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.

In broad outline, Tropical Truth’s opening chapters counterpose two attitudes towards Americanization. On the one hand, a subaltern acceptance, whether from a 1950s rock’n’roller or a foreign minister—Caetano is referring to Juracy Magalhães, who famously declared, ‘What’s good for the United States is good for Brazil’. On the other, a revolt that is embedded in the local context, but open to the world: the experience of Santo Amaro can help to assess imported novelties, while foreign innovations can be used to confront provincial narrowness. The uninhibited openness of this approach—refusing to grant pre-eminence to the metropolis, but aware of the limitations of small-town life—is a considerable intellectual feat. In part it is due to the independent spirit of a non-conformist boy, who has great ambitions but is not prepared to abandon his primary universe. ‘I remained convinced that if I wanted to see life change, it had to change from within—it had to start with Santo Amaro’, Caetano writes. Yet there is another aspect to his iconoclasm which also needs to be registered here. At a certain point, Caetano decides to tell his family of practising Catholics that he does not believe in God. However, ‘I did not make an official announcement, or even a clear statement, as I had heard my brothers say that this would be a terrible blow to my Aunt Ju’. This mixture of rupture and attachment—or, later, provocation and the desire for conciliation—will be a recurrent theme of the book.footnote6

The Santo Amaro that needs shaking up—both oppressive and beloved—is patriarchal, Catholic, mestizo; conservative without fanaticism, though with ex-colonial traces. The boy who is different—doesn’t believe in God, opposes sexual taboos and masculine prerogatives, wears odd socks, won’t resign himself to the surrounding poverty, intervenes in his younger sister’s education, likes to sing Portuguese fados, full of verbal arabesques, and doesn’t see why black girls should straighten their hair—is a carrier of unrest. His dissatisfactions are inter-related: questions of race, musical taste, sex, class, family, backwardness, all have a bearing on the social formation as a whole. Caetano assumes this vanguard role of criticism and change from early on. As an aspiring reformer, first of his family, then the town, before long of Brazilian culture, he naturally would not want to be confused with kids whose greatest ambition was to enter a rock’n’roll contest.