How Brazil's Caetano Veloso Went from Renegade to Musical Idol

PHOTO: Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso is being honored as the Person of the Year at the 2012 Latin Grammy Awards.

Fernando Young/Courtesy Caetano Veloso

When imagined by American critics, the most frequent cliché used about the legendary 70-year-old singer Caetano Veloso is that he is the Bob Dylan of Brazil. In that case, the best Dylan song to associate with Veloso would be "Forever Young," because Veloso is one of the most restlessly creative, forward-looking musicians of our time.

His last three albums, , Zii e Zii, and the forthcoming Abraçaço (to be released in Brazil next month, with a worlwide release to follow) are edgy rock albums recorded with musicians a generation younger than Veloso, and this fall, Universal UK released a tribute to him featuring artists like Beck, Jorge Drexler, Seu George, and Devandra Banhart.

Brazilian music is widely misunderstood not only among Anglophones but even Spanish-speakers, since its language, Portuguese, despite its obvious Romantic melodiousness, is not easily translatable to the casual listener. The five most popular songs listed on iTunes for Veloso, like "Cucurrucucu Paloma" from the famous scene in Almodóvar's Talk to Her or "Voce e Linda" can give you the idea that his music is just something you'd hear in a Starbucks. But Veloso, who is to be honored November 14 as the 2012 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, is at the core of a revolution in music that still reverberates today.

Veloso, who has released 33 studio albums and 17 live albums and has contributed to several other soundtracks, compilations, and other artists' albums, had his beginnings as a young musician entranced by the music of his youth, the bossa nova while yearning to go in a radically different direction with his own.

On the surface, bossa nova appeared to be a mellow re-interpretation of his country's national music, the samba, through the removal of its big batucada percussion sound. But for Veloso and his generation, which included major stars like Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Veloso's sister Maria Bethania, bossa nova was a new kind of jazz-influenced blues.

Veloso, writing in his memoir Tropical Truth said that bossa nova's first star singer-composer, Joao Gilberto, used a "musically challenging guitar beat" that made his "vocal phrasing swing," igniting "the combustible elements of a revolution."

Veloso also revered the influence of American jazz artist Chet Baker, whose "androgynous sound" stirred his desire to live at the edge of gender boundaries. Tropical Truth narrates how Veloso, who grew up in Salvador de Bahia, on Brazil's northern, Caribbean-like coast, absorbed rock and roll through figures like Elvis Presley, whose image he felt "suggested a cross-dressed Katy Jurado."

The challenge for Veloso and his peers was to create something new that embodied rock and roll's spirit of rebellion while remaining steadfastly Brazilian. "Following bossa nova meant making something just as courageous as bossa nova was," Veloso told me in an interview several years ago. "We wanted to remind everybody that rock and roll was present in Brazil. We wanted something else, and that was Tropicália."

Veloso moved to Rio de Janeiro with his sister in 1965, and released his first album, Domingo with Gal Costa in 1967. Veloso and his fellow Tropicalistas believed in the Cannibalist Manifesto, a document written by radical poet Oswald de Andrade, who thought Brazilians should cannibalize First World influences and regurgitate them in an entirely new form. The Tropicalistas' performance style (onstage and on TV) was wildly psychedelic, in your face, and ultimately attracted official disapproval. "The government repression was a secret," said Veloso. "It was entirely hidden. They put us in prison but nobody knew. The press could not write a word about it. Tropicália was electric guitars, clothes, hair, anything. It was behavior, and some violence in the lyrics."

His signature song, "É Prohibido Prohibir" ultimately got him, Gil, and Tom Ze exiled to Europe for insisting that merely to forbid is forbidden.

Veloso's exile in London lasted three years, and although he released two albums (one in English) it effectively disrupted his career. By 1978, he had reached a low point after releasing the moody collection Muito, whose spare production was met with equally sparse sales numbers. A few years later, he would revive his career when he played the Public Theater in New York, which was attended by Nonesuch Records CEO Bob Hervitz and the infamous downtown musician Arto Lindsay, who was known for playing "noise" guitar on the seminal "no-wave" group DNA.

Lindsay, the son of Christian missionaries who was raised in Brazil and completely fluent in Portuguese, became Veloso's producer for his next two albums, Estrangeiro and Circulado, which revived his career in Brazil as well as gained him new fans among hipsters who embraced Brazilian music through a series of compilations issued by ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in the late '80s and early '90s. Both albums made explicit references to Tropicália, its past glories and unresolved conflicts.

With a new momentum, Veloso began to make highly produced, deeply intellectual albums that referred to his love for concrete poetry, his youthful admiration for Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, his attraction to Andy Warhol and a kind of transgender reinterpretation of Brazilian legend Carmen Miranda. In 1994, he made Fina Estampa, a well-received album of Spanish-language classics from luminaries such as Agustín Lara and Rafael Hernández that was kind of a brainy retake of Julio Iglesias' '80s classic "América."

In the '90s Veloso teamed up with the brilliant Brazilian cellist Jacques Morelenbaum, who produced Livro, Noites do Norte, Prenda Minha, and the English-language A Foreign Sound. This was a fully mature period of musical experimentation for him, during which he deconstructed and reconstructed the samba and bossa nova of his youth, with Morenlenbaum incorporating rich orchestral production, veering toward the heights of Gil Evans' work with Miles Davis in the 1960s.

But since the mid-part of the last decade, Veloso's work has returned to his rock with a band that features his son, Moreno, and some of his contemporaries. "It's more like tropicalismo to dialogue with contemporary rock than trying to repeat what I did in the '60s," Veloso told me after Cê's release in 2005. He has been on a mission to combine the energy of his classic rock passions, of Hendrix, Pink Floyd, free jazz, with younger musicians more influenced by Nirvana and Radiohead.

Veloso hasn't given up on the bodily reality of youth either—his more recent work focuses on the raw emotions of regret, sexual desire, naked hate, and the fear of aging. On 2009's Zii e Zie, his most recent album with the new band, he is determined to pursue an idea of "transambas," in which the heavy drumming of samba is translated through the screeching wails of an electric guitar.

And in the lyrics, these taken from "Perdeu," Caetano Veloso still struggles with the same questions as he did in his youth: "Hell, spat/A god, an animal/a man/sprouted someone/some one/What?Who?"

Spoken like a true rebel.

Caetano Veloso will be honored by the Latin Recording Academy of Arts & Sciences as Person Of The Year in Las Vegas on Thursday, November 14, the night before the Latin Grammys. The gala will include tribute performances by the likes of Seu Jorge, Alexandre Pires, Nelly Furtado, Natalie Cole, Lila Downs, Juanes, Juan Luis Guerra, Tania Libertad, Natalia Lafourcade, Mala Rodriguez and Enrique Bunbury.

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