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Austin Chronicle Vamos Caetanear

By Mike Quinn

JULY 5, 1999:  Quick. Name one contemporary pop musician whose name has been transformed into a commonly used verb? Prince? Madonna? What about Selena? Come on, name one. Okay, let's go find one. Run your finger down the globe, down past that little bulge in the middle. Now stop at that large mass occupying half of South America. Brazil. You can find one right there.

In a country where a simple conversation can have the lyricism, drama, and rhythm of a song, where hundreds of samba drums drive the passion meter into the red at every soccer game, where sometimes not even the sunrise can halt a night of sweaty, up-close, and personal dancing, it should come as no surprise that music and musicians exert a tremendous amount of influence. Enough so the name of one native musician has become a verb on the tip of 160 million Brazilian tongues.

Derived from the name of Brazilian pop icon Caetano Veloso, "Caetanear," meaning to Caetano-ize -- to make or do in a Caetanean fashion -- is a commonly used word in the singer's native country. When asked about it, one of my Brazilian e-mail pen pals sent me this response: "All Brazilian people understand and use this expression, this word. It's very flattering, but the guy deserves it."

It's fitting that Veloso, a man dedicated to the artful, creative, and sometimes difficult use of the Portuguese, nay, Brazilian language, should be canonized in this way. In fact, he places so much weight on the content of his lyrics that he even denies being a real composer, aligning himself more with Portuguese and Brazilian poets than with musicians. In a recent song ("Outro Retrato") he sings, "My music comes from the music of the poetry of a poet João, who hates music; and my poetry comes from the poetry of the music of a musician João, who hates poetry," referring to one of Brazil's most important poets, João Cabral de Melo Neto, and to musician João Gilberto.

Now on a nine-city U.S. tour, Veloso is puzzled by his growing acceptance in this country.

"I never thought my music had any appeal apart from its connection to Brazil and the Brazilian situation," says the singer. "The music of Djavan, Milton Nascimento, and Gilberto Gil could stand alone without an understanding of Brazil, or understanding Portuguese. But in my case, I always thought this comprehension was necessary. Now people are accepting it, and I don't know why. Maybe some melodies or something. I don't know."

But there's plenty in Veloso's music for North American audiences to chew on: wispy bossa novas, driving sambas, Soho-inspired grit and punch, some Beatles, maybe even a hint of Jamaica on a tune or two. His music makes you want to dance, cry, laugh, and perhaps most of all, think. (How many singers might compare a lyric to " ... a Heidegger sentence translated into English?") The energy he generates on stage does not reflect a guy approaching 60.

To be sure, Veloso's music, like his language, is full of surprises and challenges. Twists and turns are to be expected from a musician who, like Dylan, was once booed off stage because the audience couldn't comprehend the addition of electric instruments to his sambas. His modesty belies a music that's rich in stylistic variety texture, and flows with an endless stream of new and satisfying melodic/harmonic ideas. Of course, he draws from that very rich Brazilian palette of rhythms. When asked to describe himself for American audiences, he laughs.

"I cannot describe myself to myself," says Veloso. "I guess you could say I'm a guy who doesn't consider himself a real musician, but who got caught by music and who tries to do the best he can with it.

"I began by loving João Gilberto, and he is still my supreme master. Later on, I began to understand the power of mass music and of the international pop scene and became interested in that. My music is a result of much thinking, incorporating all those things."

Perhaps a more detailed picture of Caetano Veloso can be drawn, caetano-izingly, by listing a litany of qualities one might attribute to his music: prodigious, consistently creative, imaginative, samba, bossa nova, sertão (Brazil's backlands), afoxê (Afro-Brazilian carnival music from Bahia), reggae, Nordeste (Brazil's Northeast, source of much important traditional music and poetry), Beatles, lyrical, silly, serious, fun, difficult, beautiful, puzzling.

"I feel at home with each and every word I heard," Veloso responded upon hearing this list. "Perhaps I would add Portuguese fado. Amália Rodrigues' [the great fadista] singing is so important to me. Oh yes, I would add the word 'cinema' too."

Born in 1942, in the small town of Santo Amaro in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, Veloso originally dreamed of becoming a filmmaker but entered the university to study philosophy instead. Then he heard the first LP by João Gilberto, Chega de Saudade, and his world changed forever. Gilberto, also from Bahia, solidified the musical form we now call bossa nova from several then-new currents taking shape in Rio de Janeiro. Revolutionizing the Brazilian music scene with lithe rhythms derived from a guitar style that carried the load of a whole percussion section while providing a cool-jazz inspired harmonic underpinning, Gilberto became Veloso's greatest influence.

"He was an enlightenment," explains Veloso. "When I heard his first record, it made me decide to approach popular music more seriously. But even if I had continued doing philosophy or filmmaking, João Gilberto would be my lighthouse."

Coming full circle, Veloso found himself producing Gilberto's newest recording recently.

"Yes it's true," he says. "Unbelievable to me, but it's true. The preproduction meetings were very mysterious to me, more like poetry than production talk. He was telling stories about singing this song or that. And he asked me to sing on one thing with him. I didn't say no."

Back in 1965, however, such an honor was beyond even Veloso's wildest dreams. Moving to Rio, the 23-year-old philosopher-led-astray launched a musical career performing his own versions of bossa nova. The British Invasion of the mid-Sixties had convinced him that Brazil needed its own modern pop music, a mixture that would include indigenous Brazilian forms, as well as Beatles, electronic sounds, ad lingo, and concrete poetry. He and several associates started a movement known as Tropicália, which in its two-year life span raised more than a few eyebrows. The effects of Tropicália are still felt around the world today: Seminal modern rock cornerstones like Beck, Stereolab, and Tortoise all admit the influence of these revolutionary ideas proposed 30 years ago.

In 1969, the Brazilian political situation was explosive, especially for the likes of artists like Veloso, who was arrested and imprisoned for several months before fleeing to London, where he remained for nearly three years. Returning home in 1972, his music took on a recharged spirit, emphasizing traditional Brazilian forms imbued with new ideas gathered in London. At this point, Veloso had no interest in leading any musical movements, the singer wanting only to make music -- music of a visionary nature that would keep him on the forefront of Brazilian arts.

Nearly 30 years later, Veloso's accomplishments include authoring several books, a string of hits written specifically for others, and much music for stage and film, including a recent remake of Black Orpheus called Orfeo. Not insignificantly, his music remains fresh, always interesting. No less than The New York Times dubbed him "one of the greatest songwriters of the century." Outrageous statements, flamboyant behavior, a knack for setting trends, and an ability to bring long-forgotten musicians and poets into the mainstream, as well as a steady stream of songs that have entered his country's national consciousness, have combined to make Veloso the most influential pop singer in Brazil today, if not actually tops in sales. And even that has changed recently. His Brazilian album, Prenda Minha, roughly his 30th release in 35 years, has just topped the million unit mark. He takes it in stride.

"I've never been a bestseller in Brazil. Only now. My song 'Sozinho' has managed to cross over, to break the market segmentation of Brazilian radio."

The literary nature of his songs has often kept them out of the reach of many Brazilians, a country where illiteracy rates are still high. Nonetheless, several of his compositions have become anthems for various parts of Brazil. Before the question is even finished, Veloso's reply comes tumbling out.

"'Cajuína' for Piauí (a state in northeastern Brazil), 'Menino do Rio' for Rio, and 'Sampa' for São Paulo."

Add 'Atrás do Trio Elétrico' for Bahia's carnival celebration.

"I didn't intend for any of these to become hymns," claims the singer. "They just turned out that way. For example, I was asked to write a few words about São Paulo for a television special. I made some notes and they became a song in minutes. I was not going to record 'Sampa,' just sing it for the show. But everyone insisted I put it on a record."

Writing songs seems easy for some.

"Yes, very easy. The complicated ones are the easiest. The most difficult are the simple ones."

His current U.S. release on Nonesuch, Livro, is full of simple songs and complicated ones. In a way, it's a tightly knit summation of his 35 years in the spotlight. There's a nod to João Gilberto, a nod to Antonio Carlos Jobim, a nod to his recent connection to Manhattan and its musical subcurrents, quotes from a 19th-century poet, minimalism, a nod to the composers of modern classical music he loves so much, plus samba, afoxê, even Miles Davis and Gil Evans. Veloso covers all the bases in a very satisfying mix of bossa with edgy rock and butt-wiggling drums. There is great beauty woven throughout this recording, but some might be challenged by the ongoing experiments.

"Take it or leave it," he would probably say. Unlike many in Brazil, Caetano Veloso isn't giving into market demands or falling into trends set by others. He's too busy setting the standard to follow one.

Vamos caetanear?


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