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New Left Review 75, May-June 2012

roberto schwarz


The Changing Hues of Caetano Veloso

The autobiography of an iconic singer-songwriter like Caetano Veloso might seem to demand a reviewer versed in musicology, and it should be said at the outset that I have no such knowledge. [1] This is a slightly shortened version of ‘Verdade Tropical: Um percurso de nosso tempo’, in Martinha versus Lucrecia: Ensaios e entrevistas, São Paulo 2012. Caetano Veloso is customarily described in the American and British media as a Brazilian Bob Dylan: a star of the 1960s and 70s, whose songs have combined radical politics and poetic lyricism, samba rhythms and electric guitar. Schwarz’s essay makes clear how wide of the mark that comparison is. Deeply marked by the country’s social divisions, the us popular music traditions of the early sixties—blues, folk, country-and-western—could not have produced a mass national-hegemonic cultural movement, with a huge following on tv, to compare with Música Popular Brasileira (mpb). In Brazil, the cultural ferment of the sixties was far more politicized. [nlr] But Caetano’s Tropical Truth struck me as a work of genuine literary interest when I first read it in 1997; and as time passed I came to feel that this memoir of the Brazilian music scene in the 60s and 70s, the moment of tropicalismo, was as important as Caetano’s songs and merited a close reading. [2] Caetano Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, New York 2002; originally published as Verdade Tropical, São Paulo 1997. Henceforth tt. Tropical Truth reads, in part, like a novel of ideas in which historical circumstances, contemporary debates and the figure of the narrator, both a protagonist and a committed intellectual, combine to offer new insights into a key juncture of national life. As in the best realist prose, the chemistry between the deliberate designs of the author and the latent structures of the narrated material ensures that the composition is more than the sum of its parts. Caetano has a gift for pen portraiture, and his characterizations of fellow artists—sometimes spiced by professional rivalry—constitute a lively contemporary gallery, in which the figures interact to produce a vivid panorama of the ‘64 generation’ as a whole: his sister Maria Bethânia, a famous singer in her own right; the film-maker, Glauber Rocha; musicians like Chico Buarque and Caetano’s close collaborator, Gilberto Gil; the theatre director, Augusto Boal; the modernist poet, Augusto de Campos; and many more.

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Roberto Schwarz, ‘Political Iridescence’, NLR 75: £3

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