Veloso’s Songs of Brazil

July 8, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Now, singing the story of Brazil. Arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown reports on one of that country’s leading musical stars.

( Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN (December 26, 2002): “For a long time,” sings Brazilian pop star Caetano Veloso, “slavery will remain the national characteristic of Brazil.” In this song, translated from the Portuguese as “Northern Nights,” Veloso uses a 19th century Brazilian text to sing of racial disparity, an issue that remains relevant to Brazilian life today.

(Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the kind of thing Veloso, now 60, has been doing in Brazil for four decades. In his native land, he remains a major cultural figure…

( Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: …A songwriter, poet, and provocateur who explores what it means to be Brazilian and part of the larger interconnected world.

(Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, he’s become more known in the United States. The “New York Times” called him “one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century.”

( Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: He toured the nation this fall, here at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, with the release of a new CD called “Live in Bahia.” His 1999 recording, “Livro,” won a Grammy Award; and a memoir of his early years, “tropical truth,” has just been published in English. Veloso lives in Brazil, but has an apartment in New York, where we talked, first about Brazilian music.

CAETANO VELOS: It is a blend of different African traditions in rhythm, and all of the European ideas of harmony and structure and poetry also. So it has a taste of its own. And it has a very complex history, you know, Brazilian popular music, because Brazil is very big, varied, and racially very mixed, deeply mixed.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1960s, Veloso and friends such as Gilberto Gil took traditional Brazilian music and the Bossa Nova sound of Veloso’s hero, Koao Gilberto, added poetic and musical influences from far and wide, including rock and roll, and created a movement called Tropicalia. For many in Brazil, it helped signal a new nation, proud of itself and open to the world.

( Singing in Portuguese )

CAETANO VELOS: It had behind it this too big a dream of solving the problem of Brazil, and that has not been solved — far from it.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Tropicalia” raised too many questions for the oppressive military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in the ’60s and ’70s. Veloso and Gil were jailed for several months in 1968, and then lived in exile in London before returning home in 1972. It would be another 13 years before democracy was restored to Brazil. For Veloso, it is today a more confident nation, but one still searching for its way.

CAETANO VELOS: Brazil, territorially, it’s just as big as the United States, and it is culturally very rich and varied, and economically it’s become kind of strong. But it’s unresolved, you know, it’s unsettled.

JEFFREY BROWN: I just wrote down a quote from the book where you refer to Brazil as “a failed nation ashamed of having once been called a country of the future.”

CAETANO VELOS: Social disparity in Brazil is monstrous, and it has been there unchanged for more than four centuries. And this incredible incapacity of distributing wealth is a failure.

( Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: A Caetano Veloso concert is a jumble of styles: Hard-driving rock… ( rock music playing ) …solo acoustic love songs… ( soft guitar strumming )

( Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN:…And, of course, the percussion-led rhythms for which Brazilian music is so famous. (Drums playing ) Veloso is a man obsessed with words.

(Rapping in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: In his rap-like chant called “Lingua,” or “Language,” he asks the question, “how far can it go, this language?”

CAETANO VELOS: O que pode essa lingua?

CAETANO VELOS: I like talking… talking. I like to listen to people talk. I like to read. I like to write. I like the words. I like poetry and prose and philosophy and essays. I like the words, and I like the Portuguese language.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re writing a song, do all of these influences, what… the poetry that you’re reading, the books that you’re reading, the people you’re talking to, it all…


JEFFREY BROWN: …It’s all grist for that?

CAETANO VELOS: Yes, yes. Sometimes they all appear in quotes, you know. Sometimes they just echo. And they would be there, put together, and, you know, it’s really very unbalanced. But somehow it feels good. I think we live in an unbalanced era.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean?

CAETANO VELOS: I don’t think history has ever faced anything like the power and the achievements of the United States, the generosity and the potential of oppression, all the greatness of the United States, you know. On the other hand, distribution of wealth in the world is almost a problem for which nobody can see a practical solution.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brazil, as much as any place in the world in recent years, has aroused such questions about globalization’s benefits and harms. In October, the election of labor leader Lula de Silva as president signaled a major political change. The new president has called for greater economic and social equality for Brazil’s workers and poor. Veloso sees a key moment for his country’s 170 million people.

CAETANO VELOS: What is happening now is that in Brazil, people are kind of happy, you know, and I wouldn’t say they are wrong, you know, because it means some kind of Brazilian political originality. It’s a challenge filled with many dangers, but fascinating, and really engaging.

( Singing in Portuguese )

JEFFREY BROWN: In his song “May 13,” Veloso expresses his engagement in his more accustomed manner: Through joyous music. The song celebrates the day in 1888 when slavery was officially abolished in Brazil.

CAETANO VELOS: Un fin da escravidao da escravidao…

JEFFREY BROWN: Veloso imagines the square in his hometown, the dancing, the happiness; “palm fronds everywhere,” he sings, “and the fireworks in the air.”