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Brazil's voice, and its soul

After almost 40 albums, Caetano Veloso was ready to take a break from writing Brazilian-themed songs. But the boredom with his country as a theme didn't last for long.

October 27, 2002|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

Rio de Janeiro — Caetano Veloso has been called "the Bob Dylan of Brazil," and on this day there is something definitely Dylanesque about his appearance. He enters the room with a messy mop of salt-and-pepper hair, dark Moorish eyes and jeans that cling tenuously to his skinny frame.

It's the end of a long working day. A Rio sunset shimmers through the windows of his production office, tropical hills bathed in tangerine light, the sky painted various hues of violet. The artist looks a bit worn out. You could even say Caetano Veloso looks bored -- though he would really prefer you didn't.

The last time Veloso revealed as much to an interviewer, it set off a nationwide controversy. "I am bored by Brazil," he said. In the days that followed, newspaper columnists, politicians and critics all weighed in on what he could have possibly meant.

It was like hearing Bruce Springsteen say, "I am bored by New Jersey," or Woody Guthrie say, "I am bored by being American," because to millions of people here and elsewhere Veloso has helped define what it means to be Brazilian.

For more than three decades, Veloso has told the story of his country in songs, in marchinhas (little marches) about the Flamengo beach in Rio, in gentle ballads about the "concrete poets" of Sao Paulo, and sambas about the celebrations in Salvador on Emancipation Day -- almost 40 albums in all, and hundreds of songs.

"What I meant was that I was bored of Brazil as a theme, that I just didn't want to do things where I always had to pick up the story of Brazil," he says by way of explanation. And, anyways, it was only a momentary hesitation. The music he brings to UCLA's Royce Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday -- is inspired, precisely, by Brazil and the crime at the heart of its 500-year history.

The idea for "Noites do Norte" (Northern Nights) came to Veloso the same way his artistic inspirations usually hit him: A friend gave him a book to read, an intellectual problem to ponder. He quickly became unbored with Brazil as he devoured "Minha Formacao" (My Formation), a memoir by 19th century abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco.

"As I read it I started thinking again about the central, the key aspect to grasp the phenomenon of Brazil, which is race," Veloso says in fluent English. "I wanted other people to listen to what he had written. Because in fact what we need to talk about in Brazil is a second abolition [of slavery], and he was one of the first people to see this."

Spend time in the company of Caetano Veloso, the 60-year-old thinker-troubadour of this country, and you realize that ideas are what drive him. Talk to him about a book, about the thinking behind an especially complex musical composition, and you will see that famous, seductive gleam return to his eyes.

Once upon a time, before he became a pop star, he was a gaunt and restless young man who studied philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia. He dreamed of being a painter or a filmmaker.

Since then, Veloso has made a career of creating art from his country's vast encyclopedia of sound and imagery. Using his prodigious talents as a songwriter, he has transformed this cultural raw material into a musical oeuvre all his own, music that questions, and delights in, all the contradictions that come with being Brazilian.

What's more, he's stayed in the vanguard of Brazilian music for three decades, winning a Grammy in 2000 for his critically acclaimed album "Livro" and another the following year for co-producing an album by his childhood musical hero, Joao Gilberto.

And Veloso is wildly prolific. In the past three years, he has released the soundtrack to "Orfeu" (an updated version of "Black Orpheus"); a homage to Federico Fellini inspired by the music of Nino Rota; the two-disc "Noites do Norte" recording; "Live in Bahia" (another double-CD package); and his latest, a collaboration with fellow artist-thinker Jorge Mautner.

"There is no way to talk about Brazilian music without thinking about Caetano, without talking about Caetano's generation," says Antonio Miguel, music critic at the Rio daily newspaper O Globo. In the late 1960s, Veloso helped lead a movement that revitalized Brazilian popular music by infusing it with a potpourri of British pop, regional music from a variety of Latin American sub- cultures and a big dose of hippie attitude.

"Over the decades he's kept on reinventing himself," Miguel continues. "He's always incorporating new musical elements without losing his essence, which is that of a young guy from the interior of Bahia, and of a man with a great sense of culture, and a passion for popular culture."

A musical revolutionary

Veloso catches sight of the book a reporter has brought to the interview, a review copy of the English translation of his memoir, "Tropical Truth." Thanks to the vagaries of the American publishing business, The Times has received a copy before he has.

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