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Caetano Veloso 

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Photograph by Anthony Barboza

Tropical Truth

Caetano Veloso gets long deserved nod

By Greg Cahill

In the summer of 1969, the Beatles sang about revolution but did little to quash the status quo that showered them with fame and fortune. That same year, the Rolling Stones pranced across stages on their way to a personal Waterloo at the Altamont Speedway, children of luxury feigning street radicals with the hit single "Street Fighting Man."

Meanwhile, Brazilian pop stars Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil--architects of the tropicalia movement, a vital cultural force comprised of poets, musicians, and artists opposed to the nation's newly minted military dictatorship--were arrested by police in a midnight raid. No charges were filed. Separated and confined in a cramped solitary cell with nothing but a dirty blanket and filthy toilet, each musician endured brutality, confinement, and an uncertain future.

Two months later, Veloso and Gil were put on an airplane and exiled to London.

"It seemed the real reason for their imprisonment was a mixture of protest songs, long hair, and strange clothes," writer Will Hodgkinson noted in recent Mojo music magazine article on the lost history of such tropicalists as Os Mutantes and Tom Zé.

Since then, Veloso, to some extent, and especially Gil have gained a modicum of international fame, thanks largely to the efforts of David Byrne, who has recorded Gil's bossa nova compositions and included Veloso and Gil's own recordings on a series of high-profile Brazilian music compilations on Byrne's eclectic Luaka Bop label (both appeared on 1998's Beleza Tropical 2).

Now Veloso is poised to turn up the heat and greet the burgeoning American world-music audience. In a bold move, Nonesuch Records this month has released a two-CD live-concert recording, Live in Bahia, that captures all of the sides of this complex performer. Meanwhile, Alfred A. Knopf has issued Veloso's memoir Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, which already has spawned the revelatory 1997 CD Livro, also on the Nonesuch label, released after the book's initial Brazilian publication.

While the infatuation with Latin pop is wearing thin with mainstream American audiences, Veloso is well worth checking out. The timing couldn't be better--in a landslide Oct. 27 victory, president-elect Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became Brazil's first radical leftist to win that nation's highest post. The bad old days of the junta are over and Veloso is a very visible reminder of the resistance that helped topple the regime.

Indeed, Veloso's topical music is that rare mix of sensuality and substance, poetry and polemic. With its tropicalismo, samba, bossa nova, and samba rap, as well as a backup band of Brazilian superstars, Live at Bahia "is a thrill," Billboard recently opined. "This is an altogether extraordinary live performance. The musicianship is top-notch, the recording is excellent, and Veloso is a creative force to be reckoned with, both as a vocalist and a tunesmith."

Bahia, recorded live in São Paulo and Salvador de Bahia, is a most compelling example of art and politics, song and social activism. Part of that attraction is Veloso's almost mystical ability to move deftly from an ode to Brazilian soccer champion Pelé ("Two Naira Fifty Kobo") to a biting romantic ballad ("Mimar Você") to a celebration of the historic end of slavery ("13 de Maio") to an homage to the tropicalist movement ("Tropicália").

While there is plenty of machismo in his lyrics--"Who can expect a woman to live without make believe?" he asks in "Dom de Iludir" ("The Art of Deceit")--the tradeoff is the playful poetry of "Lingua" with its light-hearted challenge, "Let's be imperialists of the tongue and ride the word train set rolling by Carmen Miranda."

You won't get an invitation like that anytime soon from Ricky Martin.

From the November 28-December 4, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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