At age 72, Caetano Veloso remains a one-of-a-kind figure in popular music. A singer, songwriter, poet, filmmaker, writer and cultural provocateur, Veloso first made his mark in his native Brazil in the late 1960s as one of the leaders of Tropicalia, a movement that embraced an idea they called cultural anthropophagi. Rather than fighting what they saw as expressions of cultural imperialism — whether pop art or rock ’n’ roll — proponents proposed instead to absorb them and spit them out in Brazilian form.
Veloso‘s music has since addressed issues such as national identity and slavery, while embracing conventional pop, samba, bossa nova, hip-hop, reggae and even styles such as tango and bolero.
In his recent albums Cê (2006), Zii e Zie (2009) and the Latin Grammy-winning Abraçaço (2012), with his son Moreno Veloso as co-producer, Veloso took yet another turn by working with rock trio Banda Cê and choosing a jagged, stripped-down sound. In doing so, Veloso seems to have circled back to the in-your-face attitude and urgency of his tropicalista days while continuing to push forward.
The Rhythm Foundation presents Veloso’s final tour with Banda Cê on Saturday at the Fillmore Miami Beach at the Jackie Gleason Theater. This interview was conducted via email in Spanish.
When you started working with Banda Cê, did you have a specific sound in mind, or a certain group or artist, or was it something that emerged from your interaction as a band?
The sound was born of the interaction in the rehearsals. But I had something more or less defined in my head. And that emerged from the observations that [guitarist and producer] Pedro Sá and I made about rock in general and rock in Brazil. [We] imagined a rock group for which I would write songs, create the arrangements and sing on the record, as a front man. But it would be with my voice electronically altered and without my name on the cover or the credits. We would invent a fictitious name. It would have been both a joke and an experiment.
I started to write songs for this and, at the same time, my 18-year marriage came to an end. The songs became more and more personal, and we decided to make a record with my voice under my name. My son Moreno, who produced the recording, rejected distorting my voice.
Among the bands Pedro and I discussed I should highlight were The Pixies at the BBC. I had great admiration for and interest in Nirvana and the first Arctic Monkeys album. And there is the history of the relationship between tropicalistas and rock and also the Brazilian rock of the ’80s and ’90s. But our true sound was born in rehearsals.
How has working with Banda Cê affected the content and sound of your music?
The band was created in 2006 to record some new songs I had written. I had the arrangements in my head and asked Pedro (who was my choice as guitarist) to suggest a bass player and a drummer, and he mentioned Ricardo Dias Gomes and Marcelo Callado. They were 10 years younger than Pedro, and very knowledgeable about both new sounds in rock and Brazilian song traditions.
The first rehearsals were a test, to see if the group would fit with my ideas. They not only understood immediately what I was saying, but they also brought ideas to complement my dreams. The change in the content and sound in my music was already in my imagination (and the songs I had written for Cê). The boys made those dreams real and brought change to my change.
Cê, Zii e Zie and Abraçaço are always called a trilogy by critics. Did you think of them that way?
I didn’t think of a trilogy when we did Cê. Afterward, while I was on the Cê tour with the band, I was certain I was going to record another album or albums with the trio. When we started recording Abraçaço, I realized it was our third CD and it was closing a cycle. I already wanted to do something different. The term “trilogy” I just accepted.
Through all the different styles and ensembles in your career, the constant is a kind of “Caetanoized, Brazilianized” sound. Is it a conscious continuation of the tropicalista idea of cultural anthropophagi, or you putting an artistic, personal stamp on your music?
It’s my voice. My personal voice and the voice of my country, my region, my social class. It’s my mulatto voice of the lower class from the interior of Bahia. I don’t think about anthropophagi any longer.
You once said that bossa nova “was and is an aggressive esthetic movement, a historical gesture of great violence.” That seems to contradict the image and sound most people associate with bossa nova. Could you elaborate?
The emergence of João Gilberto in Brazil in 1959 was a scandal. His album Chega de Saudade was like an atomic bomb on the Brazilian cultural scene. To sing without an operatic voice, without any apparent drama, without conventional masculinity, [accompanying himself] with a guitar that broke the steady beat, [singing] the first optimistic love lyrics in Brazilian song (perhaps in Latin American song), written in a colloquial style refined by the modernist tradition, it all represented a courageous gesture.
But young people identified with it, and the influence of bossa nova reached all social classes, even the “ escolas de samba“ (popular samba schools). It was that cultural violence in bossa nova that the tropicalistas found inspiring.
Speaking of subversive music, samba was actively persecuted in the 1920s. You see bossa nova as subversive. Is there any music these days that you see as subversive?
Bossa nova was scandalously subversive in Brazil. And the fact that it inverted the “center-periphery” relationship [in global culture], going from influenced to influencer of jazz and pop, is a sign of its subversive dimension at a global level. I believe The Beatles were subversive. Bob Marley. Astor Piazzolla. Prince. And then there are subversives within the subversion: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, The Clash and so many others.
Today there is too much information, and it’s very difficult to concentrate on this or that figure or group of figures. Hip-hop is a subversive view. James Blake is a musician who brings change. The most recent album by Kanye West is amazingly experimental, which shows you the subversive power of rap. We have Antonio Zambujo, who brought cool to fado. And Pedro Miranda, who brought clean singing to samba carioca. There are many things that challenge conservatism.
You’ve said that on this tour you would not be singing old hits or songs. At this point in your life and career, is it easier or harder to ignore the past and look ahead?
It’s the same.