The Boy From Ipanema

Tom Schnabel produces KCRW's radio program "Cafe LA" and is the program director of World Music at the Hollywood Bowl.

I’ve loved the sound of Caetano Veloso since I first heard his music years ago. He is a rara avis, both reigning pop superstar and intellectual. His book of memoirs, “Verdade Tropical,” was published in Brazil in 1997 and generated controversy. The book is now, finally, translated as “Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.” It is a dense and challenging book, filled with Brazilian history, politics, philosophy and sociology, focusing on the tumultuous 1960s and ‘70s, an extraordinarily fertile social and musical period in Brazil.

Veloso was born in 1942 in the small northern town of Santo Amaro da Purificacao, in the northern state of Bahia, which he declares “is to Rio what the Old Testament is to the New.” He was part of a large and happy family. His father worked for the Postal and Telegraph Service, and his mother still lives in the house on Amparo Street where he grew up. It is a house Veloso describes as “the seat of the most important events of my formation. It was here that I was to discover sex, see ‘La Strada,’ fall in love ... and--most important--hear Joao Gilberto.”

Veloso had an eclectic intellectual appetite; in his teens during the 1950s, he savored whatever was new and provocative: the Italian neo-realist cinema of Vittorio De Sica, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini. He admired the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock and Jean-Luc Godard. He read Stendhal, James Joyce, Federico Garcia Lorca, Ezra Pound and Claude Levi-Strauss (who lived in Brazil and based “Tristes Tropiques” on his sojourn). Veloso was fascinated by language and was captivated by the concrete poetry of Brazilian Oswald de Andrade. He also loved the paintings of Piet Mondrian, Roy Lichtenstein, Casimir Malevich, Brazilian painter Mario de Andrade and, later, Andy Warhol.


Veloso was in his teens when 1950s rock ‘n’ roll came to Brazil. He didn’t like Elvis Presley or Bill Haley and the Comets; he found it all rather primitive. He especially didn’t appreciate seeing Brazilian musicians aping Elvis and the new sound from up north; he thought they performed it without understanding it. Luckily, it was in a rich Brazilian musical milieu that Veloso passed his teens and early 20s.

In 1959, Joao Gilberto made a landmark recording that became bossa nova’s launching point and a national anthem, called “Chega de Saudade” (No More Blues). It galvanized Brazilian musicians with its unusual rhythms, vocal phrasing and lyrics. Veloso speaks of the classic song early in “Tropical Truth”: “Even today whenever any of us sings ‘Chega de Saudade’ ... bossa nova’s anthem--in any stadium in Brazil, we are accompanied by a chorus of tens of thousands of voices of all ages singing each syllable and note of the long and rich melody.” It is difficult now to estimate the newness of its sound; one can compare it to Charlie Parker’s music or John Coltrane’s first Impulse! recordings, which, like Gilberto’s song, mesmerized a generation of musicians.

In 1963, jazz saxophonist Stan Getz recorded the Antonio Carlos Jobim-Vinicius de Moraes song “The Girl From Ipanema” with Gilberto--whom Veloso deifies, calling him the “alpha and omega” and “my supreme master.” Bossa nova was born, and albums appeared from artists like the Tamba Trio, Baden Powell, Luis Bonfa and Vinicius de Moraes (who was vice consul at the Brazilian Consulate in Los Angeles, which still displays his photo). And thus it was that bossa nova, a blend of cool jazz, Claude Debussy and sophisticated but understated Brazilian rhythms--played not infrequently by shaking wooden match boxes and with tapping brushes on telephone books--became not only the “in” music among jazz fans but also among jazz musicians, particularly the lapidary gems penned by Jobim. Bossa nova painted a pretty picture of Brazil, of beautiful girls walking along tropical beaches, music that exuded a sunny optimism and Latin hedonism.

Storm clouds soon darkened the tropical skies. In early 1964, the democratic government of Joao Goulart was overthrown by the military, beginning two decades of dictatorship. Defying the military junta was a rallying point for the artistic left during the second half of the 1960s. Of the two main musical movements that surfaced--Tropicalia and Musica Popular Brasileira--the latter became the most widespread. MPB, as it became known, urged singers and songwriters to focus on Brazilian themes, using Brazilian musical motifs drawn from samba, bossa nova and other regional styles. It stressed a high level of poetry and required sophisticated musicianship, and kept its distance from American pop, rock and the British Invasion, considering them forms of cultural imperialism. The short-lived Tropicalia (also called Tropicalismo, though Veloso refers the former designation) was by far the most provocative movement. Tropicalistas followed the youth movements in France (May 1968) and the U.S. (anti-Vietnam protests) and proceeded to create their own musical statements relevant to life under the dictatorship. They loved the sound of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and other pop music from America and England. Though never formalized as a written document, the Tropicalist manifesto urged artists to make use not only of Brazilian ingredients but also of all the arts coming into Brazil, including ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll, surrealism, dada and concrete poetry. Together, MPB and especially Tropicalia took the position that bossa nova songs about girls on beaches were not only no longer appropriate but also escapist. Tropicalistas went a step further: They wanted to defy, protest and provoke not only the junta, its repression and ridiculous edicts but also the complacency of music audiences and the existing musical establishment.

By the mid-1960s, Veloso already was a famous songwriter. He won a prestigious and widely watched TV contest in 1966 with a song called “Alegria, Alegria” (Happiness, Happiness), that quoted, of all things, Sartre’s “The Words.” His music career was assured, and he began making enough money to be far more comfortable than most of his peers. Even as he recorded his first album, “Domingo,” with Gal Costa in 1967, however, he harbored the desire for a film career, an art form that in his opinion offered maximal impact, using music, language and image, united by the creative vision of the director.

Ironically, it was somebody else’s film that set Veloso’s artistic life on course. “Terra em Transe” (Land in Anguish), made in 1967 by Brazilian director Glauber Rocha, depicted Brazil in ways that Veloso had never before seen. The film electrified Brazil’s avant-garde with its harsh depiction of the country’s reality, a far cry from the simplistic, but nonetheless charming, portrayal in Marcel Camus’ 1959 film, “Black Orpheus”; it crystallized everything that Veloso was thinking about and helped establish Brazil’s fledgling Cinema Novo. “Land in Anguish” was also a crucial factor in the formation of the Tropicalistas the next year, in 1968.

There were only five initial recordings: by Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, the group Os Mutantes, the group album Tropicalia (with Rita Lee, Tom Ze, Djalma Correia, Nara Leao, Torquato Neto, Costa and Gil), and Veloso’s first solo album. All but one were released in 1968. Together, the Tropicalistas combined electric instruments, a psychedelic look, surrealism, existentialism, dada and “everything in Brazil’s real cultural life ... our raw material.” Tropicalia was not only a break with the bossa nova, it was also a subversive break with the leftist student movement and with Musica Popular Brasileira. It did, however, follow ideas put forth 40 years earlier by the Brazilian modernist movement .

One modernist concept Veloso and the Tropicalistas embraced was anthropophagy, an idea first promulgated by the Brazilian artistic vanguard in Brazil’s Semana de Arte Moderna Exhibition of 1922; this influential show marked the beginning of Brazilian modernism. Oswald de Andrade, whose concrete poetry Veloso admired, wrote a tract called the Manifesto Antropofagio in 1928, which borrowed from the dadaist-surrealist manifesto published 10 years earlier in France. Anthropophagy means cannibalism, and the allusion is to the early Portuguese settlers’ having been eaten by cannibals. It proposed that Brazilian artists embrace omnivorous cultural borrowing, not only, as Veloso says, the “raw materials of Brazilian life but everything else as well,” and transform these elements into a new art.

Andrade’s piece helped inspire the Tropicalistas to put everything from sound bites and fuzzy guitars to rock rhythms into the mix, echoing Picasso’s use of newspaper clippings 50 years earlier and foreshadowing the ubiquitous sampling used in pop music today. Though their music was often playful, it wasn’t about entertainment. Rather, it was an expression of aesthetic revolt against the dictatorship and complacency in general.

Tropicalia became for Veloso and his cohorts the ideal way to use the mass medium of music to provoke the public and defy the generals. Eventually they roused the military’s ire. Veloso’s exile was precipitated by a sign he and Gil displayed at a concert that said, “Be a Criminal, Be a Hero.” The sign caused the generals to jail them, then exile them to England (they were “invited” to leave the country), where they spent two years before being allowed to return home in 1972. By then, the dictatorship had grown harsher (Veloso noticed bumper stickers that said, “Brazil, Love It or Leave It” when he returned in 1971 for a brief visit). But he was armed with a new vocabulary of musical materials.

Today, Veloso is a national icon and tastemaker, one of the few Brazilian artists from the 1960s, besides Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, who still commands the respect and devotion of the younger generation. He also is successful outside of Brazil, winning a Grammy in 1998 with his album “Livro,” released shortly after the Brazilian publication of this book. His voice caresses like a soft and seductive lullaby, and his lyrics reveal subtlety, great inventiveness and poetic finesse.

“Tropical Truth,” however, is much tougher going than his lilting music. Partly it’s that the book--a set of memoirs and reflections rather than a chronological narrative--meanders through so many intellectual currents that it’s hard to follow. It is often insular and opaque.

Veloso devotes many pages to the question of Brazilian identity--how the world sees Brazil and how Brazilians see themselves, so reading it is much like reading a sociological treatise. It reads better later, when Veloso recounts his experiences being jailed and his forced exile in London; his chapter on being in jail is especially moving. In a case of superb irony, he recounts how his first wife, Dede, slipped him a copy of the Brazilian journal Manchete; from his dark and stifling Rio jail cell, he beheld the U.S. astronauts’ stunning first photos of the Earth taken from the moon. He later penned his song “Terra” (Earth), based on the experience.

Another problem is that we don’t enter into “Tropical Truth” equipped with much knowledge about Tropicalia, which isn’t Veloso’s fault. The five albums produced by its members, including the joint project Tropicalia, have not been issued or reissued in the U.S. in their original form, and the available imports have no English translations of the lyrics. The little we know is fragmentary: David Byrne has released compilations of Os Mutantes’ and Ze’s work, and groups like Sonic Youth and pop artist Beck (who would definitely qualify as a Tropicalista) have celebrated or used similar ideas in their songs. But this isn’t enough to help us appreciate Veloso’s book.

What is certain is that the Tropicalia movement was highly influential on the entire next generation of Brazilian musical artists, especially those albums coming after the fall of the dictatorship in the mid-1980s, when censorship was finally lifted.

One lesson of Sept. 11 is that we as Americans need to know more about how people outside our borders feel and think. All the world knows about Michael Jackson and Madonna, whose records are distributed and marketed everywhere on Earth, but nobody knows much about Buarque, Maria Bethania (Veloso’s sister) or Gil. Added to this musical globalism, there is the dearth of books about Brazilian music for the general reader. A few stand out: For Musica Popular Brasileira, there’s Charles Perrone’s excellent “Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song” and Chris McGowan and Riccardo Pessanha’s “The Brazilian Sound.” For bossa nova, try Ruy Castro’s superb and entertaining “Bossa Nova.” For the African-Brazilian musical connection, there’s Peter Fryer’s interesting study “Rhythms of Resistance.”

“Tropical Truth” offers an insider’s view of an extraordinary period, written by someone on the inside. His insights help us understand the psyche of that vast “other,” our huge South American neighbor, and to celebrate a music that has blessed the world.