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World Music Legends

Caetano Veloso

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005

Brazilian

Plenty of musicians have suffered for their art, but only a few have endured prison, then exile, and rebounded to become cultural heroes in their own countries. But Brazil’s Caetano Veloso managed just that. One of the founders of the revolutionary Tropicália movement in the mid-’60s, he’s gone on to become one of the most revered songwriters and performers in a nation known for its music.

            Born in 1942 in Santo Amaro da Purificacao in Brazil’s northern Bahia region, Veloso’s first real interest was cinema, more than music, although he developed a mass of knowledge of Brazilian music, especially from the Bahia region. He was fascinated by theatre, books and art—in short, he was a budding intellectual who never considered a career in music at all. More than anyone, it was João Gilberto, the father of bossa nova, who kindled his deep love of music.

            Still, if it hadn’t been for his sister, singer Maria Bethânia, Veloso might well have ended up either in academia or making films. He followed her to Rio in the ’60s, where she was making a living as a singer, and he won a lyric writing contest for “Um Dia.” More wins in songwriting contests led to a record contract, although Veloso wasn’t happy with his debut album.

            Settling in Sao Paolo, he joined forces with Gilberto Gil, another northerner, who was a remarkable guitarist, singer and songwriter, and some like-minded friends, such as singer Gal Costa. Times had changed in Brazil. A coup in 1964 had put a military dictatorship in charge of the country. The political left still existed, and demonstrated, but the young musicians weren’t exactly aligned with them, either. Instead they were charting a new course, one that wasn’t beholden purely to the music that was coming from the U.S. and Britain, but which also looked outside Brazil’s own cultural heritage.

And so Tropicália was born. Their performances, which usually brought in many artists, were deliberately explosive and provocative (on one Christmas TV show, when the government was threatening censorship, Veloso sang holding a gun to his head). It existed as both a direct challenge to the dictatorship, with its outrageous art, but, perhaps more importantly, as a subversive force through the allegorical lyrics of the songs. However, their success was very limited, and they were roundly reviled by the media. Veloso and Gil were arrested and imprisoned for three months, before being exiled for three years, finally returning permanently in 1972 after a stay in England.

            Back in Brazil, Veloso found himself not on the fringes,

Recommended Recordings

 

Millennium: Caetano Veloso (Mercury)

Tropicália Essentials (PolyGram)
Live In Bahia (Nonesuch)