reaches even further back into history when he pays tribute to the bossa nova era by dusting off Tom Jobim classics "Caminos Cruzados" and "Samba de Verão." But much of the material comes from Noites do Norte: "Zumbi" salutes the legendary black leader of a runaway slave republic; "Rock 'n' Raul" with its metallic guitars pays tribute to Raul Seixas, who made American rock a part of Brazil's playlist in the 1960s; and "Zera a Reza" combines the rhythms of samba and Brazilian hip-hop, two different genres of music born out of similar circumstances.
"Samba faced the police in the 1920s," Veloso says. "It was a crime in itself, this is history. In fact I have touched this subject in a song in which I respond to Noel Rosa's song "'Feitiço da Vila.'" (Rosa, a samba giant from the 1930s who grew up in Vila Isabela, in northern Rio, is credited with rescuing samba from the favelas, the slums, and taking it mainstream.) "He was the first middle-class musician to compose sambas," Veloso explains. "In 'Feitiço da Vila' he writes that Vila Isabela has produced this 'good' samba without those African, black, 'bad' things. Vila has made samba decent. It cleaned it of its favela, crime, and candomble [religion] traces. Nobody ever reacted to this because Rosa is loved and the song is wonderful. It's clearly a masterpiece, though it represents how samba was persecuted. At the same time Rosa represents the salvation of samba for the middle class and his 'Feitiço da Vila' reaffirms all the prejudices that the middle class had against samba. So I wrote a samba in response to his and in it I say our samba has everything Vila's samba didn't have. And then I add to it a list of names of some of the rap representatives and the scent of criminality that surrounds them."
Hip-hop, Veloso says, is the most authentic music coming out of Brazil. He describes it as a valuable link to black urban culture around the world.
"Brazilian hip-hop is the only real musical movement in Brazil right now," Veloso contends. "For this reason artists like Racionais MCs are very important. They really brought a different influence to Brazilian music. They began by imitating American rap, but of course what they produce is different because what they have to say is different. They're not American. They brought a new style of poetry and behavior."
The disparity that exists in Brazilian society has not changed, Veloso reflects. But in the favelas, the fertile breeding ground for both samba and hip-hop, today's generation isn't as complacent.
"When I was young, people from the favelas would just resign [themselves] to the fact that they just didn't count," Veloso recounts. "It's entirely different now because generally speaking poor people aren't as poor as they used to be. The world is a lot richer and so is Brazil. The disparity might be bigger, which results in a greater risk for confrontation. Modern hip-hop represents this tension. Because in the end the basic problems have not been solved."