Brazilian superstar vocalist and songwriter Caetano Veloso helped revolutionize the country’s pop music by bringing in elements of rock and social commentary in the late 1960s, helping to create the movement known as Tropicália. A progenitor of world music before there was such a term, Veloso is an international star who continues to be a major creative force and an influential musical figure.
Veloso answered questions via email from Brazil as he prepared for his North American tour, which kicks off Thursday with a performance at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center. His performance also marks the start of the center’s 2014-15 season.
Was there a particular point in your life that you consciously decided to be an artist, or did it occur gradually?
I only remember myself wanting to be an artist. I started drawing as a child. Then I began to paint. Between 8 and 9, I studied piano with an old lady in my little hometown (she taught how to read the notes but not the rhythm). As I grew up, I dreamed of directing movies. As I could sing lots of songs I heard on the radio, people invited me to perform in junior high festivities. When it came to decide what college course I’d attend, I chose philosophy, but stayed there only for a year and a half. I still wanted to make films but music caught me.
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How would you describe the late 1960s when you and fellow musician Gilberto Gil were revolutionizing Brazilian pop music with what is now called Tropicália?
Permanent excitement. Gil and I had started making music earlier. But the Tropicália ideas electrified our imagination. We were saying yes to rock ’n’ roll and to all music that was considered trash by people who had grown up in the post-bossa nova times. And we felt that doing so we were more loyal to João Gilberto’s invention (of bossa nova) than those who thought they were following him. And João Gilberto was the first to recognize this. Bossa nova had been an atomic explosion – and Tropicália wanted to be just as bold.
I really admire your record “Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta.” Can you talk about recording it?
Seeing “La Strada” when at 15 was something that built my personality. I kept on watching Fellini’s films as they were released. In my hometown – and everywhere in Brazil – Italian and French movies were shown commercially, along with Hollywood and Pel Mex productions.
Many years later, I wrote and recorded a song called “Giulietta Masina.” Once I was touring Italy, and (Masina, who was the muse and wife of Fellini and star of “La Strada”) tried to talk to me by phone, but I couldn’t be found in the hotel in Bari. I never met the couple. They died. As I was doing concerts in New York, I got a letter from Fellini’s sister, Maddalena, asking me to do a concert in Rimini for the Fellini Foundation. In the letter she said Giulietta very much liked the song I had written about her, and they all were happy with my comments on Fellini’s films in the interviews I gave to Italian newspapers along the years. I immediately had my head filled with ideas and emotions, lots of songs came to my mind, themes by Nino Rota and global pop heard in “La Dolce Vita.” All things that touched me connected with the world of Fellini’s movies.
There are so many great Brazilian artists. I’ve loved João Gilberto since I first heard him. Was his music an influence on you? Anyone else you care to mention?
João Gilberto is Brazil’s greatest artist, in my view. I was 17 when his first record was released. I still lived in my hometown and thought the world had changed totally. He influenced my taste in everything, not just music. But of course Dorival Caymmi, Noel Rosa, Luiz Gonzaga, Silvio Caldas, Orlando Silva and Francisco Alves, years earlier, were big influences. Just before João appeared, people like Dolores Duran, Maysa (Matarazzo), Nora Ney, Johnny Alf had great importance. And when João came, with him came Tom Jobim, Carlos Lyra, Vinicius de Moraes …
Brazilian culture is of course a fantastic mix of influences. How does the African influence manifest itself in your music? Or does it?
No doubt there are strong African features in my music. First of all, African culture is almost omnipresent in Brazilian popular music. The Portuguese language, as it is spoken in Brazil, was itself transformed by the many black voices that were brought through the Atlantic. Samba, Maxixe, Baião, Xaxado, Coco, all these genres are based in African rhythms and melodies, expressions that are still kept in the religious terreiros . Our language is not only full of African words, the very sound of it has African nuances. When I started playing with music all that was already there. But I have some songs that directly refer to African roots, such as “Two Naira Fifty Kobo,” “13 de Maio,” “Milagres do povo.”
What will be the repertoire when you play the Mondavi Center?
The nucleus of the set list is the repertoire of “Abraçaço” the third record I made with Banda Cê that was released in the U.S. recently. But we also do some stuff from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. One of Tropicália’s emblematic songs will be there. Also something from “Transa,” the album I recorded in London in 1971; something from “Bicho” that was made in the late ’70s; something from “Uns” from the early ’80s. I might sing one song from “Fina Estampa” That varies a little. But this is a description of the basic repertoire of the show.