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Brazzil - Memory Lane - September 2004
 

Brazil Sounds: Stalking Veloso and Gil's Ghosts in London

During the years Brazilian composers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto
Gil spent in London they lived in several different addresses. But
it is the first house, the one in which Veloso and Gil lived in together
which Veloso still recalls: "The recollections of the house in Chelsea,
the inside of it, are more enduring than those of the other houses."

Guy Burton


Brazzil

Picture Last weekend three of us made a journey from Bethnal Green down to Chelsea in London's West End. Having listened to some of the aspiring bands and DJs in the Brick Lane festival near my home we decided to make a visit to a place filled with memories of a different musical era.

History records that in 1964 a military dictatorship seized power in Brazil via a coup. It lasted for 21 years before collapsing under its inability to ride the economic crises of the 1970s and early 1980s.

At the beginning the new government imposed martial law. Life under the military was manageable. But in December 1968 a new law was brought in, suspending habeas corpus and allowing the police to enter any house they wished.

Life suddenly became harder for those opposed to the military regime. Dissidents were picked up and protestors thrown into prison, some never to be seen again.

Among their number were two musicians who were making their presence felt in the nationally. Two weeks after the law was introduced Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were picked up by the authorities in Sao Paulo and incarcerated in Rio. For several months they languished in prison without knowing the precise reason for their detention.

Their confinement though had its origins in the musical route they were taking. Both natives of Bahia, they had formed part of a circle made up of other musicians, artists and poets in the preceding decade.

They had begun exploring a new cultural movement which became known as Tropicália. While it manifested itself in theatre, sculpture, literature, poetry, painting and film, it was in the musical field that it really came into its own; and Veloso and Gil were among its main exponents.

In 1967, the year before they were imprisoned, Tropicália had burst onto the national stage. Music festivals were then a common and popular way of showcasing new music and talent; and it was through them that the music of Tropicália first came to be heard.

Veloso and Gil fused different musical genres such as bossa nova, samba, MPB (popular Brazilian music) together with other sounds, including rock and roll and developments in electrical music to create their songs.

Coupled with the Tropicália sound was a different and distinctive style of dress and tastes: wearing flares and beads and wearing their hair long while experimenting with drugs, the tropicalistas appeared extremely unconventional compared to broader Brazilian society.

Brazilian Counter-Culture

In many respects this movement was a counter-culture, an alternative which observers will recognise in the Beatles of the late 1960s. Indeed, the psychedelic and tripped-out sound and image of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the famous foursome is instantly called to mind.

But even as Timothy Leary encouraged people to turn on, tune in and drop out, the consequences of doing so in a country like Brazil could not be more challenging. To do so in a relatively free Europe or America was one thing; in Brazil, where the military was watching, was quite another.

It didn't help that Veloso and Gil were also stretching the limits of what was possible in their song writing. As the movement gained ground, their songs began to challenge the authorities.

Veloso's "Alegria, Alegria" (Happiness, Happiness) an anti-nationalist rock song sung at the MPB festival in October 1967 brought about a chorus of boos. A year later he was unable to sing his song, "É Proibido Proibir" (It's Forbidden to Forbid) while Gil managed to upset both the festival jury and audience with his "Questão de Ordem" (A Question of Order).

While their songs didn't lead directly to their imprisonment, they were on the military's list of artists who they wanted to interview. Allegations were made of the two wrapping themselves in the national flag and singing the anthem laced with swearwords, a claim that Veloso refutes.

In his autobiography, Tropical Truth, Veloso also noted that when he and Gil were taken into custody it was done without the correct documentation, much to the embarrassment of the regime.

Months would pass before they were eventually released in 1969, only to be kept under house arrest in Salvador. As time went on it became apparent that both Veloso and Gil were struggling to keep afloat financially; they were banned from performing by the authorities.

Eventually a way out was found, but it meant having to go into voluntary exile. Their military interlocutors were keen on the idea, not least because the dubious grounds surrounding their arrest and imprisonment could pose awkward questions.

They allowed Veloso and Gil to do a farewell concert to raise funds for their travel costs. Soon after, they were escorted to the airport. "Don't ever come back," they were warned by the police agents escorting them.

The two musicians first called at Lisbon, which was then under the control of its own dictatorship; after its own internal conflicts the previous year, Paris was tense.

The two eventually decided upon London, of which Veloso wrote: "Stable, tranquil, and insuperably fashionable, the English capital, for all its Nordic, non-Latin strangeness and its insufferable climate, seemed our most rational solution. Be that as it may, I more nearly accepted this decision than took it, much as I pretended to weigh the pros and cons as they came up in our discussions."

During the years Veloso and Gil spent in London they lived in several different addresses. But it is the first house, the one in which Veloso and Gil lived in together which Veloso still recalls:

"Those years were a cloudy dream," he wrote, but "Curiously, all my clearest, most vivid memories of the city, of the streets, of being in London are of the time after our move from Chelsea, but the recollections of the house in Chelsea, the inside of it, are more enduring than those of the other houses." The house in question can still be seen today, at the corner of Shawfield Street and Redesdale Street.

It was to Redesdale Street that my companions and I were traveling. I had persuaded them it was a pilgrimage of sorts; a visit back to a different time, both politically and musically.

Though it was a Sunday, Kings Road was busy. It has a history of being highly fashionable and exclusive; indeed, back in the swinging sixties, it was the place to see and be seen. My mother often tells of parties she went to in the area: it was _ and still is _ the place most closely associated with high living in the capital.

Just as they did 40 years ago, the wealthy still live in side streets off the Kings Road. Today a house can easily fetch £1 million or more; renting a flat with a single bedroom can set you back at least £350 a week.

But while the asking price limits those who wish to make SW3 their domicile, in many ways Kings Road is becoming less distinct and more like any other high street in Britain. Money brings with it access and choice, and in present-day Britain that access and choice is far more democratic, more popular in its tastes.

Where once individual fashion boutiques and unique shops would have proliferated down Kings Road, today chains and their brands compete for consumers, from Cafe Nero and Costa Coffee to the Virgin music store. The Kings Road shopping experience, for what it is worth, is little different to that in other parts of the capital.

Shawfield Street is a side road which leads off the Kings Road. With a Starbucks on one corner and a shop selling Harley Davidson-branded wear opposite, there is nothing to make this side street stand out from any other. As the three of us turned the corner we noticed its emptiness, a silence made all the more jarring by the empty cars parked down its length.

Leaving behind the bustle of Kings Road we passed a white washed hall on our right; in the uppermost windows, mannequin heads could be seen sitting on the sills. To our left we walked by Georgian houses, again all painted in white.

At the end of the street they gave way to more recently built and renovated houses, their purpose-built garages exemplifying their modernity.

At the end of the Shawfield, Redesdale Street runs parallel to Kings Road. Like its neighbour, it was also deathly quiet.

At its meeting point on the corner stood the area's only apparent sign on life: a young man dressed in a black sweatshirt and grey jogging pants. He was wearing a baseball cap on and taking his time to inhale a recently-rolled joint.

What was he waiting for? Someone to arrive? Or was this his own form of self-imposed exile: leaving his home to smoke grass outside, free from any domestic or familial censure?

"Whenever I return to London, I go to look at the house in Redesdale Street and I am moved by it; but as to the other places I stayed, I don't remember exactly where they are," Veloso wrote. "It may be that during the first year, I was unable to take any interest in the city and what happened in it, and I fixed my attentions on the house and the people who lived there or frequently appeared."

The young man finished smoking and flicked the fag end away. He picked up his bicycle standing by the wall and got on, cycling slowly away from us. Was he watching us? Or was he just unsteady as the marijuana coursed through his blood?

I won't know since we had turned our attention to the house in the other direction: the place where Veloso and Gil had lived during that first year in London.

I allowed myself a thought: would the recently-departed young man know or even care who had lived there? Would he have known who the two musicians were, still are?

No Sign of the Baianos

The three of us looked at the building. Like the houses on Shawfield, those on Redesdale appeared no different in structure or form. And there was nothing to mark out the house we gazed at; the house which as well as providing a home to Veloso and Gil, included Veloso's wife and a producer friend of theirs from Bahia, Guilherme Araujo.

It almost seemed invisible. No number graced its black front door. Its interior remained hidden from view, its blinds pulled down. No light were on inside. It looked deserted. Its emptiness was in keeping with the weather that Sunday, a grey and breezy day, the kind of day which must have been miserable to these men who had grown up in the tropical sun and heat of Bahia.

London is a city steeped in its own history. There are few streets which don't have blue plaques on some of the houses saying who once lived there and the dates during which they were in residence. From Marx to Freud most famous people have received the privilege. Even the name of Jimi Hendrix, whose residency in London coincided with jamming sessions with Gil, can be found on the house he once lived in.

But a sign commemorating the two who have been called Brazil's Lennon and McCartney in Redesdale Street, I can categorically say there was none. There is nothing to tell of its part in the Tropicália movement, its previous inhabitants and visitors, from the poet Haroldo de Campos, who nicknamed the house the `Sixteen Chapel' to the Cuban writer, Cabrera Infante, Rogerio Sganzerla the film-maker and the Brazilian singer, Roberto Carlos.

It was in that house that Veloso listened to Roberto Carlos sing and was so overwhelmed that he burst into tears, wiping his nose and eyes on the dress of Roberto Carlos's wife. It was there that he first saw and rented a colour television for the first time, watching Monty Python's Flying Circus with awe and unable to believe that his British friends had never heard of it.

And it was while living there that both he and Gil began to develop their musical careers outside of Brazil. Gil would eventually play with bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and the Incredible String Band while a producer who visited the house eventually invited both musicians to record separate albums.

Like every other house in the street it is painted white. In fact it looks as if it has only recently been done. But other signs show that it has weathered the years since 1969 well: only a few cracks around the window sills on the first and second floor show offer any indication of time having passed, while a flower box with yellow buttercups and white flowers add some colour.

A freshly painted wrought-iron fence with what appeared to be fleur-des-lis on their tips marks the boundaries of the property and the staircase to the basement apartment, with ivy lying around its base.

New Fan Generation

A year after their exile began, the friends moved out of Redesdale Street. Araujo moved to a nearby apartment while Veloso, his wife and Gil moved to separate addresses in Notting Hill. Veloso would later move to West Kensington, Hampstead and finally Golders Green.

When they returned to Brazil they would continue to develop their respective musical careers to great acclaim. Today Veloso has reached a new generation of music lovers with his cameo appearance in Pedro Almodovar's film, Hable con Ella (Talk to Her), in which he plays a beautiful rendition of the Mexican song, "Cucurucucu."

And Gil manages to combine his music and touring with his appointment as Minister of Culture in the current government.

But it was in the first house off Kings Road, which Veloso most vividly remembers; and which maybe London will one day do as well. Perhaps one day the local council will consider putting up a blue plaque to commemorate the period when London played host to two more of the other, many exiles who have walked the capital's streets. Until then, the house's memories and secrets will remain with it alone.

One of my companions, whose entire music collection appears to consist of Brazilian music and little else, looked up at the house one last time and turned to us. "I'm cold," she said, "Let's go get some tea."

Our visit to this little Brazilian oasis in the heart of London was at an end; and in the most typically English way.


Guy Burton was born in Brazil and now lives in London. He has written for Brazzil on various subjects and is currently co-authoring a regularly-updated English-language column on the São Paulo mayoral election (www.saopaulo2004.blogspot.com). He occasionally maintains a blog (www.guyburton.blogspot.com) and can be contacted at
gjsburton@hotmail.com.




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