Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil,
by Caetano Veloso, translated by Isabel de Sena and edited
by Barbara Einzig (Alfred A. Knopf, 354 pp., $26)
In his book, Why Is This Country
Dancing?, John Krich writes that Caetano Veloso "has endured as the leading
troubadour of Brazil’s a love-hate relationship with the modern world. There is no exact North American counterpart: not quite Bob
Dylan or Leonard Cohen, somewhere in between John Denver and Jim Morrison. Along with fellow
Baiano Gilberto Gil, Veloso spearheaded Tropicalismo—a musical rebellion, which synthesized the `psychedelic’ sounds of the late sixties with
native Brazilian style."
In Veloso’s own words, "After the bossa
nova revolution, and to a large extent because of it, there emerged the
tropicalista movement, whose aim it was to sort out the tension between Brazil the Parallel Universe and Brazil the country
peripheral to the American Empire." And he adds, "I was one of the creators and actors of the Tropicália project. This book is an
attempt to narrate and interpret what happened."
First published in Brazil about five years ago,
Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in
Brazil seems to have been reshaped for a North American market. Beginning with a new introduction, and continuing through transparent
asides and explanations, the book at times has a patchwork feel, as if straining to connect with readers largely unfamiliar with
Brazilian music beyond Carmen Miranda and "The Girl From Ipanema."
Which of course is not Veloso’s fault. Unless it’s purely instrumental (like Kraftwerk or Jean-Michel Jarre in the ’70s
and Ryuichi Sakamoto in the ’80s), contemporary music from other countries—sung in anything but English—rarely makes
much of a splash here. So, when Veloso is rightly touted as an equal to John Lennon or Paul Simon or Bruce Springsteen, the
average American is likely to scoff: `It can’t be; I’ve never heard of him.’
Even with Live in Bahia, a new two-CD set from Nonesuch Records, and a recent U.S. tour, the situation is unlikely
to change. Besides, Veloso’s exciting heyday is behind him. But what a heyday it was.
Born in 1942 in Santo Amaro, near Salvador da Bahia in northeastern Brazil, Veloso was influenced not only by
native culture, but by music and movies from the rest of South America, Europe, and the United States. He was knocked out by
João Gilberto and the new bossa nova
sound, but not quite taken in by rock. His fondness, it seems, was more for Frank
Sinatra and Nat King Cole than for Elvis.
He suspects, rightly, that a non-Brazilian audience will be unable to grasp "the immediate resonance, the profound
and widespread cultural impact of bossa
nova." Unlike rock, which is truest to form when being rebellious,
bossa nova (although it drew from the cool jazz idioms that came out of the U.S. in the 1950s) was "quintessentially Brazilian," a style and
manner that "revived samba and gave it a musical elegance or refinement. It was a music of the people, popular and yet sophisticated."
Years later, and in the final pages of this book, Veloso reiterates: "Let it be clear that the path leading to tropical truth
passes through my listening to João Gilberto as redeemer of the Portuguese language, violator of Brazilian social
immobility—its inhuman and inelegant stratification—as architect of refined forms and mocker of every foolish stylizing that is their
diminution. With me as its intermediary, Tropicalismo carried the reality of popular music toward its most ambition calling,
the one that proclaimed João’s sound."
The core group of singers and songwriters who propagated what came to be called Tropicália and then Tropicalismo
was quite small, all of them close friends, consisting of Veloso and his kid sister Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, and Gilberto
Gil. Understandably, Veloso praises Bethânia to the skies: She remains, he says, "the queen of Brazilian song." Later he will
write of Rita Lee, formerly of the proto-hip Os Mutantes, "Rita became and still is today the greatest female star of Brazilian rock."
What Veloso says would at one time have been true—and all of the individuals named above went on to have
phenomenal careers—but my impression is that there are singers whom he doesn’t even name (Daniela Mercury, Margareth
Menezes, and Marissa Monte comes to mind) who are more relevant today. The problem is, and it’s a persistent one throughout
the book, that unless one is conversant with Brazilian culture and popular music over the last 35 years, it will be very hard to
evaluate most of the author’s claims.
Veloso says that what he has penned is not an autobiography. "It is rather an effort to understand how I passed
through Tropicalismo, or how it passed through me: because we, it and I, were useful for a time and perhaps necessary to each other."
It’s an assertion that gives Veloso lots of wiggle room, because he’s not in much of a position to be objective. Of
course it’s an autobiography; but it’s also a selective exploration of "that brief, rebellious, and self-analytical movement of
music and visual arts in Brazil of which I was a part in the late sixties."
Oddly enough, Veloso was at first a reluctant pop star; he figured he’d help the others and then get out early to
pursue his interests in filmmaking or literature. It almost seems that the others had to give him a kick to go south to Rio de
Janeiro and later to São Paulo.
Although he writes briefly of his childhood and teen years in Bahia, one does not get an exact sense of what it
is—what quality of character and sensibility—that would propel Veloso above and beyond so many other musicians. But after
arriving in Rio in 1964 he was open to and assaulted by influences left and right. These included the rise of Cinema Novo in the
early `60s and the films of Ruy Guerra, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and especially Glauber Rocha: "As far as Tropicalismo
owes anything to my actions and ideas, the catalyst of the movement may be found in my experience of Glauber Rocha’s
Terra em Transe (Land in Anguish)." He was also impressed by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, and later, after he’d moved to
São Paulo, delved into concrete poetry, dada, Mallarmé, Pound, Joyce, Mayakovski, and Oswald de Andrade, among others.
All this input was not to be wasted. "The key to understanding
Tropicalismo," he writes, "is the word `syncretism.’"
In Misplaced Ideas, Roberto Schwarz says of Gilberto and Caetano Veloso that their songs "were aggressively avant-garde
in their language and arrangements, juxtaposing ultra-modern and backward Brazil in the space of a couple of lines."
Well, it’s one thing to read about Mallarmé, Pound or Joyce, but another to see the names Erasmo Carlos and Raul
Seixas, two very important musicians in Veloso’s view who are probably all but unknown in the U.S. (but check out "Rock `n’
Raul" on the new album). Again, this becomes a problem when Veloso talks about people and places integral to his formative
years—whether TV show hosts or studio producers—whose fame has never traveled north. Sometimes even points of reference
are different. What we, in this country, refer to as `The British Invasion’ (The Beatles, Animals, Searchers, etc.), Veloso calls
Sao Paulo, an industrial megalopolis, has been regarded as the locomotive that pulls along the rest of the country, so
it isn’t surprising that’s where many people went to pursue their musical careers. Gilberto Gil, whom Veloso bends over
backwards to praise, was already there, gaining exposure slowly but surely, supporting a wife and two daughters while
working for a big soap and shampoo company (See, there’s hope for us all). It appears—often through TV specials or programs
reminiscent of Shindig, Hullabaloo, or American
Bandstand—that Gil, Bethânia, Gal, Veloso and others (such as Nara Leão and
Chico Buarque) were gaining an audience.
Just as Beatles music such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club
Band changed the course of North American pop,
so too did it alter sensibilities in Latin America. Veloso and Gil paid attention, yet they knew that "The most important thing
was not to try to replicate the musical procedures of the British rock group, but rather their attitude in relation to what
popular music really meant as a phenomenon."
Unfortunately, there was another factor to contend with that young musicians in England or the U.S. did not have to
worry about: Since 1964 Brazil had been under a dictatorship (not lifted until 1985). In this country, the Johnson and Nixon
administrations’ policies regarding Vietnam, etc., etc., may have fueled but did not create the rebellious youth movements, and
perhaps the same can be said—I do not know for sure—of what was taking place simultaneously in Brazil.
Then in mid-December, 1968, the hardliners within the military dictatorship staged their own coup, "establishing in
effect," says Veloso, "a police state that would make the [previous] four years under martial law seem reasonable and amicable
by comparison." He and Gil, who had been pushing the envelope in their shows by dressing outlandishly and singing
songs like "Prohibiting Is Prohibited," were caught in the dragnet: They were both arrested at dawn on December 27, 1968.
Veloso and Gil would be held in three cells for two months. Whatever they were charged with was just a pretext, of
course. The military was uneasy about what kind of messages these presumed hooligans might be sending. It’s hard to tell, from
the little background provided, whether Gil or Veloso were classically young and naïve, or whether they’d had an
opportunity to lie low and be prudent but simply ignored the warning signs. You’ll have to look elsewhere to realize that the state
cracked down on a lot of other people as well (although not nearly as many nor as hard as Chile and Argentina would do during
Perhaps paradoxically, Veloso’s memories of prison life—he was never tortured, thank goodness—are easier to read
than his accounts of partying with friends and fellow musicians, because now the focus is turned inward, and there are few
extraneous interruptions. His wife, Dedé, came often to see him, but at first they were not permitted to meet. He was finally
given a couple of novels to read, The
Stranger, by Camus, and Rosemary’s Baby: "It’s impossible to imagine a less
appropriate pair of books to amuse a prisoner in solitary confinement."
After their release, Veloso and Gil were `invited’ to leave the country. They were at least allowed to stage a concert
in order to raise money for airfare and perhaps initial living expenses abroad. Although they first landed in Lisbon (imagine
the U.S. sending undesirables back to England), they ended up moving to London, where Veloso would spend the next
two-and-a-half years. He never says it in so many words, but it seems that exile enriched him, and expanded his world view.
"We followed from afar what was happening in Brazil," Veloso writes. "While I was uncertain what might come of
armed revolution, the heroism of the guerrillas as the only response to the perpetuation of the dictatorship earned my terrified
respect. Deep down, we felt a certain romantic identification with them, something we had never felt for the conventional Left or
the Communist Party." But don’t think there’s very much by way of politics in this book; what there is, mainly comes in
through the side door.
Just as Veloso wasn’t imprisoned for as long as Nelson Mandela or the Count of Monte Cristo, so his exile was an
adulterated affair. Friends and family from Brazil came to see him, and in fact after one year he was allowed home for his parents’
fortieth wedding anniversary (true, they hassled him at the airport). A few months later he returned again, to appear on TV with
Gal Costa and his idol João Gilberto. After returning to England the decision was made to head home to Brazil, this time for
good. How he supported himself during this episode is never explained, although his music (he did some recording) surely
played some role.
"Many people ask me to what extent British music influenced me during those London years," Veloso says. "The
fact is that the most profound influence of British pop had occurred before I even dreamt of going to London: it was the
Beatles pre-Tropicalismo." On the other hand, once there it seems he got more out of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.
For all intents and purposes, Tropical
Truth comes to a quick close in the early ’70s, not long after Veloso’s return
from exile. He puts it bluntly, "After the crazy sixties, the seventies seemed to me rather insipid; I didn’t like David Bowie or
progressive rock, Woody Allen or the new German films; I held no brief for Weather Report or for Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Only in Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, and some punk music did I discover encouraging novelties coming from the
There is, for those who’ve been coveting it, a few pages tucked in at the end on Veloso’s sexuality and sexual
orientation. "Having engaged much more frequently in heterosexual than homosexual practice (including two marriages I lived as a
sincere monogamist), I could say, at this point in my life, that I have defined myself as a heterosexual. But I don’t. Clarity of
sexual orientation is meaningless except when it manifests itself spontaneously. What does matter to me is that the paths
toward rich and intense sexual life be open." Nonetheless, "the birth of my son Moreno was the greatest (and sometimes I think
the only) event of my adult life."
We know that over the last thirty years Caetano Veloso has continued to write, record, and perform music, and to
become internationally well known. In this country his presence may have received its biggest boost with the release of
Beleza Tropical, a 1989 compilation (of mostly `70s material) by David Byrne, which not only included some fine renditions by Veloso,
but by the other tropicalistas we’ve been talking about. Included, too, were catchy tunes by Jorge Ben (remember his "Mas
Que Nada"?) and Milton Nascimento. In Los Angeles, disc jockeys Tom Schnabel (KCRW) and Sergio Mielniczenko (KPFK)
have never stopped promoting the work of these and other outstanding Brazilian artists.
For all that, Tropical Truth is not a terribly compelling book. It runs scarce on fascinating or well-turned anecdotes,
humor, personality, and even falls short on cogent insight. Not only is it hard to be sucked in by the discussion of unfamiliar
songs, various opinions about Brazil’s place in the world vis-à-vis the U.S. are often close to unreadable. The passion we find
in the music here seems lacking, nor is there anything approaching the lilt and the rhythm of his greatest compositions.
Whether this is Veloso’s fault or whether it’s a result of the translation and cultural impasse is hard to say. But there’s little sense
of what has made him so popular in his own country.
Fortunately, there is a glossary (as we find in most of Jorge Amado’s Bahian novels), but the black and white photos
fall short—we really do need more
color. Lastly, a discography would have been helpful, for this might have steered us in
the direction that really counts for something—the beautiful music itself. In fact, that’s where I’d suggest everyone begin:
at the record store.
Excerpt from Tropical Truth:
"When I think of the number of people who died in Brazilian prisons after 1968 (a small number compared to the
Argentine and Chilean victims of the following decade); when I think of those who were tortured, or those who were exiled in 1964
and were able to return only after the amnesty of 1979, I realize that my two-month prison stint was an episode hardly worth
mentioning. Many who suffered worse treatment—or who were arrested more often and for longer periods of time—skim over the
topic, often in a tone of indifference. Gil’s own memory of life in prison is neither as bitter nor as recurrent as mine. Having
understood early on that something like this could happen, and being more mature than I was, unlike me he did not feel annihilated
and was therefore at least able to transform his experience into something useful to his own development. In jail he found
the opportunity to attain a kind of asceticism; he stopped eating meat and began learning about macrobiotic food and
Eastern systems of thought. The latter have literally transformed his life: his body, his skin, his temperament all changed for the
better. My only discovery was that suffering is absolutely useless. But the many pages devoted here to my prison experience
have their place all the same because this is a chronicle of the
tropicalista experience from my very personal perspective. If
nothing else, they serve to reveal how psychologically and, even more, politically immature I was.
"After four months under house arrest in Salvador, Gil and I were invited to leave the country. This awful event
came as a result of Gil’s conversations with Colonel Luís Artur, chief of the federal police in Bahia, to whom we had to report
every day during this period, and whose goodwill Gil had won owing to the apparent affinity between his new religious
interests and the colonel’s spiritualism, a belief not uncommon in the Brazilian military. Forbidden from making public
appearances, we could not make enough to support our families. And so toward the end of the month Gil started pressing the colonel
to intercede on our behalf with his superiors in Rio and Brasília. Since our arrival, the colonel had been complaining of our
having been handed over to him without any official paperwork to document our `case’ or even our arrest, and he was
determined to help us. But his repeated requests that we be granted work permits finally met with the suggestion that we leave the
country. It seems that having arrested two rising stars of MPB [Música Popular Brasileira] and shorn their famous hair, before
subjecting them to an unjustified prison sentence, which would have doubtless turned them into even more ferocious enemies than
initially supposed—and enemies with influence over public opinion at that—the military had no idea what to do with us. Exile,
imposed with the same rude informality that had characterized our arrest, seemed an intelligent solution to them."
First Chapter of Tropical Truth
By Caetano Veloso
In the year 2000, Brazil commemorated not only the passing of the century and the millennium but also
the five hundred years since her discovery. To this date, then, is attached an accumulation of meaning not
shared with any other country in the world. And the flood of omens let loose at this juncture is closely allied with
the psychology of Brazil-a failed nation ashamed of having once been called "the country of the future." In
fact, those past expectations have today taken the form of a resignation that underlies new frustrations, but
the magnitude of Brazil’s disillusionment reveals that-fortunately or not-we remain very far from a
As children we learned that Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvarez
Cabral on April 22, 1500. All other American nations consider it enough to have
been discovered all together Christopher Columbus in 1492. It was only Brazil
that had to be discovered later, separately. From the earliest age, as a child
in Santo Amaro da Purificação in Bahia, I had to ask: "Why?"
They could have said, for example, that Columbus did not sail farther than the Caribbean islands and
that the continent proper was only arrived at the Portuguese eight years later; they could have told us that
what Cabral discovered was the existence of South America, of which the Spaniards had not the slightest
idea. But no: they say Brazil appeared as an independent continent, a huge island in the middle of the
South Atlantic, a surprise for those Lusitanian sailors who, aiming to follow the coast of Africa to reach the
Indies, sailed too far west. That such a vaguely defined event should be situated so precisely in the middle of
the second millennium serves to force upon Brazilians a sense of themselves as a nation both
unsubstantiated and exaggerated. The United States is a country without a name: America is the name of the
continent where, among others, the states that were once English colonies united. Brazil is a name without a
country. The English seem to have stolen the name of the continent and given it to the country they founded.
The Portuguese seem not to have really founded a country, but managed to suggest that they landed in a part
of America that was absolutely Other, and they called it Brazil.
The parallel with the United States is inevitable. If all the countries in the world today must measure
themselves against "America," position themselves in relation to the American Empire, and if the other
countries in America have to do so in an even more direct way-comparing their respective histories to that of
their stronger and more fortunate brother-Brazil’s case is even more acute, since the mirror image is more
evident and the alienation more radical. Brazil is America’s other giant, the
other melting pot of races and cultures, the other promised land to European and Asian immigrants, the Other. The double, the shadow, the
negative image of the great adventure of the New World. The sobriquet "sleeping giant," which was applied to
the United States Admiral Yamamoto, will be taken any Brazilian as a reference to Brazil, and confused with
the seemingly ominous words of the national anthem, "forever lying in a splendid cradle."
The papal bull that created the Treaty of Tordesillas, stipulating that lands yet to be discovered to the east
of the agreed-upon meridian would belong to Portugal, leaving those to the west for Spain, explains the
need for a new "discovery" and its being Portuguese. But in school we learn-and Pero Vaz de Caminha’s
beautiful letter reporting to the king about the voyage reassures us-that
chance impelled Cabral’s fleet on to the Brazilian coast. And that is how we came to have this immense floating world, the namesake of a
utopian island imagined in the European Middle Ages, and perhaps less unreal than the latter, this enormous
no-place with the burning name. (Brazil is usually assumed to be derived from
"braza," burning coal or ember.)
In 1995, the Brazilian daily Folha de S.
Paulo bore this headline: "World Bank Report Indicates Brazil
Is the Country with the Greatest Social and Economic Disparity in the World." The article reports that
51.3 percent of Brazilian income is concentrated in 10 percent of the population. The wealthiest 20 percent
67.5 percent of Brazil, while the 20 percent who are poorest have only 2.1 percent. It was that way when
I was a boy, and it is still that way. As we reached adolescence, my generation dreamed of inverting
this brutal legacy.
In 1964, the military took power, motivated the need to perpetuate those disparities that have proven to
be the only way to make the Brazilian economy work (badly, needless to say) and, in the international arena,
to defend the free market from the threat of the communist bloc (another American front of the Cold
War). Students were either leftist or they would keep their mouths shut. Within the family or among one’s circle
of friends, there was no possibility of anyone’s sanely disagreeing with a socialist ideology. The Right
existed only to serve vested or unspeakable interests. Thus, the rallies "With God and for Freedom" organized
the "Catholic ladies" in support of the military coup appeared to us as the cynical, hypocritical gestures of
The coup, carried out in the name of the war against international communism, had put in power a
man called Marshal Castelo Branco, a military officer of the so-called American line of thinking, meaning that
he, unlike those called "Prussians" (who yearned to be centralizing nationalists), wanted to wipe out the Left
and corruption in Brazil in order to turn it over to the modernity of the free market. Almost all of us were
unaware of those nuances back then, and even if we had been, it would have changed nothing; we saw
the coup simply as a decision to halt the redress of the horrible social inequities in Brazil and, simultaneously,
to sustain North American supremacy in the hemisphere. The trend toward establishing a political art,
sketched out in 1963 the Centros Populares de Cultura (Centers for Popular Culture) of UNE (the National
Students’ Union) became widespread in all conventional artistic production, and, in spite of repression at
the universities and censorship of the media, show business fell under the hegemony of the Left. In a
highly politicized student environment, MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) functioned as an arena for
important decisions concerning Brazilian culture and even national sovereignty-and the media covered it
And it was at MPB’s huge televised festivals that the world of the students interacted with that of the
wide masses of TV spectators. (The latter were naturally much more numerous than the record buyers.) At
these events, one could encounter the more or less conscious illusion that this was where the problems of
national affirmation, social justice, and advances in modernization were to be resolved. Market questions, often
the only decisive ones, did not seem noble enough to be included in heated discussions. Of course girls
would scream "beautiful!" when Chico Buarque came onstage (and, with far less reason, started screaming
the same at me), but the conversations and hostilities between the groups would focus as much on an
artist’s political attitude and his fidelity to national characteristics as on his harmonic or rhythmic daring. That
it should be so was a luxury. As silly as this state of things could be, we were living in an exceptionally
stimulating period for composers, singers, and musicians. And one thing rang true: the recognition of
MPB’s power among us. Everything was heightened the instinctive rejection of the military dictatorship,
which seemed to unify the whole of the artistic class around a common objective: to oppose it.
Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet who lived in Brazil between 1952 and 1970, praised the rallies
organized in support of the military, explaining in letters to her friends in the United States that while
those demonstrations had "originally been organized as anticommunist parades," they "were becoming
victory marches-more than one million people marching in the rain!" And she concludes: "It was totally
spontaneous, they could not all be rich and right-wing reactionaries." Today, when I read those words, I am
even more astonished the distortion of my own point of view at the time than the author’s (though, to be
sure, hers was no less distorted). To discover her version of the coup d’état causes me some unease, but it is
one more lesson, in these times when private virtues must be taken as the causes of public evils, to come to
the realization that back then someone-a woman poet at that!-might thus sum up the military coup that sent
to jail some of my finest schoolmates and professors: "A few brave generals and the governors of three
important states got together and, after a difficult forty-eight hours, it was all over. The (favorable) reactions
been really popular, thank God." Apparently there was such a thing as right-wing good intentions.
In 1964, the Left consisted of every Brazilian who deserved to be one, and all human beings worthy of
the name. Antônio Risério points out, in his essay about Bahia during the pre-1964 democratic period,
that when the Austrian intellectual Otto Maria Carpeaux arrived in Brazil to escape Hitler, he had already
noticed that here "almost everyone" was a leftist. My intention in this book is to tell and interpret the adventure of
a creative impulse that emerged within Brazilian pop music in the second half of the sixties, whose
protagonists-among them the narrator-wanted the freedom to move beyond the automatic ties with the Left and
at the same time to account for the visceral rebellion against the asmal disparities that tear a people
asunder, even as that people remains singular and charming. And also to tell about the fateful and joyous
participation in a universal and international urban cultural reality. All of this being an unveiling of the mystery of the
island of Brazil.
After the bossa nova revolution, and to a great extent
because of it, there emerged the
tropicalista movement, whose aim it was to sort out the tension between Brazil the Parallel Universe and Brazil the
country peripheral to the American Empire. A country which, at the time, was ruled a military dictatorship
believed to have been fostered the anticommunist maneuvers of the American Empire’s Central Intelligence
Agency. Tropicalismo wanted to project itself as the triumph over two notions: one, that the version of the
Western enterprise offered American pop and mass culture was potentially liberating-though we recognized that
a naive attraction to that version is a healthy impulse-and, two, the horrifying humiliation represented
capitulation to the narrow interests of dominant groups, whether at home or internationally. It was also an attempt
to face up to the apparent coincidence, in this tropical country, of a countercultural wave emerging at the
same time as the vogue in authoritarian regimes.
The fact that MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) would come to concentrate the energy of this generation
only confirms the power of the tradition that made bossa nova possible: in fact, MPB has been, for Brazilians
as well as for foreigners, the sound of the discovery of a dreamt-of Brazil. Parenthetically, at this point
one foresees a mutual discovery, where the heart inclines toward the Indian going aboard the alien ship of
the great Pedro Álvares, whose feet barely touched American soil. The Indian was so bereft of fear that he
fell asleep on board. MPB is the most efficient weapon for the affirmation of the Portuguese language in
the world, when one considers how many unsuspected lovers it has won through the magic of the word sung
in the Brazilian way.
The movement that turned the tradition of MPB on its head in the sixties earned the name
tropicalismo. Tropicália, a term first invented the artist Hélio Oiticica and then given as title to one of my songs
Cinema Novo director LuÍs Carlos Barreto, from which
tropicalismo was derived, is more than
beautiful-sounding to me: it is even preferable, to avoid confusion with Gilberto Freyre’s term
"Luso-tropicalism" (something much more respectable), or with the study of tropical diseases. Not to mention that it is free from the
-ism, which, precisely owing to its reductiveness, facilitates the circulation of the ideas and repertory
created, conferring on them the status of a movement. The word, however, will appear more frequently in
these pages with that ending, since this is no more than an effort to disseminate that gesture on an
international scale. In any event, in spite of some personal protest, we have long accepted
tropicalismo as the most operationally effective term.
I am a Brazilian, and I became, more or less involuntarily, a singer and composer of songs. I was one of
the creators and actors of the
tropicália project. This book is an attempt to narrate and interpret what
happened. João Gilberto, my supreme master, in answering a question about me in one of his rare
interviews, said that my contribution to Brazilian music was "an accompaniment of thought" to his own work. Well,
this book reflects my conscious effort to carry out that task. In a way it reviews the theoretical and
critical endeavors that I undertook as I composed and interpreted the songs, but was forced to interrupt due to
the intensity with which I was injecting them in the music. This is not an autobiography, though I do not refuse
to "tell myself" with some prodigality. It is rather an effort to understand how I passed through
tropicalismo, or how it passed through me: because we, it and I, were useful for a time and perhaps necessary to
each other. The tone is frankly self-complacent (and in any event a large dose of self-complacency would
be necessary in order to accept this task). I promised myself that I would plan my life so as to be able to
stay home for at least a year to write it. Unable to keep that promise, I ended up having to make use of
breaks during recording sessions, the wee hours in hotels after a show during tours, the time off between
rehearsals and the (few) unoccupied hours of my vacations in Salvador in order to do it. This perhaps overexposed
the double (and somewhat contradictory) tendency toward digression and ellipsis that confounds my
thinking, my conversations, and my writing. I also allowed myself to slide between the narrative and the essayistic,
the technical and the confessional (and to situate myself as mediator/medium of the spirit of MPB-and of
Brazil itself) in order to deal with even a part of the world of ideas suggested the main theme.
Live in Bahia serves as a good introduction to Caetano’s
current repertoire. This record
however, any between-songs patter.
Caetano Veloso, Live in Bahia (Nonesuch)
Shh, don’t tell anyone, but part of this two-disc concert recording was made in São Paulo—a long way south from
Bahia, that hotbed of tropical sound in the Northeast.
During the late 1960s, Caetano (let’s be informal) and Gilberto Gil spearheaded the Tropicália movement in Brazil,
along with Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, and others (see accompanying book review). Those who are familiar with Caetano’s
music from that time forward are fully aware of his contributions to Brazilian popular music, and many in the audience where
these shows were recorded not only know his songs by heart, they weren’t afraid to sing along with the artist. That’s one
way, I guess, to gauge the popularity of such compositions as "O último romântico," "Nossa estranho amor," and "Trem das cores."
Most of the work here is performed mid-tempo, but the subject matter thankfully isn’t simplistic. In part, that’s
because this recording features several tunes from Caetano’s previous disc,
Nortes do Norte, which focused on themes of race
and slavery, as well as Brazil’s continued quest for a national identity. That album followed the soundtrack to
Orfeu, a film by Carlos Diegues, with Omaggio a Federico e
Giulietta (a tribute to Fellini and his actress/wife Giulietta Masina) his last
disc to be released in the U.S.—all of them on Nonesuch, and thus easily available.
Live in Bahia serves as a good introduction to Caetano’s current repertoire, but of course studio albums tend to
have greater intimacy and warmth. Bear that in mind. This record doesn’t include any between-songs patter, as we find on
most concert CDs, but then again, as was the case in Los Angeles recently, perhaps he simply doesn’t defer to the
audience—except to introduce his band.
As good as it is, one must remember that Caetano is now sixty, and one really does need to go back to his early
records to get a sense of the man at full stream. For better or worse, his voice has lost some of its dance, some of its color and
agility. It used to sound more carefree, and conversely more romantic or anguished. Start with this disc if you’re new to
Caetano’s music, and then track down some of his older—or younger?—records. Lots of surprises are waiting.
Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the
Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern California. He can be reached at