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The Belated Brazilian

Caetano Veloso is a legend in his homeland, so why did it take 30 years to get him to Hollywood Boulevard?

June 22, 1997|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Legendary performers don't usually wait until their mid-50s to make their debut concert in a market as important as Los Angeles. But that's the case this week, when Caetano Veloso appears at the Pantages Theatre on Wednesday in what will be the influential Brazilian singer-songwriter's first public performance in the Southland.

"I know it comes a bit late," says Veloso, 55. "And I don't really know why I never came to Los Angeles before now. Perhaps because the West Coast seems so much farther away than the East Coast, although I know it really isn't. But I'm looking forward to the appearance. I know there is a large Latin population in California."

Veloso, in fact, is particularly interested in the Southland's Latino audience, in part because his performance will feature music from his latest album, "Fina Estampa." Originally released in a studio version in 1994 on Polygram, and in a live performance version in 1995 on Mercury, it's a collection of classical songs from various parts of South America, sung in Spanish.

"I see this album as a way to rediscover the connections between Brazil and the Spanish-speaking countries of South America," Veloso says. "These are songs I remember from when I was growing up in Bahia."

Veloso's current show takes place before a backdrop of a Diego Rivera mural, with his four musicians positioned among the artisans and musicians in the painting. Interestingly, since the original mural resides at San Francisco City College, its presence underscores the California connection to the inclusive Latin spirit of the presentation.

A youthful radical in the '60s, Veloso has now become a revered elder, honored and admired in virtually every corner of Brazil's teeming musical community. Slender and elegant, he has a style and manner that match his soaring tenor voice. Although he insists that his views are as groundbreaking as ever, it would be hard to imagine today's Veloso striding on stage wearing plastic clothing, as he did with the rock group Os Mutantes during a festival in Sao Paulo in 1968, to protest what he viewed as narrow-minded attitudes toward the arts.

In a now-legendary diatribe, he shouted, "I say no to no" at a crowd objecting to both the text and style of his pugnacious rock song "E Proibido Proibir." "I say prohibiting is prohibited!"

Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Ze, Gal Costa and others were the primary architects of Tropicalia, a creative arts movement that tossed every imaginable kind of contradictory expression into the same stew pot. For Caetano and Gil, this meant adding electric rock to traditional folk songs, merging Beatles sounds with bossa nova, insisting upon a sophisticated, no-holds-barred experimentalism aimed at bringing the multilayered Brazilian history into a contemporary popular musical expression.

Tropicalia peaked in a bare few years, between 1967 and 1969, but it had an enormous influence on Brazilian musicians who arrived in succeeding decades. It also was an important soundtrack for the ideological clashes that were pulling at the seams of Brazilian society. As the decade moved toward its close and the military dictatorship that came into power in 1964 became more repressive, protest and resistance from students, intellectuals, journalists and artists mounted--not unlike the Vietnam War opposition that was gripping the U.S. during the same period.

In 1968, the military invoked Institutional Act No. 5, which revoked civil rights and implemented censorship of press and the arts. A year later, Veloso was imprisoned for four months before being forced, with Gil, to leave the country.

"We went to London," says Veloso. "And although it did not feel good to leave Brazil, London was a very interesting place to be in 1969. And although we could not really go back home until 1972, we continued to send songs back from London."

Veloso's songs from exile were recorded by performers such as Costa, Maria Bethania (Veloso's sister), Elis Regina and Roberto Carlos. Veloso also performed throughout Europe and recorded his first album in English, in which he rapidly became fluent.

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When Veloso returned to Brazil in 1972, his cutting-edge imagination and his affection for what the regime had described as "artistic chaos" remained uninhibited. His album "Transa" included one of the first efforts to combine Brazilian attitudes with Jamaican reggae. He delved into avant-garde forms of literary and musical expression, mixing concrete poetry with samba, rock, frevo, bossa nova and anything else his restless imagination could combine.

"It was a very exciting time," recalls Veloso. "And there were many exciting things to try out."

By the '80s, as the dictatorial regime ended, he moved into a period of wide popular acceptance. Even then, however, Veloso refused to be predictable. Adding funk, soul and R&B to his music, he became a popular star while still following his own muse.

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