By Rob van Alstyne
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Brazilian music has circled in and out of fashion in the North for the last 40 years, enjoying the tentative embrace of lovers of jazz, world music, modern classical, psychedelia, and Muzak--crowds that usually keep to their own orthodoxies, or at least they did before Stereolab came along. Yet a close reading of the liner notes on scores of classic Brazilian records reveals the same musicians' names overlapping on albums that couldn't sound more dissimilar. It seems that, while much has been made of the cultural diversity firing Brazil's musical pot, the musicians themselves are a surprisingly cohesive band of polyglots whose omnivorous sensibilities transcend locale, ethnicity, and genre.
Even Rio native Antonio Carlos Jobim, the ne plus ultra of Brazilian pop, managed to pull from rural Brazilian rhythms, cool jazz, and Debussy to create the bossa nova back in 1956. Listening to his "Girl from Ipanema," a tune that has run the loop from hip to kitsch and back again, you can hear a thoroughly pre-Vietnam conception of "modern." Today Brazil's currently voguish late-Sixties answer to psychedelia--Tropicália--is sometimes taken as a revolt against the old bossa, as a reaction to the groovy-woozy world of high rollers conjured up by Jobim's 1963 hit. But the stakes were too high for the Tropicalistas to succumb to musical patricide: By 1968 totalitarianism loomed, in the form of Brazil's consolidating dictatorship, and the Trops had a broad enough vision to perceive easy-listening as an avant-garde weirder than "White Rabbit," which they loved no less.
Jobim became close to Caetano Veloso, the singer who, with Gilberto Gil, spearheaded the new movement, and it wasn't long before even candy-coated bossa stars such as Sergio Mendes became fans of the young upstarts. By 1969 admitting as much could risk exile--no easy listening there. But in the years since his own government-hastened exile in Europe in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Veloso's stature as a political pop hero in Brazil grew from Dylan to Marley proportions. Caetano, as he's known to Brazilians, is a poet and pop icon whose words and deeds command as much attention as his music. He's also a punning wordsmith, whose specific meanings are difficult to pin down. As his homeland's musical Prometheus, he is, after Jobim, perhaps its finest melodic conceptualist. And his current, first-ever tour of North America, which drops by Northrop Auditorium on Monday, backs his biggest record in years, Livro (Nonesuch), an album suffused with Bahian rhythms and experimental arrangements. It sidesteps the MOR trappings of most current Brazilian fare to emerge as Caetano's best work in two decades--no small feat.
The singer chose to kick off the tour at a recent jazz festival--the JVC, held in New York City on June 27. But Caetano's newest fans may see him more as the distant uncle of American avant-pop than some Michael Franks-type adult-contemporary jazz crooner, capable of dueling with the likes of Wayne Shorter or Flora Purim. A recent spate of reissues by Caetano's former backing band, the theater-is-life types Os Mutantes, has helped fuel interest in both him and the other Tropicalistas among those born after the 1964 coup, and inserted names like Gal Costa, Jorge Ben, and Tom Zé into indie-rock parlance. And while the Sixties revivalists in the Elephant 6 posse have successfully reclaimed the avant side of the Beatles from AOR pop, the current interest in Caetano places the singer in the experimentalist yet hummable tradition of Brian Wilson. That may sound limiting, but it at least emphasizes aspects of Caetano's work that have been ignored in recent years.
Livro looks to Caetano's sonically adventurous past--it has more in common with his Tropicália-era recordings than most of what he's made since. But it's no nostalgic exercise. Well into his late Fifties, the vocalist can still caress the upper reaches of his ecstatic tenor with no perceptible strain, as on "How Beautiful Could a Being Be," in which he wrings the single phrase (written by his son) through a carnivalesque arrangement of hand claps, percussion, and spastic guitar. (Compare this with recent performances by Wilson, who needs a second singer onstage to hit his high notes.) Caetano is primarily a songwriter, though, and has in the past sometimes fallen victim to the awkward grafting of ambitious arrangements onto his guitar lines. But Livro never forces his arranger Jaques Morelenbaum's innovative genre mixtures, which embrace sambalike rhythms and traditional Brazilian song structures while seamlessly lacing them with whatever stringed textures catch his mood. The irony is that Livro, like his Tropicalist output, sounds both older and fresher than his recent work with gifted New York-Brazilian producer Arto Lindsay. The ex-no-wave guitarist's attempts to update Caetano's samba-pop by welding it onto the kind of discordant funk pushed by Lindsay's mid-Eighties band the Ambitious Lovers will forever lock it in a skinny-tied Human League era that had already passed by the time the albums were recorded.
Fortunately, the New York concert featured none of the electronic keyboard work that has rendered much of the singer's recent material difficult to return to, though it still kept a bit of Lindsayesque skronk. Slender and dressed in a well-tailored suit, Caetano played acoustic guitar accompanied by a full horn section and four roaming Bahian percussionist-dancers. Experiencing the performer live, you can easily see why David Byrne has genuflected toward him all these years (Caetano was the cornerstone of Byrne's influential 1989 compilation of Brazilian pop, Beleza Tropicale on Luaka Bop). The old Talking Head bears a slight resemblance to Caetano, and has done some serious biting on the singer's self-consciously casual style. No, the Brazilian doesn't do the herky-jerky in a big-ass jacket, but he does conjure a deliberate, theatrical air with an economy of movement, and he soaks himself in wide-eyed irony. Only after half a set did Caetano deign to slip off his coat and cautiously roll up his shirtsleeves. And he looked two decades younger than his 56 years when he twirled his hands in birdlike movements, then leapt into agile dance. Like Livro's masterful arrangements by onstage cellist Morelenbaum, a slight gesture by Caetano can swell into joyous movement, only to slink back to stillness.
While Caetano never really dropped off the cultural map, even during his fallow periods (1994's all-Spanish Fina Espania is Brazil's biggest-selling album worldwide), his New York concert felt like an arrival of sorts. More than once he expressed incredulity that Livro is actually "selling like crazy," and he seemed genuinely gratified by the wild reception given his new material by the mostly Brazilian throng--it "shhhh-shhhhed" itself a hurricane for the tender passages. English-language pieces, such as his classic paean to his sister, "Maria Bethania"--added hastily to the setlist at the insistence of some unnamed celebrity--were received politely, but without the hootenanny. Caetano repeatedly called out to Lindsay during the show and, during the final encore, of Livro's "Pra Ninguém," demanded that he come up and play a little. The bespectacled guitarist had to fight his way through the dancers, and by the time he made it to the stage, he had about ten seconds to contribute a slap and tickle. Lindsay may not have added much, but he beamed all the same: It was the accumulation of small gestures that mattered, and he was, like Caetano himself, happy to be there.
Caetano Veloso will perform at 8:00 p.m. Monday, July 12 at Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis; (612) 624-2345.