Omaggio a Tropicalista
Brazil's musical ambassador to the world, Caetano Veloso
There is no discussion: Brazil's Caetano Veloso is one of the world's most accomplished and conscious pop artists. Anywhere. Period. At 60, he's still more current, more relevant than 99% of what we produce, and a hell of a lot more fun. He's the thinking man's rock star.
His 1999 performance at UT's Bass Concert Hall aroused, mesmerized, dizzied the packed house, and by show's end, Austin was converted into a stronghold of Caetanoists. When Veloso, Brazil's brightest, most reliable musical beacon, fired up his entourage of Gatling gun-tight drummers and liquid, piercing guitarists, his presence, poise, and total control commanded the audience's attention, insistently reminding them that Brazil has more to offer than cheap shoes and bad coffee.
North American critics like to call Veloso the Bob Dylan of Brazil, or the John Lennon, the Bruce Springsteen, the Mick Jagger -- hell, throw Madonna into the mix -- of Brazil. Though he finds such comparisons "idiotic," he does share traits with all of these, and for the unwashed masses, comparisons are helpful. In fact, if truth be told, he is all of these and none of these. He is Caetano Veloso, and there truly is no equal anywhere.
Half troubadour, half window-rattling rocker, Veloso is all poet, and all literary. He's also half socio-anthropological philosopher, half ambiguous and flamboyant Liberace-style showman, and half aphrodisiacal rogue. Another half still is a frustrated filmmaker -- many parts for a very full whole. He wears numerous hats on his whirlwind journey, leading Brazilian fans on a merry chase as his recordings jag from lilting acoustic sambas to angular, 12-tone electric guitar riffs in a matter of minutes.
Born in the culturally blessed northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, the precocious Veloso rose from relative obscurity in 1967 to become one of the leaders of Brazil's vanguard pop music movement dubbed Tropicália. The ever-worsening paranoia of Brazil's military government found the quixotic, tongue-in-cheek musical style, which combined elements of samba, international rock, and sappy Brazilian pop, to be nothing short of threateningly treasonous, so Veloso, along with several peers, was summarily jailed and later exiled, putting a halt to the nascent explorations.
Upon returning to Brazil in 1972, Veloso began a steady stream of artistic, and eventually, commercial successes that positioned him as an icon and visionary. This led him through the critical mire of his homeland as well as into various New York recording studios for his own projects beginning in the early Eighties. Recently, he was special guest on Canto, the second release by Austin/L.A. all-star collective, Los Super Seven.
"They invited me to participate on that record while I was in New York promoting the film Orfeu for which I did the music," recounts Veloso. "I learned they had a connection to Austin, which I thought was interesting, because I really liked Austin when I was there on the last tour. I found Austin to be a very agreeable city, very sweet, very simpática.
"I loved the theatre, the audience, all the people I met there. Everyone seemed so relaxed. I must say I left with the most wonderful impression of Texas. It was a great surprise for me."
Never content to record the predictable, in the last few years Veloso has released a disc of Spanish language classics, Fina Estampa, as well as the fascinating Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta, a tribute to Italian film legends Federico Fellini and his favorite actress (and spouse) Giulietta Masina. Omaggio features a healthy dose of Veloso originals alongside tunes from classic Fellini films, recorded live in Italy. There's also his new autobiography, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil (see sidebar).
His current project is a disc of mostly duets that was just released in Brazil with poet and musician Jorge Mautner, most noted for his song "Maracatu Atomico" made famous by fellow Tropicálista Gilberto Gil. His plans for the near future include recording his interpretations of "Anglo-American songs" from the United States, Canada, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Veloso's frequent visits to New York found him there in September of 2001.
"I left New York for Los Angeles on the night of Sept. 10," he recalls. "When I heard the terrible news the next morning, I really suffered because I love New York so much. It was as though I had suffered a wound in my own body. The United States changed immediately that day, but really, we've all changed as a consequence of what happened that day. Such brutality, a real shock to our psychological structures, don't you think?"
Brutality of another sort happens to be the topic of Caetano's most recent domestic recording, last year's Noites do Norte (Northern Nights; a live version, Live in Bahia, was just released here this week), which serves as a base for the electrifying show he'll be presenting in Austin. The album deals in part with the long period of slavery in Brazil, which only ended in 1888. Veloso elaborates.
"These problems of inequality are as old as Brazil," explains the musician. "We've never known anything else, and it seems like in the past few decades, it has gotten worse. But the probable victory of the truly left-leaning Lula in the current presidential elections is, symbolically speaking at least, a very moving and emotion-filled response by the Brazilian people against this tradition of inequality.
"I have hope that we will find that unexpected Brazilian way out of all our current social and economic problems."
Perhaps a song from Veloso's current show says it best: "For a long time, slavery will remain the national characteristic of Brazil ... It is the indefinable sigh half-heard in our moonlit northern nights."
These words were written more than 100 years ago by Joaquim Nabuco, Brazil's first ambassador to the U.S., and set to music by Caetano Veloso who may, in the long term, prove to be the most important ambassador Brazil has ever sent to this country.
Caetano Veloso brings his show Noites do Norte to the Bass Concert Hall, Wednesday, Oct. 23.
Mike Quinn is a monthly columnist for JazzTimes magazine and, paraphrasing Veloso's Tropicália anthem, orients Carnaval Brasileiro in Austin.