How Brazil's Caetano Veloso Went from Renegade to Musical Idol

PHOTO: Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso is being honored as the Person of the Year at the 2012 Latin Grammy Awards.

When imagined by American critics, the most frequent cliché used about the legendary 70-year-old singer Caetano Veloso is that he is the Bob Dylan of Brazil. In that case, the best Dylan song to associate with Veloso would be "Forever Young," because Veloso is one of the most restlessly creative, forward-looking musicians of our time.

His last three albums, , Zii e Zii, and the forthcoming Abraçaço (to be released in Brazil next month, with a worlwide release to follow) are edgy rock albums recorded with musicians a generation younger than Veloso, and this fall, Universal UK released a tribute to him featuring artists like Beck, Jorge Drexler, Seu George, and Devandra Banhart.

Brazilian music is widely misunderstood not only among Anglophones but even Spanish-speakers, since its language, Portuguese, despite its obvious Romantic melodiousness, is not easily translatable to the casual listener. The five most popular songs listed on iTunes for Veloso, like "Cucurrucucu Paloma" from the famous scene in Almodóvar's Talk to Her or "Voce e Linda" can give you the idea that his music is just something you'd hear in a Starbucks. But Veloso, who is to be honored November 14 as the 2012 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, is at the core of a revolution in music that still reverberates today.

Veloso, who has released 33 studio albums and 17 live albums and has contributed to several other soundtracks, compilations, and other artists' albums, had his beginnings as a young musician entranced by the music of his youth, the bossa nova while yearning to go in a radically different direction with his own.

On the surface, bossa nova appeared to be a mellow re-interpretation of his country's national music, the samba, through the removal of its big batucada percussion sound. But for Veloso and his generation, which included major stars like Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Veloso's sister Maria Bethania, bossa nova was a new kind of jazz-influenced blues.

Veloso, writing in his memoir Tropical Truth said that bossa nova's first star singer-composer, Joao Gilberto, used a "musically challenging guitar beat" that made his "vocal phrasing swing," igniting "the combustible elements of a revolution."

Veloso also revered the influence of American jazz artist Chet Baker, whose "androgynous sound" stirred his desire to live at the edge of gender boundaries. Tropical Truth narrates how Veloso, who grew up in Salvador de Bahia, on Brazil's northern, Caribbean-like coast, absorbed rock and roll through figures like Elvis Presley, whose image he felt "suggested a cross-dressed Katy Jurado."

The challenge for Veloso and his peers was to create something new that embodied rock and roll's spirit of rebellion while remaining steadfastly Brazilian. "Following bossa nova meant making something just as courageous as bossa nova was," Veloso told me in an interview several years ago. "We wanted to remind everybody that rock and roll was present in Brazil. We wanted something else, and that was Tropicália."

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