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Although Tropicalia, Brazil’s artistic revolution, officially lasted only two years (1967-1969), its experimental panache still lingers in the music of Caetano Veloso, one of the movement’s most beloved figures. His latest album, Livro, came out last year in Brazil, nearly 30 years after the 57-year-old Bahian artist was imprisoned, along with fellow Tropicalia superhero Gilberto Gil, by Brazil’s military junta, which viewed their intellectual avant-gardism and social commentary as a political threat. Shortly after the artists’ release, the two staged a rowdy series of rock concerts as an act of defiance, which eventually led to their exile.
Now that Veloso carries the status of cultural war hero and iconic pop superstar, his concerts aren’t nearly as confrontational as the ones that first made him a cult figure. By comparison, his sold-out performance last Thursday at the Warner Theatre—his first in D.C.—was an elegant, bourgeois affair. And Veloso looked more like a college professor than an underground guerrilla, decked out in a chic ultra-tailored suit and carrying a copy of Verdade Tropical, his new memoir of the Tropicalia years. Gone are the plastic costumes, the wigged-out psychedelia, and his apparent need to shock. Only during the performance of the jarring “Doideca,” whose lyrics make reference to Chicago’s black gay scene, did the show summon the deviance of yesteryear. The song’s swirling 12-tone note sequence betrayed its John Cage influences, and the insistent drum ‘n’ bass-inspired rhythms and the bursts of flashing blue lights evoked the energy of techno.
The concert did, however, retain Tropicalia’s propensity for assimilating vanguard styles of other genres without forgoing its own rich tradition of bossa nova, samba-cancao (“song samba”), forro, and frevo. Whereas psychedelia, campy performance art, and French dadaism informed earlier Tropicalia, Livro subversively nods at electronica and drum ‘n’ bass while echoing vintage bossa nova’s billowing qualities. The sensual samba rhythms of the four-member percussion ensemble and brief blasts of electric guitar were insulated by manicured orchestrations of cello, trumpet, soprano saxophone, and trombone, which created a bright color scheme like those of Gil Evans and Oliver Nelson. Tropicalia also encompassed film and visual arts, and the ethereal staging and tight choreography alluded to the phrase “organic architecture,” which was used to describe the 1967 installation by visual artist Helio Oiticica from which Tropicalia took its name.
The movement’s worldwide appeal and, more specifically, Veloso’s artistry are grounded both in the singer’s surreal imagery—which is heavily inspired by the “concrete poetry” of Haroldo de Campos and Decio Pignatari—and in his delicate rendering of ballads, which recall the detached splendor of the legendary Joao Gilberto, who epitomized the essence of bossa nova. To Veloso, social upheaval, carnival dancers, and his love of books are equally worthy of poetic adjudication. The melodic sweetness of the Portuguese language is nigh inescapable, so even when Veloso sang such inflammatory songs as “Nao Enche” which in English translates as “Piss Off,” atop the jubilant samba grooves, the song’s political urgencies went down like fine wine.
Veloso disclosed Tropicalia’s high intellectualism whenever he gave insights into his songs. Before he sang the haunting “Manhata,” he enlightened the audience about the inspiration for its title, a 19th-century poem about the New York Stock Exchange. When introducing “Doideca,” he advocated greater radio airplay for 20th-century classical music. Citing the language barrier, he refrained from reading parts of Verdade Tropical, although he was given to waving the book around in front of the audience.
But for all of his braininess, Veloso emitted a smoldering sex appeal that’s a world apart from the manufactured machismo of Ricky Martin, and more intriguing in its ambiguity than, say, the in-your-face posturing of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince. His stage personas were nearly as malleable as the Tropicalia aesthetic. One minute, he was a suave crooner; moments later, he was a jovial samba-shimmying waif on such irresistible singalongs like “How Beautiful Could a Being Be,” a number that also had each person in his ensemble scoot front and center for a little solo dance.
Veloso departed for a time from the heavily percussive material of Livro to delve into the stirring medley of classic Brazilian pop songs highlighted on his recently released live album, Prenda Minha (now available only as an import). During this interlude, he evoked the spirit of the MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) Nationalists, the progenitors of another, more artistically exclusive cultural movement that predated Tropicalia only by a couple of years. Delivering heartfelt renditions of classic Gilberto Gil tunes like “Drao” and “Bem Dervagar” and his own “Terra,” Veloso carried the stripped-down renderings almost entirely with his tender falsetto, which he matched in elegance by his simpatico acoustic guitar strumming.
Veloso gave ample room to his 11-piece ensemble to showcase its improvisational guile. Members of the horn section delivered some noteworthy solos, and the four-member samba-drum ensemble nearly stole the show. The drummers’ loosely choreographed dance steps and group interplay seemed to contrast sharply with the more mannered poise of the string and horn section. In its way, the dichotomy subtly illustrated the higher/lower-class paradigm as well as the aesthetic differences of the rootsy samba rhythms and the refined ecstasy of bossa nova. Veloso seemed to revel in the dualism; he sometimes danced to the harder rhythms in a funny, robotic manner but swayed seductively, in more contoured gestures, to the ballads. CP