[PLEASE NOTE: Most of the music tracks in this post contain a link that will open a new window in YouTube]
Bahia, the largest of Brazil’s Northeast states, is also the bastion of Afro-Brazilian culture, rich in history and marvelous music. Two contemporaries, children of the 50’s and 60’s and friends since college, have forged their unique musical paths, but came together in Brazil’s musical rejoinder to the military dictatorship that ruled in the 60’s and early 70’s. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are giants of Musica Popular Brasiliera (MPB).
Together they were the creative fire behind the 1968 album Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis, which is considered the musical manifesto of the Tropicália movement. Tropicália, AKA Tropicalismo, was a Brazilian artistic revolution of the late 1960s that swept through every form of creative endeavor. It melded the traditional with the avant-garde, and invited foreign influences into the mix. The recording was a thorough reflection of the movement. The album also criticized the military dictatorship that took power unlawfully in 1964. Caetano writes of this time in his 2002 book: Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.
As a result, one year later, both Veloso and Gil were arrested and jailed. They were released several months later and were forced into exile in London. The continued to play music and record, Veloso especially writing many songs in English.
Caetano Veloso’s records from this period are filled with the deep emotion of a brasileiro lonely and yearning for his home. In the song “Maria Bethânia” (Veloso’s sister, a beloved singer in her own right) from the 1971 album “Caetano Veloso,” he seems to be castigating her for complicity with the military government, perhaps just via inaction, but the chorus turns tender, as he entreats her to “write me a letter.” The song ends with percussive, almost angry vocalization, a violin wailing behind it.
Transa was released in 1972, and is was the last recording from exile. “You Don’t Know Me” is one of Caetano’s most popular songs from this much loved album.
Caetano Veloso was born in Santo Amaro da Purificação, Bahia in 1942, one of seven children. The arts in general and music in particular captured his interest early in life. He moved to Salvador in his late teens, where his musical idol João Gilberto resided. He moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1965 with his sister Maria Bethânia. and began a recording contract with Phillips Records.
Upon his return to Brazil in 1972, he rose to become one of Brazil’s musical superstars, but enjoys only a modest (if fervent) following in Europe and the U.S. He has nearly 60 recordings to his name, and has won more awards than any other Brazilian musician, including nine Latin Grammys, and two Grammys, In 2012, he was named Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year. He is sometimes ranked as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. For many, his signature song is the beautiful ballad “Voce E Linda” from 1983.
Caetano Veloso continues to engage himself and his audience, even in his 70’s. New music emerges regularly, and in performance, his joy in playing is palpably evident in his stage presence. From his 2004 Live At Carnegie Hall with David Byrne, the Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers.”
Gilberto Gil was born in Bahia’s capital Salvador in 1942, but he spent much of his early years in the small town of Ituaçu in the countryside. His family returned to Salvador in 1950. Gil developed a deep interest in music when very young, and his mother supported this by sending to him to music school in Salvador for four years when he was ten. In high school he joined a band as accordionist, a gig that lasted for 3 years. He met Caetano Veloso at the Federal University of Bahia when they were both 21, and quickly became friends and musical collaborators in the Tropicália movement.
Gilberto moved to Sao Paulo in 1965, and scored a hit with Elis Regina’s recording of his song “Louvação.” This was also the title of his debut album in 1967. Gil also made several recordings while in exile. His eponymous release in 1971 featured a lovely cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”
Like his best friend, Gilberto Gil has also released over 50 albums across his career. His music defies categorization, ranging through bosso nova through reggae and rock. He recently made a record of forró music, the traditional country music of Bahia. My favorite album of his is 1997’s Quanta, a subsequent live recording of which won Grammy Award for Best World Music Album the following year. Below are two tunes from the studio version of Quanta, the title track (with Milton Nascimento joining in) and “Estrella” that illustrate his brilliance as songwriter and musician.
When he was two and half years old, Gil says, “I told my mother I was going to become a musician or a president of my country.” No presidency yet, but Gilberto Gil served as Brazil’s Minister of Culture throughout the terms of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
In 1993, Gil and Veloso commemorated the 1968 release of Tropicália: ou Panis et Circencis with Tropicália2, from which we close with their cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow.”
In the final installment of Música do Coração, we’ll turn our attention to some of the female voices of Musica Popular Brasiliera.
Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages