All sorts of juxtapositions run through Caetano Veloso's memoir of the 1960s, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil. In this autobiography, Brazil's greatest living singer-songwriter delves into his myriad influences more than he talks about himself. Italian filmmakers, European avant-garde composers, bossa nova, the Beatles, and the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion share space with some nut named Chacrinha who hosted a popular television show while wearing a big telephone dial. Meanwhile, Veloso and such longtime friends as Gilberto Gil are seen struggling against‹and eventually triumphing over‹their country's military dictatorship.
It's a big story, for sure. But as his Perspectives concerts next month at Carnegie Hall will attest, Veloso has never stopped creating new music that carries his country's traditions into an expansive vision of the world.
To this day, tropicalismo (aka tropicália) represents Veloso's fulfillment of pop music's potential both as a joyful artistic expression and as a challenge to a nation's social order. When Veloso and his colleagues, including his sister, Maria Bethânia, were growing up in Brazil's northeastern Bahia state, they emulated the sophistication of such bossa nova legends as João Gilberto. Indeed, Veloso contends that much of tropicalismo was an extension of Gilberto's innovations. It was quite an extension. Veloso‹who is the same age as Paul McCartney‹became enamored with the Beatles, and psychedelia's impact is pronounced on the manifesto album, Tropicália. Seemingly random audio collages were set against the guitars of Brazil's most outrageous rock band, Os Mutantes. The record's abstract lyrical ideas reflected the influence of Brazilian poet Augusto De Campos, who will present a multimedia performance of his works on April 18. A high point on Tropicália is "Baby," which is Veloso and Gal Costa's simultaneous embrace and subversion of the pop song format itself. On Veloso's own self-titled 1967 record, he captured the mood of burgeoning rebellion on "Alegria, Alegria," when he declared, "No handkerchief, no ID / Nothing in my pockets or my hands / I just want to go on living / Why not?"
Onstage, Veloso was just as challenging. Sometimes he mocked customary gender roles while draped in plastic. Another time, he performed beneath artist Hélio Oiticica's dissident slogan, "Be a Criminal, Be a Hero."
Since dictatorships tend to lack tolerance for protest and show little sense of humor, the Brazilian junta imprisoned Veloso and Gil for a few months in 1968 before exiling them to Europe. The Brazilian oppositional leftists weren't that much more supportive toward their art, viewing their use of Anglophonic electric rock as an unwanted element that impinged on a nationalist ideal. But after the musicians returned to Brazil in the early 1970s, they were hailed as heroes. Today, Veloso's first name alone is a celebrated household word throughout the country, and Gil serves as its cultural minister. North American rock musicians, including David Byrne (Veloso's onstage partner on April 17 in Isaac Stern Auditorium), are turning southward for inspiration.
While musicians, scholars, and fans worldwide have duly celebrated the tropicalismo era, Veloso's adventurous ideas continued to flourish after the 1960s. During his years in England, Veloso put together Transa, which he says emanated from his "particular way of playing guitar." The album deserves a place among the great acoustic folk works of the era. The record's "You Don't Know Me" is a stirring message of protest from an exile to his homeland. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Veloso embraced the Brazilian funk of Jorge Ben and Tim Maia on his own terms through such records as Cinema Transcendental and Cores, Nomes. His soft inflection blends in with these discs' gently propulsive beats.
During the past few years, Veloso has created inventive works that blend more formal classical orchestrations with Brazilian maracatu percussion ensembles and such indigenous stringed instruments as the berimbau. He has not completely subdued his fascination with electric guitars, either. Livro, from seven years ago, is a love letter to Veloso's artistic influences and features "Manhatã," which should become the anthem of New York's central borough. On Noites do Norte from 2000, Veloso delivers reflections on slavery's legacy in Brazil. While his "13 de Maio" is about the day in May 1888 when the practice was officially abolished, other songs celebrate the music and spirituality that derives from the culture that African slaves brought to Brazil. The surprising lifts in Veloso's voice throughout Livro and Noites shows how much João Gilberto still inspires him. His recent concerts (as documented on the two-disc Live in Bahia) emphasize his eagerness to draw from his entire career. Even if he would rather charm than confront audiences nowadays, his energy is as unflagging as it ever was. Meanwhile, he has also actively promoted the careers of younger talents in Brazil, including singer Virginia Rodrigues, composer Carlinhos Brown, and his own son, Moreno Veloso. And for his Perspectives concerts in Zankel Hall this April, Veloso has selected two newer groups, Banda AfroReggae and Mart'nália.
What may be most startling about Veloso is how unassuming he is about his own musical abilities. As he writes in Tropical Truth:
"I am capable of humility, but I am not modest by nature. I don't aim to underestimate myself or engage in deliberate self-effacement, least of all as a strategy to elicit the protests of others, nor am I embarrassed to recognize openly the value of what I accomplish. But I consider my musical acumen average, sometimes below average. To my surprise, it has improved with practice…. Above all, I find myself singing: and it is my pleasure and growing competency as a singer that continue to furnish me with a justification for staying with this career."
But David Byrne suggests that this statement reflects how Veloso is still playing with gentle subterfuge when he talks about his music.
"It's deceptive because his writing and playing don't sound in any way difficult," Byrne says. "His music all flows very naturally, but there's a real kind of richness in the writing‹lyrically, harmonically, and all that kind of stuff, but it doesn't hit you over the head."
Veloso belongs to Brazil, but Carnegie Hall has the good sense to let New Yorkers borrow him for a little while.
Aaron Cohen writes about music for the Chicago Tribune and DownBeat.