wed 17/08/2022

Dinner with Caetano Veloso | reviews, news & interviews

Dinner with Caetano Veloso

Dinner with Caetano Veloso

Dinner and philosophy with Brazil's greatest pop star

You forget how fast the night descends in the tropics, in half an hour the light goes, the sun disappearing with a grand melodramatic finality. You understand the Mexican tribe who believe without their prayers it will never rise again. But it leaves behind a warmth in the enveloping womblike darkness. With the breeze against our faces in the Bahian night, Brazil’s most celebrated pop star is showing me his domain, a fabulous clifftop house in Salvador de Bahia in the state in the North-East coast where Cabral’s boat came ashore half a millennium ago, and where Caetano Veloso was born 67 years ago.

You make out from the light from his house the palm trees pregnant with coconuts, mango trees, and smell the perfume of the hibiscus. During the day, I’d watched as absurdly small hummingbirds, mechanical like the miniaturised dream of a Japanese robot inventor, hovered around the hibiscus outside the verandah of my cheap pousada overlooking the sea.

Caetano spends the rest of the year based in Rio, but he lives here the first few months of the year from New Year to Carnaval (Salvador’s Carnaval is funkier and wilder than Rio’s). Every 1 February there’s the Yemanja Festival, which takes place at the beach just below his house, where thousands place flowers and perfume in the sea to Yemanja, the Goddess of the Ocean, in gratitude for her generosity and beauty. “It’s her sacred spot – I always give white flowers to her.” Caetano’s Orisha is Oxossi, the hunter, signified by the blue beads he wears under his shirt.

CaetanoVelosocaetano1979umI think of his song "Milagres de Povo" (Miracles of the People) where he sings, “Atheists who have seen miracles, as I have/ Know that where God is not, the gods/ Don’t disappear, they multiply." The African religions here which came over with the slaves “have not been degraded, transformed or forgotten” and they affect everyone in Brazil, “but the centre is Bahia.” The song says that “petals fall from Yemanja.” A recent samba says, “I’m not like Condoleezza and Osama – I don’t believe in God.” Although he says that “in a country like Brazil that is a provocation”, John Ryle, who has translated many of Caetano’s songs, says his “pantheism performs a pas de deux with reason”.

Caetano’s house is Modernist - lots of wood, glass, airiness and African and Catholic figurines. We go inside and the dinner guests include Paulo César de Souza, the Brazilian translator of Nietzsche and Freud, and Connie Lopes, Caetano’s manager. When I say to Connie I find Caetano’s life enviable, she pulls a face. No man is a hero to his valet, they used to say, or his personal manager. The conversation jumps from the cultural theories of Theodore Adorno to record producer Timbaland, from Donald Rumsfeld to great sambistas from the Thirties like Noel Rosa. Even though they are speaking English for my benefit, I find it hard to keep up. Only one dinner guest, a glamorous black woman whose name I don’t catch, doesn’t speak English. I attempt to apologise in cod-Portuguese - “Desculpe por fala Ingles solamente” - and Caetano says, “That was the correct thing to say.” Caetano says America is not a proper name for a country and neither is United States; after all here in Brazil we are in America.

Music critics struggle in their efforts to find an Anglo-American equivalent to Caetano. According to one, Gerard Marzorati, he has “the poetical and political allusiveness of Bob Dylan, the melodic seductiveness of Burt Bacharach, the good looks of a French New Wave actor, the hip-thinkingness of Susan Sontag in her Partisan Review days, the sheer pop weirdness of Captain Beefheart... that, sort of, is Caetano Veloso." The basic point is that there simply isn’t any equivalent – and the search to find one, says Caetano, merely is a reflection of the Northern dominance of the music industry. Caetano is adored by the artier end of pop from Beck to David Byrne. Unlike his art musician fans, he seems to be universally beloved in his country – every taxi driver, chambermaid, shop girl or teacher I met in Brazil knew him, like Elvis, by his first name.

Watch video of "Livros"

Caetano follows in that androgynous tradition of pop from Little Richard to Prince; as he puts it in his book Tropical Truth, published in English a few years ago, “I surmise that those suggestions of androgyny, polymorphism and indeterminacy that coloured the post-Beatles (post-Elvis?) pop music scene still threaten the conventions that underlie many acts of oppression.” Not a thought that might have been exactly expressed by glam-rockers Slade or the New York Dolls, or even Morrissey or Bowie.

It’s more than about a certain enjoyable blurring of gender lines – Caetano’s genius is like a great chess player dealing with the same 64 squares making every game new. He takes musical notes, ideas and his own being, and reinvents, keeps moving. You feel heavy in comparison - he has a lightness of being, an agile mind.

He studied philosophy at University in Salvador but also loves the mythic. One song is called "Santa Clara, Padroeira da Televisao" (St Claire, Patron Saint of Television). Apparently she saw on her wall the death of St Francis: “It's touching that such a disrespected thing in our everyday lives as television can have a patron saint.”

It’s hard to think of another international pop star who has displayed the kind of unpredictable brilliance over a 35-year period from his astonishing psychedelic Sixties singles like "Tropicalia" onwards, a song that baptised the Tropicalismo movement Gilberto Gil and others launched in the mid-Sixties during the time of the Brazilian dictatorship. The movement used the trope of cannibalism to describe their promiscuous devouring of everything – including Western pop, trash, bossa nova and serious atonal composition to create a genuinely new movement in pop.

Caetano was a provocative, counter-cultural figure, appearing on stage dressed in plastic clothes or dressed as a woman and singing "E Proibido Proibir" (It is Prohibited to Prohibit), a leader when the entire artistic community of Brazil opposed the dictatorship.

Both Caetano and Gil were arrested and went into exile for a couple of years in London, Caetano sending songs back to be recorded by artists like Roberto Carlos, Gal Costa and his sister Maria Bethania before returning as a hero in 1972. Carlos Calado, author of Tropicalia: History of a Musical Revolution, the most detailed account of the period, said, "I guess you could say that Gil was the heart of Tropicalismo and Caetano its head." He clearly provided the rational, intellectual, programmatic side of the movement. In London at the end of the Swinging Sixties, Caetano says he felt a loneliness which was expressed in the song “London, London”, which also talked about the peacefulness of the city, that you could talk to policeman who were happy to help you. To me, he said he still loves London (where he is returning to perform at the Barbican this month), for the relative calmness, for “small things like park benches”. I found Caetano’s endorsement of the beauty of London, as a Londoner, oddly cheering.

Watch video of "Alegria, Alegria" (lyrics below)

I’d met Caetano backstage at the Teatro Castro Alves in Salvador. The theatre, as Caetano fanatics know, was where his album Barra ’69 was recorded and is steeped in Veloso history. The theatre was named after a 19th-century poet who opposed slavery and whose lyrics Caetano has set to music on his Livro album. Despite assorted bigwigs and glamorous types Caetano spends most of the time backstage with his mother, who is in her nineties, and has come to see all three nights of the run; his ex-wife is also there with her new husband, who designed the sets. There’s also a tinge of sadness underneath the ebullient charm. Then again in Brazil they always say the best sambas have a touch of saudade, of melancholy and nostalgia.

caetano_hippyThe elfin-like Caetano manages to rescue some great songs from the ghosts of too many bad cabaret singers. On this outing he’s singing some English songs which appeared on his album A Foreign Sound. He manages to sing songs like “Something Good” from the Sound of Music or “Love Me Tender” and make even the most naïve lines seem utterly sincere. But then he has one of the great voices and could affect people deeply singing names from the Salvador phone book. He sings the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” as a gay song: “He’ll build a little home/ Just meant for two”.

Most provocatively he sings that monumentally bad-taste song, “Feelings”, which I hadn’t realised was “a fake American song written by a Brazilian”. This last, I tell him, will probably guarantee a bunch of bad reviews in England. “I’m not English, so I am impressed by pretentious ideas and enormous intuitions.” He tells me that no blasé critic “will touch the certainty of what I’m doing. I was not going to do the kind of parody The Offspring have done of that song. It’s a kind of alchemia, I’m purifying myself through the song, purifying the bottom of underdevelopment of Third World bad taste and humiliation. For me it’s a great spiritual gesture”. Read the French philosopher Bourdieu’s Distinction – it illustrates convincingly that in capitalist societies we are all prisoners of the dictates of Good Taste, as a way of creating our own social identities.

Songs like “O Leaozinho” will be sung as long as there are any Brazilian singers left to sing them

Having done an album of Spanish-language classics from the Forties and Fifties, Fine Estampa, which garnered similar criticisms of his dubious taste, he wanted to do an American one. It wasn’t supposed to be a direct political comment: “It was not as a response to the anti-American craze.”

Watch video of 'Cucurrucucu Paloma', an old Mexican Mariachi chestnut, used in the soundtrack of Almodovar’s Talk to Her

His most recent album Zii e Zie has an avant-rock tendency mixed in with Portuguese lyrics (the album was dismissed in some quarters as "Radiohead meets Bossa Nova"). But it is singing in Portuguese that his lyrical, liquid voice is at its best. Albums like Livro and Noites do Norte are near masterpieces, and some of his songs like “O Leaozinho” will be sung as long as there are any Brazilian singers left to sing them. I’m not alone in finding my main motivation in wanting to learn the language to better understand his poetic lyrics. In spite of all his influences and artistic adventures, it’s the Bossa Nova architect Joao Gilberto he considers his “true master”.

I didn't ask about his personal life, although I heard he'd been through a divorce. Wikipedia says: "Veloso's first marriage in 1969 was to a dance student named Andréa Gadelha, known as Dedé, who was the sister of Gilberto Gil's ex-wife Sandra Gadelha. With Dedé, he had his first son Moreno, born in 1972. In 1982 Veloso started a relationship with Paula Lavigne. Veloso's marriage with Gadelha ended in 1983 and he married Lavigne in 1986 when she was 17. The couple had two sons: Zeca (born 1992) and Tom (born 1997). Veloso and Lavigne divorced in 2004."

Caetano says in Tropical Truth (which, incidentally Paulo César de Souza informed me was a classic of Brazilian writing mangled in translation) that Brazilian popular music is “for Brazilians as well as for foreigners, the sound of the discovery of a dreamt-of Brazil... [it] is the most efficient weapon for the affirmation of the Portuguese language in the world, when one considers how many unsuspecting lovers it has won through the magic of the word sung in the Brazilian way". He has done as much as anyone to spread the word of the music from his country that he describes as “the double, the shadow, the negative image of the great adventure of the New World”.

That Brazil, whatever its musical and other blessings, is still mired in poverty is something that still exercises Caetano. “It has the biggest difference between poor and rich in the world. It’s really something unbelievable.” Perhaps he could find a political position like his friend Gilberto Gil, who was Minister of Culture. “I wouldn’t want an official position. For him it’s not only natural but pleasurable. For me it would be unbearable, it wouldn’t hold me.”

It would seem that nothing much can hold Caetano (I’m not surprised to be told he suffers from insomnia, his quicksilver mind working overtime). In Salvador I also met the great singer Virginia Rodrigues (listen to her Sol Negro CD, which is a classic), who was discovered by Caetano. She told me of Exú, one of the pantheon of African gods in Salvador, who is a mercurial figure, a messenger. I immediately thought of Caetano, managing never quite to be pinned down or trapped, ever moving between high and low art, male and female, sincerity and irony, reason and faith.

Watch a video of "O Leaozinho"

Lyrics for "Alegria Alegria"

Caminhando contra o vento
Sem lenço e sem documento
No sol de quase dezembro
Eu vou...
O sol se reparte em crimes
Espaçonaves, guerrilhas
Em cardinales bonitas
Eu vou...
Em caras de presidentes
Em grandes beijos de amor
Em dentes, pernas, bandeiras
Bomba e Brigitte Bardot...
O sol nas bancas de revista
Me enche de alegria e preguiça
Quem lê tanta notícia
Eu vou...
Por entre fotos e nomes
Os olhos cheios de cores
O peito cheio de amores vãos
Eu vou
Por que não, por que não...
Ela pensa em casamento
E eu nunca mais fui à escola
Sem lenço e sem documento,
Eu vou...
Eu tomo uma coca-cola
Ela pensa em casamento
E uma canção me consola
Eu vou...
Por entre fotos e nomes
Sem livros e sem fuzil
Sem fome, sem telefone
No coração do Brasil...
Ela nem sabe até pensei
Em cantar na televisão
O sol é tão bonito
Eu vou...
Sem lenço, sem documento
Nada no bolso ou nas mãos
Eu quero seguir vivendo, amor
Eu vou...
Por que não, por que não...
Por que não, por que não...

English version: "Happiness, Happiness"

Walking against the wind
without handkerchief, without identity card
Under the sun of an almost December
I go...
The sunlight spreads among crimes
Spaceships, guerillas
And beautiful 'Cardinales' [a reference to the actress Claudia Cardinale]
I'll be...
upon the faces of presidents
in long love kisses
in teeth, legs, flags
Bombs and Brigitte Bardot
The sun shining at the news stands
fills me with joy and laziness
Who reads so many news in this world?
I go...
Among photos and names
With my eyes, so colourful
And with my heart, full of vain loves
I go
Why not? Why not?
She thinks about marriage
And I've not been to the school for so long.
Without handkerchief, without identity card
I go ...
I drink some Coke
She thinks about marriage
And a song consoles me
I go...
Among photos and names
Without books, without gun
Without hunger, without telephone
Into the heart of Brazil
She doesn't know, I even thought
about singing on television
The sun is so beautiful
I go...
Without handkerchief, without identity card
Without anything in my pockets or hands
I want to keep living, my love
I go...
Why not? why not?
Why not? why not?

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