#53 | Short bio: Caetano Veloso

Short bio: Caetano Veloso

Vocabulary

  • TURN SOUR = azedar; ficar hostil. “… the situation soon turned sour.”
  • BOO = vaiar. “The students began booing so loudly that the performers could barely be heard.”
  • PRAISE = elogio. “Another effort, 1994’s Spanish-language album Fina Estampa, won considerable praise as well.”

Caetano Veloso

Caetano Veloso was born in Santo Amaro da Purificação, Bahia, Brazil and is the fifth of seven children. His childhood was greatly influenced by artistic endeavors: he was interested in both literature and filmmaking as a child, but focused mainly on music. The musical style of Bossa Nova and João Gilberto, one of its most prominent exponents, were major influences on Veloso’s music as he grew up. Caetano was 17 years old when he first heard João Gilberto, whom he describes as his “supreme master”. He recognizes João Gilberto’s contribution to Brazilian music as new—”illuminating” the tradition of Brazilian music and paving the way for future innovation. 

In 1960, he moved from his hometown to Salvador in order to attend high school, and in 1963, while studying philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia he met several other young musicians, including Gilberto Gil and Maria da Graça (later Gal Costa), with whom he wrote and performed.  During this time, Brazil experienced a cultural explosion in art, political thought, and music. Bossa Nova, a revolutionary new musical style that combined thoughtful lyricism with subtle rhythm, became an important aspect of Brazilian modernism.

Inspired like many young Brazilians by the movement, Caetano started writing criticism for the local newspaper, acting in avant-garde theater, and singing Bossa Nova in bars. Following his sister Maria Bethânia—a very successful singer in her own right—to Rio so she could act in a stage play in the mid-1960s, the 23-year-old Caetano Veloso initiated his own career by winning a lyric writing contest with his song “Um Dia” and he was quickly signed to the Phillips label. His music career began in earnest in 1965 when he started recording in Rio, and by 1966, he was competing in televised music festivals with great success.

By late 1967, however, Veloso and his friends had begun to craft a new syncretic style of Brazilian pop music that incorporated regional folk rhythms, elements of psychedelic rock and concrete music, and poetic socially charged lyrics. The compilation “Tropicália; or, Bread and Circuses”, which included songs by Veloso, Gil, Costa, and others, served as a manifesto for their mixed aesthetic, which had affinities with concurrent trends in Brazilian visual, literary, and performing arts. Caetano’s self-titled solo debut in 1968, which featured his signature hit “Alegria, alegria”, was in the same eclectic vein. As central participants in a fast-growing Brazilian counterculture, the musicians won a devoted following, which even led to their own television program.

Under the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil at the time, Tropicália (or Tropicalismo)—the name by which the entire social and artistic movement became known—was considered especially provocative. Caetano Veloso courted controversy with his androgynous persona and with politically subversive songs.

The tensions between the Tropicalistas and students peaked in September 1968 with Caetano’s now-legendary performances at the third annual International Song Festival held at the Catholic University in Rio, where the audience included a large contingent of students who were vehemently opposed to the Tropicalistas. When Caetano (backed by Os Mutantes) performed in the first round of the Festival’s song competition on September 12, he was initially greeted with enthusiastic applause, but the situation soon turned sour. Dressed in a shiny green plastic suit, festooned with electrical wires and necklaces strung with animal teeth, he provoked the students with his lurid costume, his sensual body movements and his startling new psychedelic music, and the performers were soon being bombarded with loud insults, jeers and boos from the students.

The ideological conflict climaxed three days later when Caetano Veloso returned for the second round of the competition, performing a specially-written new song entitled “É Proibido Proibir”. The leftist students began hissing and booing as soon as Caetano’s name was announced, and when he began his performance, his overtly sexual stage moves and the experimental music of Os Mutantes again provoked a wild reaction – the students began booing so loudly that the performers could barely be heard, and a section of the crowd then stood up and turned their backs to the stage, prompting Os Mutantes to turn their backs on the audience. As the performance continued, the students pelted the stage with fruit, vegetables, eggs, paper balls and anything else that came to hand. Caetano then stopped singing and launched into an impassioned monologue, in which he severely criticized the students for their conservatism. After being joined by Gilberto Gil, who came on stage to show his support, Veloso finished his speech by telling the students “…if you are the same in politics as you are in aesthetics, we’re done for!” and declaring he would no longer compete in music festivals. He then deliberately finished the song out of tune, angrily shouted “Enough!” and walked off arm-in-arm with Gil and Os Mutantes.

In December of the same year, he and Gilberto Gil were arrested and imprisoned for two months under the terms of a newly promulgated act that restricted free speech. Subsequently placed under house arrest, Caetano made a second self-titled album, which included the first of several songs he recorded in English. In July 1969 he and Gil were allowed to exile themselves to London, where they remained active musicians.

Caetano said that they didn’t imprison them for any song or any particular thing that they said — attributing the government’s reaction to its unfamiliarity with the cultural phenomenon of Tropicália — they seemed to say “We might as well put them in prison.” When Caetano was asked about his experience there he says, “London felt dark, and I felt far away from myself.” Nevertheless, the two improved their music there and continued to record abroad and write songs for other Tropicalismo stars, but he would not receive permission to return to Brazil.

In 1972, having ascertained that the political climate at home had improved, Caetano and Gil returned to Brazil. Although Tropicália had effectively ended as a movement, Caetano went on to release new albums—such as Transa (1972), Araçá azul (1973), and Bicho (1977). He also joined with Gil, Costa, and Bethânia to form the musical group Doces Bárbaros. In the 1980s Caetano’s emerging status as a Brazilian icon contributed to the best record sales of his career to that time. Extensive touring helped establish his international reputation, which grew with the release of Estrangeiro (1989),  which he recorded in New York City. Caetano professed to be bemused by his global popularity, noting that most of his songs were in Portuguese and addressed Brazilian topics and themes.

Over the following years, Caetano continued to attract American listeners with the release of 1993’s Tropicalia 2. Recorded with Gil, the album was considered brilliant by the music press and made numerous American “ten-best” lists that year. Another effort, 1994’s Spanish-language album Fina Estampa, won considerable praise as well. The 15-song compilation contained “Latin American songs that I like very much, that I had known since childhood,” Veloso told Billboard magazine.

Other non-import albums, including 1992’s Circulado and 1997’s Circulado Vivo —which included versions of Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” and Bob Dylan’s “Jokerman”—also fared well in the United States, leading the pop star, in the summer of 1997, to embark on his largest American tour up to that time. In 1999, Caetano returned with Livro, originally released in Europe in late 1998, which was selected by critics for both the New York Times and the Village Voice as one of the best albums of the year. Peter Watrous of the New York Times, for example, described the record as “wildly intelligent and sensual, and perfectly produced, moving from orchestral works to minimalist ballads and Brazilian drum workouts.”

By 2004, he was one of the most respected and prolific international pop stars, with more than 50 recordings available including songs in film soundtracks of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eros, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to her, and Frida, for which he performed at the 75th Academy Awards but did not win. In 2002 Veloso published an account of his early years and the Tropicalismo movement, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.

His first all-English CD was A Foreign Sound in 2004. His September 2006 album, , was released in the United States. With a total of nine Latin Grammy Awards and two Grammy Awards, Caetano Veloso has received more than any other Brazilian performer. On November 14, 2012, Veloso was also honored as the Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year.

Caetano Veloso has been called “one of the greatest songwriters of the century” and “a pop musician/poet/filmmaker/political activist whose stature in the pantheon of international pop musicians is on par with that of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Lennon/McCartney”.

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