Marty Lipp talks with Caetano Veloso about his 'foreign sound.'
Shy, yet provocative; sentimental, yet cerebral, Brazil's Caetano Veloso makes music that is both simple and sophisticated; usually lovely and occasionally harsh. In short, he is impossible to summarize easily.
This month seems to be the crescendo of his growing buzz in the collective American ear. He has just released an English-language album and did a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, including one with David Byrne that will air in the fall on National Public Radio. All this is on top of last year's efforts, which included a performance of a song from "Frida" on the Academy Awards show, releasing a "Best of" album and publishing an English version of "Tropical Truth," his memoir of Brazil's tropicalismo movement of the 1970s.
Veloso's career started in 1967 with Domingo, an album that showed him to be a disciple of the whispered beauty and understated rhythms of bossa nova. Veloso soon, though, was at the vanguard of tropicalismo, a loose-knit cabal of musical omnivores who feasted on everything from American psychedelia to hick music from the Brazil's hard-scrabble hinterlands. Tropicalismo's iconoclasm angered both the right and left; Brazil's then-military dictatorship was threatened enough to arrest Veloso and send him into exile in London for two years.
In recent years, the 62-year-old Veloso, instead of fading into irrelevance, has created some of his best and most innovative work. Last year's "Best of" on Nonesuch culls only from the third act of his long career, but it's certainly a good place to start for the curious. Those interested in the source material should seek out his 1997 album Livro (Nonesuch), one of my favorite albums. It brilliantly arranges a cool brass sound over hand-slapped Afro-Brazilian drums. "Fina Estampa" is his tribute to Spanish-language songs from his youth, re-created as a gorgeous, romantic album done in dark velvety hues.
Like Veloso's albums of his own compositions, his latest, A Foreign Sound, is a collection of American songs that softly swings, but occasionally adds some dissonant salt to cut the sweet sentimentality. He interprets Cole Porter and the Gershwins, but also includes songs from Nirvana, Talking Heads and the 1980s no-wave band DNA.
Although Veloso initially dismissed rock 'n' roll as a youth, he came to appreciate its fire and spirit, even if it was less sophisticated than the Tin Pan Alley standards he revered. Commenting on how progressive, if sometimes pompous, rock was reinvigorated by punk, he said, "the bad taste of good taste was destroyed by the good taste of bad taste."
Unlike David Byrne's Beleza Tropical, which was meant to introduce Brazilian music to U.S. audiences, Caetano said the purpose of his album was "more to comment than present." He said he "wasn't cold enough" to cut more from the 22-song album, noting his criteria for including songs were complicated, ranging from his excitement about performing them to their capacity for ironic commentary on the musical interchange between America and Brazil.
It was just a coincidence that he assembled an all-American album just as there was a growing of anti-American feeling around the world, Veloso said, adding "that only made me feel more like doing it...because when you approach songs you have to feel free."
Veloso said he was at times intimidated by the power of American music in the world. "But I tried to forget about power," he said, "and instead think about sensitivity and intelligence."
Like its creator, A Foreign Sound is no simple celebrant of American music. It is like a soundtrack to a thesis, one which seeks to illuminate the various facets of Brazilians' feelings toward American music: reverence, amusement, puzzlement.
Making a distinction between the music and the country itself, Veloso concludes his liner notes by saying, "People all over the world would like to find a way of thanking American popular music for having made their lives and their music richer and more beautiful. Many try. So do I."
- Marty Lipp
More RootsWorld interviews