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Caetano Veloso: Classic Brazilian Export

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We don’t have much in common with Brazil. Maybe it’s all that political oppression, but for one thing, Brazilians have a rep for being passionate, fiery, alive. For another, while in the U.S., we may respect artists as national treasures, how often do we think of them as heroes?

Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso is a bona fide political hero in his homeland. With just one song “Tropicalia,” Veloso spearheaded a dissident movement in the late 1960s, called “tropicalismo,” which led to his exile during the country’s military dictatorship. By way of explanation, Veloso says that during those years, “Brazil was very serious about its music.”

*Very* darn serious. Imagine if “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the catalyst for an actual political movement in this country. What if Kurt Cobain was exiled for writing anthemic rock? Sure, we have our “hardcore” subcultures that nourish dissent, a portal to them found through punk rock record labels, like Dischord. Still it’s almost impossible for me to imagine any type of American music as a nationally recognized political movement.

To add to my confusion, I couldn’t believe the total adoration of the San Francisco audience for Veloso when he took the stage at the Masonic Auditorium Friday night. In the warm glow of a good reception to his 2 CD set “Live in Bahia,” and the English translation of his memoir “Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil,” Veloso slid lithely into the spotlight and with his messianic crotch-grabbing jungle cat moves, he simply put, rocked.

I call Veloso’s set the “give-a-little-sugar-give-a-little-salt” approach. He used the tool of juxtaposition to such effect, Dada artists around the world would gleam with paternalistic pride. The Brazilian contingent were happy to sing along with covers by Joao Gilberto and Brazilian pop artist LuLu Santos. We all mellowed with Veloso’s languid delivery of “Stars Fell on Alabama,” which convinced me that Veloso channels the ghost of Billie Holiday. But lest we be pacified into the romantic swells of bossa nova long songs, Veloso steered us into his experiemental ‘difficult listening’ territory every fourth or fifth.

Veloso’s use of both vocal and instrumental dynamic range controlled the crowd like a cat dancer with a kitten. Hear a pin drop as his voice fades to whisper; Hear the crowd roar in a frenzy as the rhythm of the bongos section fills up the auditorium after ebbing off into a barely pulsing beat.

Flash to the present. The Brazilian dictatorship has faded into the woodwork, Brazil is days away from electing a progressive presidential candidate, and “tropicalismo” is woven into Brazil’s culture, as well as ours. (For instance, The New York Times honored Veloso as “one of the greatest songwriters of the century.” Beck cites Veloso and strangelings “Os Mutantes” as an influence).

At 60, Veloso is peaking and as outspoken as ever. The love of music, he says, ever more intense. With his courageous cajones and massive talent, Veloso is the classic Brazilian export.

For more on Veloso see here.

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