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.footnote1 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.footnote2Tropical 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.

The memoir, covering Caetano’s early formation, fame, imprisonment by the military regime, exile and return to Brazil, is also a chronicle of tropicalismo, the iconoclastic musical and counter-cultural force that flourished at the height of the dictatorship—the landmark collaborative album Tropicália, or Bread and Circuses was released in 1968—written in virtuoso prose style. The inter-relations between private life, public stance and artistic creation—the cultural-political challenges that face a pop star in a Third World setting—lend a structuring unity to the whole. It would be less surprising to find a memoir of this sort written by a practitioner of ‘high culture’—an architect, a poet, a conductor. As Caetano remarks, ‘that clear distinction between classical and popular musicians robs the latter of the right (and obligation) to address themselves to serious cultural issues’.footnote3 Yet Tropical Truth also demonstrates the intellectual emancipation of Brazilian popular music, as a self-reflective component of the contemporary scene; its discussion of the aesthetic and social choices confronting musicians raises these questions to the level of critical artistic practice, without abandoning or compromising his mass audience. The interest of this difficult, perhaps unsustainable, position speaks for itself.

In Brazil, as in other countries of the periphery, two senses of the term ‘popular’ co-exist: an older meaning, signifying illiteracy and social exclusion, and a newer one, involving the mass market and the culture industry. Since the conditions underpinning the first have not disappeared even as the second has triumphed, both are experienced together; social exclusion (the past?) and the globalized market (progress?) are not incompatible. This double sense of ‘popular’ structures the music scene more than any other; Caetano’s representation of it thus comes interwoven with a broader class reality, whose politics and aesthetics go beyond any general notion of ‘pop’. The alliance of vanguard aesthetics with the popular culture of the marginalized and illiterate has been a long-standing programme. Rehearsed by modernist circles in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s, it took shape as a larger social movement in the early 60s when, under the sign of a political radicalization verging on pre-revolution, experimentalism became a part of, and metaphor for, imminent social transformation—though with the military coup of 1964, Brazil would be steered to the right, not the left.

During this period, artistic life lost its esoteric character and became what it really is: the intervention of the imagination in social reality. Written thirty years later, Tropical Truth owes much of its affect to Caetano’s fidelity to that time, which he calls ‘remote and dated only for those intimidated by the challenges that presented themselves then, or for those justifiably afraid to rise to such challenges now’.footnote4 Yet, as we shall see, the book also reflects the moment of its composition in the late 1990s, when global capitalist ‘normalization’ was in full swing. The vivid sense of the conflicts at stake, which gives the book its exceptional scope and depth, co-exists with a more conciliatory and complacent, even mystifying, perspective; like shot silk, the writing can change its coloration depending on the point of view. Yet, as with all great realist literature, the power of the narrative’s overall composition can endow its internal contradictions with meaning, enriching the complexity of the whole.

The beautiful, Fellini-like chronicle of Caetano’s boyhood in Santo Amaro—a small town in Bahia, near Salvador—takes as its starting point the 1950s fashion for Americanization, which lent the region’s backwardness a contemporary note. The combination of provincial family life—Caetano’s father ran the local post office—with wider global trends is revealing: neither Bahia nor the large, affectionate Veloso household are as cut off from contemporary realities as might be supposed, while the latter are more complex than they are often made to seem. The chapter opens with a reminiscence of the handful of Santo Amaro teenagers ‘drawn to the American life of rock’n’roll and its style—boys in jeans and boots, girls with ponytails and chewing gum’. The author was not part of this group which, from the height of his fifteen years, he saw as neither intelligent nor interesting: ‘apart from being exotic, they seemed to me rather dull’; what alienated him was not their difference but their ‘clear sign of conformity’—the ‘impulse toward Americanization’ carried no ‘trace of rebellion’.footnote5 Though Caetano here found himself on the side of the ‘right-thinking people of Santo Amaro’—hardly a sociological category, but possibly a real one—his description of the rock’n’rollers is full of irony, very different from the nationalist stereotypes deployed against us imperialism. The imitation of American novelties does not strike him as inauthentic in itself: what matters is not the provenance of cultural models but how useful they might be for rebellion; authenticity is defined in opposition to conformity, rather than to foreignness. The problem of American influence therefore becomes one of monopoly and imposition. How should one situate oneself in relation to it, without loss of freedom—not least the freedom to avail oneself of more advanced and interesting models? The question will be taken up from many different angles, politicizing and complicating the narrative, closely interwoven with the power relations of the American century.