A true heavyweight, Caetano Veloso is a pop musician/poet/filmmaker/political activist whose stature in the pantheon of international pop musicians is on par with that of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Lennon/McCartney. And even the most cursory listen to his recorded output since the 1960s proves that this is no exaggeration.
Born in 1942 in Santo Amaro da Purificacao in Brazil's Bahia region, Veloso absorbed the rich Bahian musical heritage that was influenced by Caribbean, African, and North American pop music, but it was the cool, seductive bossa nova sound of João Gilberto (a Brazilian superstar in the '50s) that formed the foundation of Veloso's intensely eclectic pop. Following his sister Maria Bethânia (a very successful singer in her own right) to Rio in the early '60s, the 23-year-old Veloso won a lyric-writing contest with his song "Um Dia" and was quickly signed to the Philips label. It wasn't long before Veloso (along with other Brazilian stars such as Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil) represented the new wave of MPB (musica popular brasileira), the all-purpose term used by Brazilians to describe their pop music. Bright, ambitious, creative, and given to an unapologetically leftist political outlook, Veloso would soon become a controversial figure in Brazilian pop. By 1967, he had become aligned with Brazil's burgeoning hippie movement and, along with Gilberto Gil, created a new form of pop music dubbed Tropicalia. Arty and eclectic, Tropicalia retained a bossa nova influence, adding bits and pieces of folk-rock and art rock to a stew of loud electric guitars, poetic spoken word sections, and jazz-like dissonance. Although not initially well received by traditional pop-loving Brazilians (both Veloso and Gil faced the wrath of former fans similar to the ire provoked by Dylan upon going electric), Tropicalia was a breathtaking stylistic synthesis that signaled a new generation of daring, provocative, and politically outspoken musicians who would remake the face of MPB.
This was a cultural shift not without considerable dangers. Since 1964, Brazil had been ruled by a military dictatorship (a government that would rule for 20 years) that did not look kindly upon such radical music made by such radical musicians. Almost immediately there were government-sanctioned attempts to circumscribe the recordings and live performances of many Tropicalistas. Censorship of song lyrics as well as radio and television playlists (Veloso was a regular TV performer on Brazilian variety shows) was common. Just as common was the persecution of performers openly critical of the government, and Veloso and Gil were at the top of the hit list. Both men spent two months in prison for "anti-government activity" and another four months under house arrest. After a defiant 1968 performance together, Veloso and Gil were forced into exile in London. Veloso continued to record abroad and write songs for other Tropicalia stars, but he would not be allowed to return to Brazil permanently until 1972.
Although his commitment to politicized art never wavered, Veloso went from being a very popular Brazilian singer/songwriter to becoming the center of Brazilian pop over the next 20 years. For decades he kept up a grueling pace of recording, producing, and performing and, in the mid-'70s, added writing to his résumé, publishing a book of articles, poems, and song lyrics covering a period from 1965 to 1976. In the '80s, Veloso became increasingly better known outside of Brazil, touring in Africa, Paris, and Israel, interviewing Mick Jagger for Brazilian TV, and in 1983, playing America for the first time. (He sold out three nights at the Public Theater in New York with shows that were rapturously reviewed by then-New York Times pop critic Robert Palmer.) This steady increase in popularity occurred despite the fact that Veloso's records were extremely hard to find in American record stores, and when one could locate them, they were expensive Brazilian imports. Still, the buzz on Veloso grew, thanks in part to Palmer, Robert Christgau, and other critics writing about pop music outside of the contiguous 48 states. But Veloso never seemed bothered by his low profile outside of Brazil, and his work over the years, even after he became a more well-known international pop figure, remained challenging and intriguing without being modified for American (or anyone else's) tastes -- that is, Veloso sang in English (most of his recorded work is sung in Portuguese) when he felt like it, not because he had to sell more records in America. He hung out with fairly trendy New York musicians (Brazilian native Arto Lindsay and David Byrne), but never made a big deal about it. Veloso was one of the rare musicians who was popular, sold a lot of records (at least in Brazil), and was a certifiable superstar, but never self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, or overly concerned with how hip he was.
Even when he approached the age of normal retirement, Veloso showed no signs of slowing down. After his 1989 recording Estrangeiro (produced by Ambitious Lovers' Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer) became his first non-import release in America, Veloso's stateside profile increased significantly, reaching its highest point with the release of 1993's Tropicália 2, recorded with Gilberto Gil. A brilliant record that made a slew of American Top Ten lists, Tropicália 2 proved once again that Veloso's talent (as well as Gil's) had not diminished a bit. His early-'90s recordings, Circuladô, Fina Estampa, and Circuladô ao Vivo (the latter of which includes versions of Michael Jackson's "Black and White" and Dylan's "Jokerman"), were uniformly wonderful, and in the summer of 1997 Veloso embarked on his largest American tour to date.
Two years later, Veloso was the subject of an extensive, flattering portrait in Spin on the eve of the American release of his acclaimed 1998 album, Livro. In 1999, he released Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta, a tribute to auteur Federico Fellini and his wife, actress Giulietta Masina. He also won a Grammy for the Best MPB Album for 1998's Livro at the first annual Latin Grammy Awards. At the beginning of the new millennium, Veloso delivered a live bossa nova album in collaboration with poet Jorge Mautner, the spirited Noites do Norte, and the songbook album A Foreign Sound. In 2006, Veloso returned with Cê, a typically diverse and interesting album co-produced by his son Moreno. Veloso took some time out to tour and begin another book; he released Zii e Zie in 2009 on Nonesuch through World Circuit. Live at Carnegie Hall, a record documenting a very special collaborative concert he and longtime friend David Byrne gave in 2004 as part of Veloso's residency at the renowned venue, was issued in 2012, a year that also saw the release of Abraçaço, the third part of the trilogy of studio albums -- Cê and Zii e Zie being the first two -- that placed the artist in the company of much younger players. The album was issued in North America by Nonesuch in March of 2014. The following year Veloso and Gilberto Gil embarked on a major world tour together called "Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música" which translates to "Two Friends, a Century of Music." With each artist celebrating a remarkable 50-year career, the tour was commemorated by a live album recorded in their native Brazil called Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live. The extensive double album was released in April 2016 by Nonesuch. ~ John Dougan