Get to Know a Brazilian – Caetano Veloso

Continuing the Tropicália sub-theme begun last week with Gilberto Gil, this week “Get to Know a Brazilian” turns to his compatriot and the other central figure in the rise of Tropicalismo in Brazil – Caetano Veloso.

Caetano Veloso (1942- )performing in the mid-2000s.

Caetano Emanuel Viana Teles Veloso was born in Bahia, the fifth of eight children born to a public functionary father and a mother who stayed at home. Like Gil (who was born one year later), Veloso moved with his family to the state capital of Salvador, Bahia, at a young age; it marked the first of several early parallels between the lives of the two men. Also like Gil, Veloso showed a capacity for music from a young age, and although he also expressed an interest in film in his teenage years, the burst of João Gilberto and Bossa Nova onto the Brazilian music scene led Veloso to commit to music. While at the University of Bahia, he met Gil, Tom Zé, and others, and began performing publicly with them and his younger sister Maria Bethânia, also a renowned singer and interpreter of songs in Brazil. After issuing a single in 1965, he released his first album, Domingo, with Gal Costa, a fellow baiana (somebody from Bahia). The album was a pure bossa nova album, made up of original compositions by Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and others. The album showed the clear stamp the Brazilian musical style of the late-1950s and early-1960s had made on Veloso; although the album showed Veloso as an adept interpreter of Brazilian music, it in no way pointed to the diversity of musical forms he would embrace within months.

“Domingo,” a bossa nova album that was the debut of both Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa. Released in 1967, it in no way even hinted at the Tropicalismo that was just around the corner (and that both musicians were involved with).

Even while Domingo enjoyed modest success, Veloso had grown artistically and culturally restless and playful. Increasingly fascinated by questions of “authenticity” and Brazilian identity, and influenced by rock and roll and psychedelic music (notably The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), Veloso began working on new songs that incorporated a variety of Brazilian and foreign musical elements while celebrating and mocking Brazilian identity, even while tapping into the emotions many youths living under military rule in 1960s Brazil were feeling. Making the rounds on Brazilian television music festivals in 1967, Veloso’s new single, “Alegria, Alegria” took a strangely-Bob Dylan-like path: originally booed for including an electric guitar, the song ultimately met with massive popularity and the adoring support of Brazilian youth. While the song’s lyrics tapped into youthful freedom (the final verse concludes, “Without a handkerchief, without documents/Nothing in my pockets nor my hands/I want to continue living, loving/I go./Why not?”), they also pointed to his new fascination with foreign and domestic side by side, with Veloso giving a nod to “the [atomic] Bomb and Brigitte Bardot.”

Given the success of “Alegria, Alegria,” Veloso went into the study to record an album of material that mixed these Brazilian and international lyrical and musical elements; the result was his 1968-self titled album [like Gil’s album that year also was], better known by the name of its opening track: “Tropicália.” The title itself was not born from Veloso’s originality, however; at the suggestion of a friend, he took the name from a recent art installation project by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica; in Oiticica’s “Tropicália” installation, one walked barefoot through sand into small spaces meant to represent Brazil’s favelas, with parrots in a cage, radio programs, foreign television programs, and other aural elements invoked Brazilian culture. The song that Veloso named “Tropicália” had already been written when he was informed of the possibility of the name; indeed, the word itself never appears in the song. However, the way both the art installation and the song play with Brazilian culture and identity matched the same issues of Veloso’s song, with references to points of national pride like the young capital of Brasília or Bossa Nova music as well as more “kitschy” elements of Brazilian identity in the international arena, notably Carmen Miranda. Like Gil’s self-titled album from that year, “Caetano Veloso [Tropicália]” became a watershed in the movement that would bear its name. While it remains one of the most lauded and well-known albums in Brazilian music, in recent years, Veloso has distanced himself from it, calling it “amateurish[…] and confused.

The cover for Caetano Veloso’s self-titled 1968 album, better known by the name of its opening track: “Tropicália.”

That same year, Veloso also worked with Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes (whom he can be heard praising at the tail end of the song “Êles,” the final track on “Tropicália”) Tom Zé, and others, helping compose five songs (including the immortal and beautiful  “Baby,” sung by Gal Costa) and singing on six others. In 1969, Veloso, like Gil, released a second self-titled album, more popularly known by the title of its opening track (“Irene“). Like Gil, Veloso spent several months in prison after the regime entered its most repressive phase, ultimately going into exile in England. And just as Gil did, the sadness brought on by forced exile and the longing for his own home, combined with new musical influences he experienced in England, led to a third self-titled album in 1971 (known once more by the opening track, “A Little More Blue“) that was sung primarily in English and made clear Veloso’s melancholy. The album, like Gil’s self-titled London album, featured more songs in English; more importantly, it made clear that Veloso had left Tropicália behind him.

Veloso’s 1971 self-titled album, better known as “A Little More Blue.” The album’s music, like its cover, alludes regularly to Veloso’s melancholy during his time in exile in England.

Veloso returned to Brazil in 1972. Although he continued to perform alongside Gil, Gal Costa, and his sister Maria Bethânia, his path began to diverge somewhat from Gil’s. Where the latter began to focus more on Afro-descendant identity, music forms, and culture in his music, Veloso focused on the melding of Brazilian folklore and international musical styles, including the musical deconstruction of 1973’s Araçá Azul (whose “Sugar Cane Fields Forever” obviously nodded to both the Beatles and Brazil even while subverting melody and structure across its ten-plus minutes). He continued to release new albums frequently throughout the 1980s and 1990s; the sheer output led to some excellent albums, including 1998’s Livro, as well as many less impressive works; at the same time, his international popularity grew greatly, as international artists like David Byrne, Beck, and others increasingly looked to the Tropicália movement for inspiration. Even Veloso himself took a little time to both look back and foward with his and Gil’s Tropicália 2 album, whic drew on some of the themes of the original movement in the context of the politics and musical shifts in the 1990s.  In more recent years, where Gil has explored and celebrated more traditional Brazilian music, Veloso has continued to look abroad. In 2004, he released his first English-only disc, A Foreign Sound, where he covered songs by American musicians ranging from Elvis to Nirvana (seriously). His 2006 release , which adopted a more North American rock sound with (at best) mixed success, a sound that continued to appear on 2009’s Zii e Zie.

In the wake of democratization, Veloso and Gil took fundamentally different political paths. Where Gil embraced his Afro-Brazilian heritage, fought for greater equality and social justice in Brazil, and even ended up serving as Minister of Culture for leftist president Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Meanwhile, Veloso became increasingly conservative, openly supporting the center-right Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (Brazilian Social Democracy Party), led by neoliberal Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the 1990s. He spoke out regularly against Lula’s government (even while Gil worked for it), calling Lula “illiterate” and a “coup-monger” (something that somebody who was exiled by a military regime that actually did gain power through a coup should know better than to suggest). Although Veloso suggested in the 1990s that there was no racism in Brazil, that did not stop him from accusing the media of (reverse) racism against his sister after she faced criticism for accepting more than one millian reais from the government to start a music website.

Political stances notwithstanding, however, Veloso remains to this day a key figure in Brazilian music. While not all of his work is excellent, he is prolific, and the role he played in transforming Brazilian music and lyrics, and his international influence, are evident throughout the world today.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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One Response to Get to Know a Brazilian – Caetano Veloso

  1. Randy Paul says:

    Looking forward to your take on Chico Buarque, the brilliant poet and Milton Nascimento, the guy who brought me into Brazilian music as well as the culture, especially of Minas Gerais.

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