caetano veloso

Generally speaking, music writers always frame the careers of musicians outside of their immediate geographic area in terms that others inhabiting the same geographical confines will immediately understand. The logic being that if I write that Caetano Veloso is the Bob Dylan of Brazil, you the reader (assuming you have no prior knowledge of Veloso) will immediately recognize him as a true heavyweight, perhaps one of the greatest figures in international pop music. I say this because using a phrase like "the Bob Dylan of Brazil" is a clear use of hyperbole in order to get your attention. And now that I have it, let me for the record state that Caetano Veloso is the Bob Dylan of Brazil, a pop musician/poet/filmmaker/political activist whose stature in the pantheon of international pop musicians is on a par with that of Dylan, Bob Marley, and Lennon and McCartney. And even the most cursory listen to his recorded output over the last 30 years proves that this is no exaggeration.

Born in 1942 in Santo Amaro da Purificacao in Brazil's Bahia region, Veloso absorbed the rich Bahian musical heritage that was influenced by Caribbean, African, and North American pop music, but it was the cool, seductive bossa nova sound of Joao Gilberto (a Brazilian superstar in the 1950s) that formed the foundation of Veloso's intensely eclectic pop. Following his sister Maria Bethania (a very successful singer in her own right) to Rio in the early '60s, the 23-year-old Veloso won a lyric writing contest with his song "Um Dia" and was quickly signed to the Phillips label. It wasn't long before Veloso (along with other Brazilian stars such as Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil) represented the new wave of MPB, i.e., musica popular brasileira, the all-purpose term used by Brazilians to describe their pop music. Bright, ambitious, creative, and given to an unapologetically leftist political outlook, Veloso would soon become a controversial figure in Brazilian pop. By 1967, he had become aligned with Brazil's burgeoning hippie movement, and, along with Gilberto Gil, created a new form of pop music dubbed, by artist Helio Oiticica, as tropicalismo. Arty and eclectic, tropicalismo retained a bossa nova influence, adding bits and pieces of folk-rock and art-rock to a stew of loud electric guitars, poetic spoken-word sections, and jazz-like dissonance. Although not initially well received by traditional pop-loving Brazilians (both Veloso and Gil faced the wrath of former fans similar to the ire provoked by Dylan upon going electric), tropicalismo was a breathtaking stylistic syncresis that signaled a new generation of daring, provocative and politically outspoken musicians would remake the face of MPB.

This was a cultural shift not without considerable dangers. Since 1964, Brazil had been ruled by a military dictatorship (a government that would rule for 20 years) who did not look kindly upon such radical music made by such radical musicians. Almost immediately there were government-sanctioned attempts to circumscribe the recordings and live performances of many tropicalistas. Censorship of song lyrics as well as radio and television playlists (Veloso was a regular TV performer on Brazilian variety shows) was common. Just as common was the persecution of performers openly critical of the government, and Veloso and Gil were at the top of the hit list. Both men spent two months in prison for "anti-government activity" and another four months under house arrest. After a defiant 1968 performance together, Veloso and Gil were forced into exile in London. Veloso continued to record abroad and write songs for other tropicalismo stars, but he would not be allowed to return to Brazil permanently until 1972.

Although his commitment to politicized art never wavered, Veloso, over the next 20 years, went from being a very popular Brazilian singer/songwriter to becoming the center of Brazilian pop. He kept up (and continues to keep) a grueling pace of recording, producing, and performing and, in the mid-'70s, added writing to his resume, publishing a book of articles, poems and song lyrics covering a period from 1965 to 1976. In the '80s, Veloso became increasingly better known outside of Brazil touring in Africa, Paris and Israel, interviewing Mick Jagger for Brazilian TV and, in 1983, playing America for the first time at age 41 selling out three nights at the Public Theater in New York, shows that were rapturously reviewed by then-New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer. This steady increase in popularity occurred despite the fact that Veloso's records were extremely hard to find in American record stores, and when one could locate them, they were expensive Brazilian imports. Still, the buzz on Veloso, thanks in part to Palmer, Robert Christgau and other critics writing about pop music outside of the contiguous 48 states, grew. But Veloso never seemed bothered by his low profile outside of Brazil, and his work over the years, even after he became a more well-known international pop figure, remained challenging and intriguing without being modified for American (or anyone else's) tastes -- that is, Veloso sang in English (most of his recorded work is sung in Portuguese) when he felt like it, not because he had to sell more records in America. He hung out with fairly trendy New York musicians (Brazilian native Arto Lindsay and David Byrne) but never made a big deal about it. Veloso was one of the rare musicians who was popular, sold a lot of records (at least in Brazil), was a certifiable superstar, but was never self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, or overly concerned with how hip he was.

At age 55, Veloso shows no signs of slowing down. After his 1989 recording Estrangeiro (produced by Ambitious Lovers Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer) became his first non-import release in America, Veloso's stateside profile increased significantly, reaching its highest point with the release of 1993's Tropicalia 2, recorded with Gilberto Gil. A brilliant record that made a slew of American ten-best lists (mine included), Tropicalia 2 proved once again that Veloso's talent (as well as Gil's) has not diminished a bit. His most recent recordings, Fina Estampa, Circulado, and Circulado Vivo (the latter of which includes versions of Michael Jackson's "Black and White" and Dylan's "Jokerman") are uniformly wonderful, and in the summer of 1997 Veloso embarked on his largest American tour to date. Two years later, he was the subject of an extensive, flattering portrait in Spin on the eve of the American release of his acclaimed 1998 album, Livro. After 30 years in the business, it looks as if it is the start of another great era by this truly magnificent artist.


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