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Brazil by Bus

Don Thrasher

Brazilian singer and composer Caetano Veloso has been called alternately Brazil’s answer to Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Bob Marley. While these comparisons provide a good indication of the 62-year-old legend’s cultural stature in his country, they don’t accurately capture everything he has achieved.

Veloso is responsible for bringing intellectualism and politics to Brazilian popular music in the 60s as one of the spearheads of the tropicalista movement. Veloso and his compatriots Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and the members of Os Mutantes were seen as social agitators at a time when Brazil was under the military dictatorship of Artur da Costa e Silva. The musicians’ radical approach was greeted with confusion and anger from both the student left and conservative right. Unlike groups that were either fiercely traditional or simply copied the musical styles of the United States or the United Kingdom, Veloso and the other tropicalismo acts mixed a variety of Brazilian styles with elements from rock n’ roll, jazz and R&B and injected it with a heavy dose of political discourse.

Tropicalista concerts and television programs were provocative affairs that combined music, performance art and poetry to create vibrant spectacles that challenged audiences to think for themselves. The fascist government was not receptive to such overt protests and in the last days of 1968, Veloso and Gil were imprisoned without trial or being formally charged. The two musicians spent two months in prison, followed by four months of house arrest. In the summer of 1969 they were exiled from Brazil and relocated to England, where they remained for nearly three years.

Veloso returned to Brazil in 1972 a cultural hero and entered into a period of extreme creativity. Today, with more than two dozen albums to his credit, he is a respected elder statesman and regarded as one of Brazil’s greatest musical exports. But in the United States he remains a cult figure. While he has occasionally sung in English instead of his melodious Portuguese, his new studio album, A Foreign Sound, is Veloso’s first all-English language release. The 22-song CD cuts several broad swaths across the history of recorded music in the 20th Century, from the 20s of Irving Berlin through the 90s of Nirvana.

In a way, A Foreign Sound is Veloso’s confused but heartfelt love letter to the United States. The album reveals the depth and diversity of American music as filtered through the eyes and ears of this knowledgeable outsider. The album includes versions of Stevie Wonder’s If It’s Magic,” the calypso classic Jamaica Farewell” by Brooklyn-native Irving Lord Burgess” Burgie and Arthur Hamilton’s Cry Me a River,” most recently a hit for Justin Timberlake.

Veloso’s sexually ambiguous take on The Man I Love” puts a new spin on the tune written by George and Ira Gershwin in 1924. Feelings,” the sappy ballad sung by countless crooners, is rejuvenated in the hands of this master stylist. The tender, string-laden version is dedicated to former Talking Heads leader David Byrne, who has been a vocal supporter of Brazilian music since the 80s. Byrne also is honored in a cover of The Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers,” a cautionary tale about a post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve who whimsically ruminate over the good old days of honky tonks, Dairy Queens and 7-11 stores.

The most overtly political song on the disc is a hip-hop flavored version of It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s song of abuse and betrayal is given new light in George W. Bush’s America, especially lines like even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked,” with a killer’s pride, security / it blows the minds most bitterly” and temptation’s pages fly out the door / you follow, find yourself at war.”

Veloso has been trying to come to terms with American popular music since the tropicalista days when he was both enamored with and repulsed by Bob Dylan and the growing influence of Western entertainment on Brazilian culture. While A Foreign Sound offers more questions than answers, it is an evocative celebration of American creativity at a time when many international artists are trying to distance themselves from the United States.

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Don Thrasher, a former member of Guided By Voices, is a writer and musician based in Dayton, Ohio.
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