Since the 1960s, Caetano Veloso has been a dominant force in contemporary Brazilian music, helping to shape his nation’s popular music. A pop musician whose stature is on par with or has exceeded that of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, Veloso matured during the 1980s and 1990s into a Brazilian renaissance man: a poet, writer, and painter as well as a revered musician.
“One might theorize that Caetano is the great pop singer America never had,” explained Ben Ratliff in Spin magazine in June of 1999. “Who in our country combines actual poetry, rigorous with wordplay and fantastic imagery, with a responsible accounting of natural history? (Not Bruce Springsteen.) Who puts sensual pleasure within an intellectual framework? (Not Madonna.) Who maintains a public complexity on issues of race and sexuality but remains engaged with the press and his fans? (Not the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.) Who’s a middle-age pop musician routinely interviewed on highbrow television programs, quoted by his country’s current president during his nomination-acceptance
Born in 1942 in Santo Amaro da Purificaçäo in Brazil’s Bahia region; married and divorced first wife Dede, with whom he had son Moreno, born in November, 1972; married second wife and manager Paula Lavigne, with whom he had son Zeca, born c. 1992. Education: Studied philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia.
Founded the Tropicalismo movement with Gilberto Gil and others, 1967; exiled to London, England, 1969; returned to Brazil, 1972; continued to record throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s with Gil and other musicians and as a solo artist; published memoir entitled Verdade Tropical, 1999.
speech, and studied by academics? (Not Garth Brooks.) Who’s an avant-gardist, a political maverick, a sex symbol, a singer fully convincing with a full band or just alone with a guitar? (Not Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, or Puffy.) Who’s a national hero—not just for specific racial, generational, and economic subsets, but for everyone? In our nation, sadly, Caetano has no equal.”
Born in 1942 in Santo Amaro da Purificação in Brazil’s Bahia region, Veloso absorbed a rich Bahian musical heritage that was influenced by Caribbean, African, and North American pop music. Nevertheless, it was the cool, seductive bossa nova sound of Joao Gilberto, a Brazilian superstar in the 1950s, that would later serve as the foundation for Veloso’s own intense, eclectic pop. In 1960, he moved from his hometown to Salvador in order to attend high school, and in 1963, Veloso entered the Federal University of Bahia as a philosophy student. 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, Veloso 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 de Janeiro so she could act in a stage play in the mid-1960s, the 23-year-old Veloso initiated his own career by winning a lyric writing contest with his song “Um Dia” and 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.
Soon, Veloso, along with other Brazilian stars such as Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil (a longtime friend and artistic collaborator whom Veloso had met in Salvador in 1963) represented the new wave of Música Popular Brasileira (or MPB), the all-purpose term used by Brazilians to describe their pop music. Intelligent, ambitious, creative, and given to an unapologetic leftist political out-look, Veloso would soon become a controversial figure in Brazilian pop. By 1967, he had aligned himself with Brazil’s burgeoning hippie movement, and, along with Gil, created a new form of pop music dubbed by artist Helio Oiticica as Tropicalismo. That same year, Veloso released his first album, Domingo, recorded with Costa in 1966. Arty and eclectic, Tropicalismo retained a bossa nova influence, but added elements of folk-rock and art-rock to a mixture of loud electric guitars, poetic spoken-word sections, and jazz-like dissonance.
Although not well-received at first by traditional pop-loving Brazilians—both Veloso and Gil faced the wrath of former fans—Tropicalismo was nonetheless a breathtaking stylistic synthesis that signaled a new generation of daring, provocative, and politically outspoken musicians who would remake the face of MPB. “We were fascinated by advances in technology,” Veloso declared, as quoted by Ratliff, “and we were also interested in the death of sexual hypocrisy, not a usual aim of leftist movements. We put new rock’n’roll together with tango from Argentina, music from the brothels in Brazil, and very raw music from the Northeast, the backlands. We could be ambiguous sexually. Communists never liked gays much. But we did.”
However, such a cultural shift also entailed considerable dangers. Since 1964, Brazil had been ruled by a military dictatorship, a government that would continue to hold power for 20 years, that did not look kindly upon such radical music made by such radical musicians. Almost immediately, those in power initiated government-sanctioned attempts to circumscribe the recordings and live performances of many Tropicalistas. Censorship of song lyrics, not to mention radio and television play lists (Veloso had become a television performer on Brazilian variety shows) occurred on a regular basis. Moreover, officials set out to persecute performers who criticized the government, and Veloso and Gil topped the dictatorship’s hit list. Both men spent two months in prison for “anti-government activity” and another four months under house arrest. After a defiant 1968 performance together, Veloso and Gil were forced into exile in London in 1969. “Although it did not feel good to leave Brazil, London was a very interesting place to be in 1969,” he recalled to Don Heckman of Rhythm in 1999. Veloso continued to record abroad and write songs for other Tropicalismo stars, but he would not receive permission to return to Brazil permanently until 1972.
Although his commitment to politicized art never wavered, Veloso, over the next 20 years, transformed from being a very popular Brazilian singer/songwriter to standing at the center of Brazilian pop. He maintained a grueling pace of recording, producing, and performing. In the mid-1970s, Veloso added writing to his resume, publishing a book of articles, poems and song lyrics covering a period from 1965 to 1976 entitled Algeria, Algeria —also the title of his first noted hit song. In the 1980s, Veloso’s popularity began to spread beyond the borders of Brazil. He toured in Africa, Paris, and Israel; interviewed the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger for Brazilian television; and in 1983, playing in the United States for the first time at the age of 41, sold out three nights at the Public Theater in New York City, performances that earned stellar reviews from New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer. This steady increase in popularity occurred despite the fact that Veloso’s records were extremely hard to find in American record stores.
However, Veloso never seemed bothered by his low profile outside of Brazil. His work over the years, even after he became a more well-known international pop figure, remained challengingand intriguing, and Veloso refused to modify his style to suit other cultural (including American) tastes—he sang in English (most of his recorded work was performed in the Portuguese language) only when he felt like it, not because he wanted sell more records to American listeners. And while Veloso gained recognition in the years following his exile throughout the world, he nevertheless opted to focus on his own country. “I’ve always thought that what I do could only interest Brazilians,” he humbly explained to Ratliff. “For two reasons: because of the words, and because of the knowledge of our history and our problems. Outside of that, I couldn’t see any appeal in my work.” Likewise, Veloso developed relationships with several trend-setting New York musicians, such as Brazilian native Arto Lindsay and David Byrne, but he never made a big deal about it. Rather, Veloso stood as one of the rare musicians who, despite his superstar status and substantial record sales (at least in Brazil), did not become self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, or overly concerned with his hipness.
In his later years, Veloso showed no signs of slowing down. After his 1989 recording Estrangeiro, produced by Arto Lindsay of the Ambitious Lovers and Peter Scherer, became his first non-import release in America, Veloso’s profile in the United States increased significantly. He 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 John Lannert of 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 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, Veloso 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.”
That same year, Veloso completed a memoir of his involvement in the Tropicalismo movement of the 1960s, as well as Brazilian music and culture, entitled Verdade Tropical, which was published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf. In 1999 at the age of 56, Veloso continued to live in Brazil with his second wife and manager, Paula Lavigne, and their son Zeca.
Caetano Veloso, Nonesuch, 1986.
Estrangeiro, Nonesuch, 1989.
Circulado, Nonesuch, 1992.
Fina Estampa, PolyGram, 1994.
(With Gilberto Gil) Tropicália 2, Nonesuch, 1994.
Livro, Nonesuch, 1999.
Billboard, October 8, 1994, p. 59; May 1, 1999, p. 20; October 30, 1999, p. 43.
Down Beat, November 1, 1999.
New York Times, January 29, 1999.
Newsweek, July 12, 1999, p. 67.
Rhythm, June 1999, p. 33.
Spin, June 1999, pp. 106-112.
“Caetano Veloso,” Europe Jazz Network Musicians, http://www.ejn.it/mus/veloso.htm (June 16, 1999).
Additional information provided by Nonesuch Records.
Born: Caetano Emanuel Vianna Telles Veloso; Santo Amaro da Purificacao, Bahia, Brazil, 7 August 1942
Best-selling album since 1990: Tropicalista 2 (1993)
Brazilian singer/songwriter Caetano Veloso is a creative musical force with few peers. He is a prolific artist who projects palpable intimacy with a tender voice over acoustic guitar. He demonstrates structural mastery in his soundtracks for Academy Award-nominated films. Veloso has a signature sound—nuanced vocals that may comment on politics or romantic love—but he seldom repeats himself.
Having followed his sister, the singer Maria Bethania, to Rio de Janiero from their home in eastern Brazil in the early 1960s, Veloso won song competitions with lyrics he wrote for her and was contracted by the international recording giant, Philips. He was already in awe of bossa nova composer/performer Joao Gilberto, and he had met fellow musician Gilberto Gil while studying philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia.
With Gil, Gal Costa (Veloso's collaborator on his debut album, Domingo ), Tom Zé, and other like-minded musicians, writers, painters, and filmmakers, Veloso established the tropicalia movement, politicizing Brazilian popular media in the manner of the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and others of the era. The movement ran afoul of the Brazilian military dictatorship that seized power in a coup in 1968; Veloso and Gil, the movement's chief proponents, were jailed for two months and placed under house arrest for four more for "disrespecting the national anthem and the Brazilian flag." After defiantly performing together, they chose voluntary exile in England and were not allowed to return to Brazil until 1972.
Upon their return tropicalia was thriving along with their reputations; Brazilian artists had been recording Veloso's and Gil's songs all along. Veloso worked to expand his frame of reference; he is credited for being the first Brazilian to use reggae elements in the rock tune "Nine Out of Ten" (1972). By the 1990s Veloso considered no music off limits or unusable. His album Noites de Norte (2001) embraces raucous electric guitar, gentle acoustic guitars, strings, percussion (including "knife and plate"), brass, and reeds; he sings mostly in Portuguese but also in English when the whim strikes.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Veloso stretched in many directions, teaming with Gil, Costa, and Bethania for an album, tour and film; publishing his articles, poems, and lyrics in a book, Alegria, Alegria (1977); and touring Africa, France, Israel, and, in 1983, the United States, where he won over influential New York critics and began to build a devoted American audience, even though all his albums were hard-to-find, expensive imports. He maintained popularity at home, co-hosting "Chico e Caetano," a television talk and variety show, with singer/songwriter Chico Barque in 1986.
Caetano Veloso (1987), his first U.S. release, introduces songs from his twenty-year repertoire, sung with only his own guitar accompaniment. Estrangeiro (1989) couches his mostly Portuguese vocals in spiky "downtown" electric tracks, as does Circulado (1991); both are produced by Arto Lindsay, a "fake jazz" singer/guitarist who was raised in Brazil and produces sophisticated MPB-style records of his own. Tropicalia 2 (1993), Veloso's duet album with Gilberto Gil, celebrates twenty-five years of Tropicalia and their thirty-year friendship. The release, which further enhanced their critical and public standing in the United States, features a cover of Hendrix's "Wait Until Tomorrow." Circulado ao Vivo (1997) contains Veloso's renditions of Michael Jackson's "Black and White" and Dylan's "Jokerman." Its release launched his extensive American tour in 1997.
Livro (1998), released concurrently with the publication in Brazil of Veloso's well-received historical memoir, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, won a 1999 Grammy for best world music album. Simultaneously, Veloso became involved in film-related projects: soundtracks for Tieta (1997), O Quatrilho (1997), the Carlos Diegues film Orfeu (2000), Ommagio à Federico e Giulietta ("homage to the films of Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina") (1998), and the song "Cucurrucucu Paloma," which he performed at the Academy Awards in New York City in 2003, written for the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her (2002).
Noites do Norte ("Nights of the north") (2001), a meditation on race and slavery in Brazil's pursuit of national identity, is one of Veloso's most serious thematic works and won a Latin Grammy Award in 2001. Live in Bahia (2002), a 2-CD set, attended the publication in English of Tropical Truth. Boxed-set retrospectives and collections of Veloso's recordings of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s proliferate. However, Veloso shows no sign of resting on his laurels, and there is every indication that he will continue to explore Brazil's cultural legacy, while adding to it with inspired creations of his own.
Caetano Veloso (None-such, 1987); Circuladô (Nonesuch, 1991); Caetano Veloso—Personalidade Series (Verve, 1993); Tropicália 2 (Nonesuch, 1993); O Quatrilho (Blue Jackel, 1996); Circulado Ao Vivo (Polygram, 1997); Livro (Elektra/Asylum, 1998); Ommagiò à Federico e Giulietta (Elektra/Asylum, 1998); Orfeu (None-such, 1999); Cinema Caetano (Universal, 2000); Noites do Norte (Nonesuch, 2001); Live in Bahia (Nonesuch, 2002).
C. Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil (New York, 2002); C. McGowan, The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (Philadelphia, 1991).