Interview/pictures by Aaron CohenA benign riot erupted at the end of Caetano Veloso's concert in the summer of 1999 in the usually staid suburbs on Chicago's north shore. Dozens of women eluded security guards to jump on stage and embrace the heroic Brazilian singer/composer/poet.
Veloso has a history of causing an uproar. More than 30 years ago, when he was one tropicalia's founders, he shocked the crowd at the Sao Paulo International Song Festival when he wore plastic onstage and joined the psychedlic rock group Os Mutantes to declare "E Proibido Proibir" ("It Is Prohibited To Prohibit"). For Veloso and his friends, the statement was a crucial part of their music: anything could enhance traditional Brazilian songs. Experimental rock, Western folk, 12-tone compositions were a few sources that they used to enrich the samba and bossa nova. But their open ears were not the only reason why they caused such a reaction. The military dictatorship that controlled Brazil admonished Veloso and Gilberto Gil's free-thinking ideas and threw them in prison. After an exile in Europe, they returned to Brazil in the 1970's.
By the 1980's, Veloso became a widely adored pop hero throughout Brazil. Unlike stars in North America and Europe, his icon status encouraged his creativity. On the recent Livro (Elektra/Nonesuch), he combines the percussion ensembles from his native Bahia with lush orchestrations and hip modern dance rhythms. His political and cultural perspectives also remained poignant. Veloso's Circulado (Elektra/Nonesuch) disc from 1991 includes a attack on then-President Bush's belief in "a new world order." The notes to "Livro" contain his discussion about how American films created a lasting impression on Brazilians of his generation.
The past summer's tour was the first time Veloso made an extended visit to American cities. During our backstage interview (in his dressing room, just after his performance at Ravnia, Highland Park, IL. July 13, 1999) he reveals his new impressions of the U.S., as well as his continuing belief in the value of popular music. He was self-effacing and spoke better English than his interviewer. A small portion of the conversation was published in the October 1999 issue of Down Beat Magazine; what follows is the complete text.
Q: In past interviews, you've mentioned how the musical ideas for Livro came from listening to Miles Davis and Gil Evans. I've also read that you've been a long-time Chet Baker fan. What have you found in jazz that has been most useful for your compositions and your music?
Well, that was in late '50's/early '60's. I was very young and I was beginning to listen to jazz. And I was listening to things from many different periods. And the newest things were those things related to cool and cool was related to bossa nova, which had appeared in the late '50s in Brazil, 1958 to be precise. It was a different thing, but it had this cool posture in it. Those two people who you mentioned-- Miles Davis and Chet Baker-- attracted me because of the sense of economy. In Chet Baker, mostly when he's singing, he had a way erasing time. In the middle of a long note, you feel as if time had been suspended. So these things were, I felt, really high things.
Q: Has your perception of America, American people, American culture, changed during the course of your first tour of the United States?
I wouldn't say that it changed, but it has been enriched by some experience. By being close to some things. For instance, I arrived today from Minneapolis. It's so American in so many ways, it's such an AMERICAN town. And it's so far from New York, but it's so interesting, y'know? And I'll tell you what was a surprise to me was Austin, Texas. I loved it. Maybe because we were in the university campus, but also because the nightlife there was nice, amazing. Like, there were some little clubs on Fourth Street and Sixth Street playing jazz, or blues, or country and western, or dance music- and it was not a weekend! I found it very sweet.
This was the third time I was in Los Angeles. I find Los Angeles difficult. Because it's a kind of place... most people who don't understand Los Angeles say the same thing and I can't find many things to say that are different. You are never there, there. You've never arrived, it seems there is no nightlife. Everything closes very early and I don't like the freeways and spending so much time in a car. But it's very beautiful, somehow. I like coyotes and the presence of the desert. This is beautiful, and I've seen wonderful things there. But I think it's a little too much. Things are too far from one place to the other and places don't seem to kind any kind of wholesomeness to them.
Q: You mentioned on stage tonight that experimental pop musicians, such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa have studied avant-garde 20th century composers, like Schoenberg, who have been ignored in the classical world. Do you believe that pop songs, including yours, can become the perfect blend between folk traditions and experimentalism?
Sometimes it does it. I think most of the times in a weak way. But on the other hand, it has a strength of itself that does not depend on that combination to have it's own value. I think that what we call popular music represents a lot of what happened in our century. It has something to say and it attracted me. I now live in, and by, and for, and on popular music. So I could never say it's meaningless, because for me it's not. And I believe that it is a means of expression that conveys things that are adequate for our times in many ways. So what you said is probably right, there are some times when that combination occurs, but it is not necessarily the basic quality of popular music. Sometimes it happens and it's not good, and sometimes it doesn't happen and it's great pop music.
Q: Your own music draws on so many different sources--from fado to psychedelia to bossa nova to classic pop to avant garde--what do you believe makes your mixture uniquely Brazilian?
Well, Brazil is very Brazilian. Because Brazil is unique. Brazil is a giant country. In America. In the southern hemisphere. Speaking Portugese. And very mixed racially. So we've got so many disadvantages. [PSF cuts in to make sure he heard "disadvantages"]
Speaking Portuguese is not necessarily an advantage. Being in the southern hemisphere is not, (points to his hands) being dark is not, what else? Maybe being a big country is not that bad, physically (laughs). I don't think those things are bad-- I'm being ironic. Because I think that all these things suggest at least some wonderful possibilities. And Brazil manifests it. Many times through popular music. Often through popular music. And these possibilities might have a lot to do with good things for the
future for all of us. I do demand that of Brazil.
Q: Thirty-odd years ago you shook up Brazilian society's repression and attacked the military dictatorship when you went on-stage wearing plastic with the psychedelic atonal rock band Os Mutantes and shouted "E Proibido Proibir" ("It's prohibited to prohibit"). Today your music is very refined, and you charm everyone in the audience. But your lyrics still convey very serious political and social commentaries. Do you believe that sweeter music can help deliver a stronger political punch?
Not necessarily. I think Brazilian music tends to be more often sweet, but I think it's because of the language. It's because of our ethnic combinations, mixtures. I don't think that sweeter music is a better vehicle than acid music, so to say.
Q: But you can do it all,that's the main thing.
I cannot do it allllllll. I can mention some styles and I can identify better with some and perhaps a little bit with some others. And I can mention a little from afar. So that you can recognize and you can see in which perspective I'm trying to put that thing. It's possible for most people to understand that without thinking of the perspective in which some style has been put. But that demands a certain detachment.
There are certain things that are entirely natural to me. They're not comments or quotes or citations. They're just what I can do. But most quotes of styles, people, songs, literature, films, whatever- they are all done in a heartful way, with love. There's a wonderful Brazilian poet who was our best, biggest, greatest modernist, Oswald De Andrade. He has one poem, which I think is the shortest poem in the world. The title is "Amor" and the poem is "humor". Just that. Amor/humor, love/humor combined, is the method of approach for quotations and references. Without that, it doesn't mean anything. It's not interesting to me.
Q: What do you see as the similarities and differences in the interest in Brazilian music in the United States today and the bossa nova craze here in the late '50s and early '60s?
In fact, the status of popular Brazilian music in a worldwide perspective changed when bossa nova reached the world through the United States. That was in the early '60's. The film BLACK ORPHEUS had a lot to do with that. Although it was not a good film- in Brazil, we don't like that one. There's a new [version of that] one that's liked by Brazilians. But the music was fantastic. And for most foreigners, it was the first encounter with bossa nova. Then Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim came to the United States and recorded here and they became internationally known and that gave a different status to Brazilian music in the minds of all musicians around the world. And music lovers, as well. And that hasn't changed, because the tradition to which Joao Gilberto was pointing was not poor. On the contrary, it was very rich. We have a very beautiful tradition. And the future didn't deny him, either. Because in my generation, Milton Nascimento came to be adored by many jazz musicians in the United States and Europe and Japan, all over.
And now people are interested in tropicalia and what we did in the late '60's in Brazil. Because they are more and more discovering this complex world that in the beginning was just seen as a caricature through the image of Carmen Miranda, who was a fantastic artist. But who became some kind of caricature of herself, of Brazilian styles through Hollywood. With bossa nova, something complex was stated. And it has not been denied. So now interest in Brazilian music among people who like good music, or who make good music is richer and more complex. That's the difference I've noticed, it's been growing along the decades.
Q: How does Salvador, the people of Salvador, and Carnival, inspire your music today?
Entirely. Entirely. I'm there every year for Carnival and for the whole summer. And I love being there and I love the Carnival scene in Bahia.
Q: What are you working on now, in addition to this tour?
Well, I arrived from Minneapolis, where I sang last night, and I just sang here tonight. I was beginning to produce Joao Gilberto's new record. We made some recordings and this an enormous honor to me, because he is my supreme master. But I think eventually a record will be born from that. Don't know when, or how, but some wonderful things are being made. And I was concentrating on that before I left Brazil for this tour.
Q: Everything tonight was so tight and so together, how did you get this group together and what was the rehearsal process like?
They are wonderful. There are lots of wonderful musicians in Brazil. And some of these guys, Jacques Morelenbaum and Luis Brasil, the guitar player and the cello player have been playing with me for a very long time and both are arrangers. And the guys who play percussion in Bahia, I met through Carlinhos Brown. I saw them playing in timbalada and Carnival, and he indicated some guys for me and they're sweet and they play very well. And the others, some I knew in Bahia, others I saw in Rio, myself or Jacques knew them and we got together and it went on well.
Q: Was Fred Astaire an influence on your dancing?
Fred Astaire! The last guy who dances, Eduardo, one of the twin percussionists, he is a genius. He is really like Fred Astaire, he's unbelievable. They all are fantastic. I can dance samba myself, but these people are incredible. This guy is phenomenal as a dancer, he doesn't think, it's so pure. And he's very much like Fred Astaire.
Q: How do you want Americans who don't speak Portuguese to approach your music?
With patience (laughs).
Q: Is this different than how you want Brazilians to approach your music?
Well, of course, it must be. When I sang in Boston, I had the most Brazilian audience of the tour. When I sang in Austin, I had the least Brazilian audience of the tour. And I loved both. In Austin it was a lot of Texans, some Hispanics, very few Brazilians. So it was a foreign audience, and it was marvelous, I loved it. And I loved it in Boston, too. And I loved it here, which was mixed. Lots of Brazilians and lots of non Brazilians. But it's different, it has to be. Brazilians know how to sing many of my songs, they sing along with me.
Q: But you believe anybody can appreciate your music...
I never believed that.
Q: You never believed that? Really?
Not in the past. Now I have to, to some extent.
Q: Why is that?
I don't see myself as much interesting as a musician. I never thought I was. But I tried to be, not to disappoint the people who waited for something from me. So I do what I can, but I never took myself seriously as a musician. I think that Edu Lobo is a great musician. Gilberto Gil is a great musician. Milton Nascimento is a great musician. There are many great musicians in Brazil of my generation, some younger than myself. They are really talented for music. They belong to music. I'm a little detached, I don't have that intense, evident talent. At the same time, I am always---as I told you in the beginning of our conversation---making comments. I was not planning to become a singer or composer when I was 18 and listening to Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, and Joao Gilberto, and Gil Evans, and Chet Baker. I loved it, I used to like to sing songs, but I wanted to study philosophy and make movies. So there you are, movies and philosophy. Pop music, movies, and philosophy.
Q: You know, you could be a movie star in this country. Have you screen tested?
I would like to write and direct movies. Not be a movie star! (laughter)
Aaron Cohen can be contacted at email@example.com
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