"THIS IS THE first time I've ever been to Canada," Caetano Veloso said last Tuesday night, pausing as the audience at Vancouver's Vogue Theater cheered. "It's very cold."
The 57-year-old Brazilian singer, songwriter, and pop icon had played in New York before, but he'd never toured North America. On his second stop, Vancouver's Du Maurier Jazz Festival, he was met by a large Brazilian contingent—a good two-thirds of the audience, who sang along to every word—and he was surprised by their presence. Yet the assembled fans were of all ages, colors, and nationalities, a tribute to Veloso's genre-bending, cross-cultural music. They shimmied, waved their arms, and shouted requests, building on the radiant energy emanating from the stage. Inside the Vogue, it wasn't cold at all.
Veloso's current veneration is a far cry from his original status; it's been almost 32 years since he, Gilberto Gil, and the band Os Mutantes were booed offstage at the Festival of Brazilian Popular Music because (shades of Dylan) they dared to play electric guitars. These ideological cohorts went on to form a loose-knit artistic-political movement known as Tropicᬩa, along with singer-songwriter Tom Z鬠singers Gal Costa and Nara Le㯬 and lyricists Jos頃arlos Capiman and Torquato Neto, among others. The group took its name from a 1967 installation at Rio's Museum of Modern Art that decried the "unacceptable" European and North American influence on Brazilian culture.
Veloso and Co. inverted this nationalism, inspired by poet Oswald de Andrade's "The Cannibalist Manifesto," which encouraged Brazilian artists to "consume" culture from everywhere. Andrade hoped this omnivorous attitude would lead to mutations and juxtapositions with their own implicit anti-imperialism. Before irony became a societal norm, the Tropicalistas fomented their own "hip revolution."
Brazil, like the US, feeds on the illusion of the melting pot: nearly 40 percent of the population—a conglomeration of Portuguese, Italian, German, Japanese, Amerindian, and African descendants—is considered "mixed race." It's no surprise that the Tropicalistas were fascinated by opposition and fragmentation. Backed by Concretist poets and essayists, they created an audacious commentary on—and reaction to—the smooth, jazz-inflected sound of bossa nova, jolting traditional Brazilian forms with psychedelic rock.
The Tropicᬩa movement shared some characteristics with the English punk scene of the mid-'70s: both were made up largely of art-college kids influenced by the 1968 Paris riots and the Situationist notion of revolution in the streets; both succeeded in alienating everyone from leftist students to the right-wing old guard; both lasted for roughly a year before commerce (in the case of punk) or government (in the case of Tropicᬩa) intervened. Veloso and Gil were arrested and exiled to London in 1969. Gil returned to Brazil in 1972 and went on to explore pan-African genres like reggae and jazz. Os Mutantes eventually turned to progressive rock and gradually lost most of its original members before breaking up for good in 1978. Earlier this year, the band's first five records were reissued, as well as a best-of compilation, Everything Is Possible. Z頣ontinued to make music in relative obscurity. He was on the verge of giving it up completely in the late '80s, but then David Byrne's Luaka Bop label released a Z頣ompilation, ironically subtitled Massive Hits, and the songwriter found his career revived.
Veloso returned from exile a national hero and over the years has released dozens of records. On his latest American release, Livro (Nonesuch), he continues to find inspiration in everything from European avant-gardists like Boulez and Stockhausen to the party music of Carnival and the distinctly Brazilian concept of saudade—or bittersweet longing. Later this year, Knopf will publish Verdade Tropical (Tropical Truth), Veloso's consideration of Brazilian culture and music.
ODDLY ENOUGH, it was only when the Tropicᬩa movement was well and truly over that most Americans took any notice of it. Well into the '80s, "Brazilian pop" meant Sergio Mendes and Carmen Miranda. Then, in 1989, Luaka Bop's compilation Beliza Tropical appeared, and in the ensuing decade, Tropicᬩa's cut-and-paste aesthetic began showing up in music by Beck, Tortoise, and Sean Lennon.
As self-absorbed as Americans are, we love to see our reflection. Part of Tropicᬩa's appeal to us, then, is that it poaches American musical forms, instead of the other way around. So the road of influence runs both ways: Sean Lennon, for example, appears on the latest record from young Brazilian pop singer Vinicius CantuᲩa.
After the palpable nostalgia on most "world music" releases, the currency of the original Tropicᬩa albums (handily collected in a new five-CD set, Tropicᬩa: 30 Anos) is pleasantly shocking. Thanks to the language barrier, the lyrics have even aged gracefully. Ditto the musicians themselves: Z鬠Gil, and Veloso continue to work the juxtapositions and get away with printing manifestos as liner notes. They beat out the rest of their musical generation hands down; when was the last time the Rolling Stones sounded this relevant?
The climax of Veloso's Vancouver performance was a rendition of his new song, "How Beautiful Could a Being Be," in which he sings the title phrase over and over like a mantra, his bird-like falsetto soaring above the band. The four-man percussion/dance section, plus a drummer, guitarist, bassist, a three-man horn section, and bandleader and cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, carried the elaborate samba into ecstatic, polyrhythmic heights.
Veloso's current music has its share of electric-guitar freakouts, but it's also truly international at the same time that it's specifically Brazilian. Staying true to 1968, he continues to see Brazil in the world, and the world in Brazil. Then he recreates his visions in music without boundaries between folk and glitz, classical and pop, or the cello and the drum machine.