Caetano Veloso made his mark on half a century of Brazilian music history. He can be regarded as the greatest all-rounder of Latin American musicians: timeless, at home in nearly every style – and above all undaunted in every artistic confrontation with the powers-that-be.
A turbulent life
For many years he seemed like a kind of androgynous Pan, equipped with a voice that didn’t age and a youthful aura. But since the cover of his 2012 album »Abraçaço« (Embrace), Veloso has shown a face full of lines that reflect a turbulent life. He was born in 1942 in the hinterland of the state of Bahia, whose African heritage made it the source of many changes in Brazilian music. Thus it came about that the musician and left-wing philosophy student Veloso and his sister Maria Bethânia relocated to Rio in 1965 along with their close comrades Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Tom Zé.
Music against the dictatorship :Tropicalismo
It was an explosive time in Brazil: a military dictatorship had just brought the carefree bossa nova era to an end. Veloso and his friends were great bossa nova lovers: his first album, »Domingo« with Gal Costa, was still dominated by the delicate sounds that Veloso produced with his tender, supple and immensely flexible voice.
Caetano Veloso: È Proibido Proibir
But Brazil’s intellectuals wanted to forge a new mode of political expression in response to the country’s rigid rulers, and this prompted Veloso and his clique to found the Tropicalismo movement in 1968. The members of the movement mixed traditional elements with rock music from abroad and daring poetry to form an experimental collage that also possessed a political dimension. Veloso’s radical song »É Proibido Proibir« (It’s prohibited to prohibit things) unleashed a scandal: the government gave him and Gilberto Gil prison sentences, and after their release they were both exiled to London.
Provocative as ever :Música Popular Brasileira
Veloso returned in 1972, provocative as ever. His appearances together with Chico Buarque were among the highlights of the young Música Popular Brasileira, a style of sophisticated pop music that evolved from Tropicalismo. With the help of wild costumes and a transgender approach, he thumbed his nose at the conservative view of male/female roles and admitted his bisexual inclinations, supported by beautiful ballads like »Menino do Rio« (The Boy from Rio) or »Leãozinho« (Little Lion).
Caetano Veloso: Menino do Rio
»Hurling worlds into the world« :The 70s
In the seventies he played to masterly effect with Indio, Afro and psychedelic elements, and he wrote some of his strongest texts in this period: »Terra«, a cosmic look at our home planet, and »Oração Ao Tempo«, a philosophical bow to the phenomenon of time. In all of his work, Caetano Veloso is a poet as well as a musician: in his piece »Livros« he writes that »poetry is able to hurl worlds into the world«.
Caetano Veloso: Livros
Every conceivable field of expression
In the last 30 years Caetano Veloso has worked in every conceivable field of musical expression. He has explored his Bahian heritage with drum ensembles and has doffed his hat to his bossa nova idols. He has written film music, e.g. for »Frida« and »Habla Con Ella« (Talk to Her) and reflected in a sprawling essay on the »Verdade Tropical«, the tropical truth.
Burn it Blue: Soundtrack zu »Frida«
This giant of the Brazilian music and culture scene is now nearly 80, but he remains in touch with today’s trends. Thus, despite his advanced age, he has approached a style that can be thoroughly noisy in places. With awkward and concentrated rock energy, the mature Veloso frees the bossa nova of any hint of sweetness, sings at epic length the praises of a fighter against the military dictatorship, and intellectualises funk music – all of this with a voice that still hits a weightless falsetto to this day.
The new old struggle
He has passed on his legacy to his three sons Moreno, Zeca and Tom, who in the meantime sometimes appear alongside Veloso on stage as a musical family. But even now, bitterness persists: half a century after his struggle against the military dictatorship, Veloso must still endure a similarly cynical social climate under the current president. In 2019 a bishop loyal to Bolsonaro ridiculed Veloso’s critical spirit, but the maligned musician responded swiftly with an ardent and courageous public speech. Caetano Veloso may well be a senior citizen now, but the fire of rebellion still burns in his heart.
Text: Stefan Franzen, 9 July 2021