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Tropical Truthby Caetano Veloso
In the year 2000, Brazil commemorated not only the passing of the century and the millennium but also the five hundred years since her discovery. To this date, then, is attached an accumulation of meaning not shared with any other country in the world. And the flood of omens let loose at this juncture is closely allied with the psychology of Brazil-a failed nation ashamed of having once been called "the country of the future." In fact, those past expectations have today taken the form of a resignation that underlies new frustrations, but the magnitude of Brazil's disillusionment reveals that-fortunately or not-we remain very far from a sensible realism.
As children we learned that Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvarez Cabral on April 22, 1500. All other American nations consider it enough to have been discovered all together by Christopher Columbus in 1492. It was only Brazil that had to be discovered later, separately. From the earliest age, as a child in Santo Amaro de Purificão in Bahia, I had to ask: "Why?"
They could have said, for example, that Columbus did not sail farther than the Caribbean islands and that the continent proper was only arrived at by the Portuguese eight years later; they could have told us that what Cabral discovered was the existence of South America, of which the Spaniards had not the slightest idea. But no: they say Brazil appeared as an independent continent, a huge island in the middle of the South Atlantic, a surprise for those Lusitanian sailors who, aiming to follow the coast of Africa to reach the Indies, sailed too far west. That such a vaguely defined event should be situated so precisely in the middle of the second millennium serves to force upon Brazilians a sense of themselves as a nation both unsubstantiated and exaggerated. The United States is a country without a name: America is the name of the continent where, among others, the states that were once English colonies united. Brazil is a name without a country. The English seem to have stolen the name of the continent and given it to the country they founded. The Portuguese seem not to have really founded a country, but managed to suggest that they landed in a part of America that was absolutely Other, and they called it Brazil.
The parallel with the United States is inevitable. If all the countries in the world today must measure themselves against "America," position themselves in relation to the American Empire, and if the other countries in America have to do so in an even more direct way–comparing their respective histories to that of their stronger and more fortunate brother–Brazil's case is even more acute, since the mirror image is more evident and the alienation more radical. Brazil is America's other giant, the other melting pot of races and cultures, the other promised land to European and Asian immigrants, the Other. The double, the shadow, the negative image of the great adventure of the New World. The sobriquet "sleeping giant," which was applied to the United States by Admiral Yamamoto, will be taken by any Brazilian as a reference to Brazil, and confused with the seemingly ominous words of the national anthem, "forever lying in a splendid cradle."
The papal bull that created the Treaty of Tordesillas, stipulating that lands yet to be discovered to the east of the agreed-upon meridian would belong to Portugal, leaving those to the west for Spain, explains the need for a new "discovery" and its being Portuguese. But in school we learn-and Pero Vaz de Caminha's beautiful letter reporting to the king about the voyage reassures us-that chance impelled Cabral's fleet on to the Brazilian coast. And that is how we came to have this immense floating world, the namesake of a utopian island imagined in the European Middle Ages, and perhaps less unreal than the latter, this enormous no-place with the burning name. (Brazil is usually assumed to be derived from "braza," burning coal or ember.)
In 1995, the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo bore this headline: "World Bank Report Indicates Brazil Is the Country with the Greatest Social and Economic Disparity in the World." The article reports that 51.3 percent of Brazilian income is concentrated in 10 percent of the population. The wealthiest 20 percent own 67.5 percent of Brazil, while the 20 percent who are poorest have only 2.1 percent. It was that way when I was a boy, and it is still that way. As we reached adolescence, my generation dreamed of inverting this brutal legacy.
In 1964, the military took power, motivated by the need to perpetuate those disparities that have proven to be the only way to make the Brazilian economy work (badly, needless to say) and, in the international arena, to defend the free market from the threat of the communist bloc (another American front of the Cold War). Students were either leftist or they would keep their mouths shut. Within the family or among one's circle of friends, there was no possibility of anyone's sanely disagreeing with a socialist ideology. The Right existed only to serve vested or unspeakable interests. Thus, the rallies "With God and for Freedom" organized by the "Catholic ladies" in support of the military coup appeared to us as the cynical, hypocritical gestures of evil people.
The coup, carried out in the name of the war against international communism, had put in power a man called Marshal Castelo Branco, a military officer of the so-called American line of thinking, meaning that he, unlike those called "Prussians" (who yearned to be centralizing nationalists), wanted to wipe out the Left and corruption in Brazil in order to turn it over to the modernity of the free market. Almost all of us were unaware of those nuances back then, and even if we had been, it would have changed nothing; we saw the coup simply as a decision to halt the redress of the horrible social inequities in Brazil and, simultaneously, to sustain North American supremacy in the hemisphere. The trend toward establishing a political art, sketched out in 1963 by the Centros Populares de Cultura (Centers for Popular Culture) of UNE (the National Students' Union) became widespread in all conventional artistic production, and, in spite of repression at the universities and censorship of the media, show business fell under the hegemony of the Left. In a highly politicized student environment, MPB (Mœsica Popular Brasileira) functioned as an arena for important decisions concerning Brazilian culture and even national sovereignty-and the media covered it accordingly. And it was at MPB's huge televised festivals that the world of the students interacted with that of the wide masses of TV spectators. (The latter were naturally much more numerous than the record buyers.) At these events, one could encounter the more or less conscious illusion that this was where the problems of national affirmation, social justice, and advances in modernization were to be resolved. Market questions, often the only decisive ones, did not seem noble enough to be included in heated discussions. Of course girls would scream "beautiful!" when Chico Buarque came onstage (and, with far less reason, started screaming the same at me), but the conversations and hostilities between the groups would focus as much on an artist's political attitude and his fidelity to national characteristics as on his harmonic or rhythmic daring. That it should be so was a luxury. As silly as this state of things could be, we were living in an exceptionally stimulating period for composers, singers, and musicians. And one thing rang true: the recognition of MPB's power among us. Everything was heightened by the instinctive rejection of the military dictatorship, which seemed to unify the whole of the artistic class around a common objective: to oppose it.
Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet who lived in Brazil between 1952 and 1970, praised the rallies organized in support of the military, explaining in letters to her friends in the United States that while those demonstrations had "originally been organized as anticommunist parades," they "were becoming victory marches-more than one million people marching in the rain!" And she concludes: "It was totally spontaneous, they could not all be rich and right-wing reactionaries." Today, when I read those words, I am even more astonished by the distortion of my own point of view at the time than by the author's (though, to be sure, hers was no less distorted). To discover her version of the coup d'état causes me some unease, but it is one more lesson, in these times when private virtues must be taken as the causes of public evils, to come to the realization that back then someone-a woman poet at that!-might thus sum up the military coup that sent to jail some of my finest schoolmates and professors: "A few brave generals and the governors of three important states got together and, after a difficult forty-eight hours, it was all over. The (favorable) reactions have been really popular, thank God." Apparently there was such a thing as right-wing good intentions.
In 1964 the Left consisted of every Brazilian who deserved to be one, and all human beings worthy of the name. Antônio Risério points out, in his essay about Bahia during the pre-1964 democratic period, that when the Austrian intellectual Otto Maria Carpeaux arrived in Brazil to escape Hitler, he had already noticed that here "almost everyone" was a leftist. My intention in this book is to tell and interpret the adventure of a creative impulse that emerged within Brazilian pop music in the second half of the sixties, whose protagonists-among them the narrator-wanted the freedom to move beyond the automatic ties with the Left and at the same time to account for the visceral rebellion against the abysmal disparities that tear a people asunder, even as that people remains singular and charming. And also to tell about the fateful and joyous participation in a universal and international urban cultural reality. All of this being an unveiling of the mystery of the island of Brazil.
After the bossa nova revolution, and to a great extent because of it, there emerged the tropicalista movement, whose aim it was to sort out the tension between Brazil the Parallel Universe and Brazil the country peripheral to the American Empire. A country which, at the time, was ruled by a military dictatorship believed to have been fostered by the anticommunist maneuvers of the American Empire's Central Intelligence Agency. Tropicalismo wanted to project itself as the triumph over two notions: one, that the version of the Western enterprise offered by American pop and mass culture was potentially liberating-though we recognized that a naive attraction to that version is a healthy impulse-and, two, the horrifying humiliation represented by capitulation to the narrow interests of dominant groups, whether at home or internationally. It was also an attempt to face up to the apparent coincidence, in this tropical country, of a countercultural wave emerging at the same time as the vogue in authoritarian regimes.
The fact that MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) would come to concentrate the energy of this generation only confirms the power of the tradition that made bossa nova possible: in fact, MPB has been, for Brazilians as well as for foreigners, the sound of the discovery of a dreamt-of Brazil. Parenthetically, at this point one foresees a mutual discovery, whereby the heart inclines toward the Indian going aboard the alien ship of the great Pedro Álvares, whose feet barely touched American soil. The Indian was so bereft of fear that he fell asleep on board. MPB is the most efficient weapon for the affirmation of the Portuguese language in the world, when one considers how many unsuspected lovers it has won through the magic of the word sung in the Brazilian way.
The movement that turned the tradition of MPB on its head in the sixties earned the name tropicalismo. Tropicália, a term first invented by the artist Hélio Oiticica and then given as title to one of my songs by Cinema Novo director LuÍs Carlos Barreto, from which tropicalismo was derived, is more than beautiful-sounding to me: it is even preferable, to avoid confusion with Gilberto Freyre's term "Luso-tropicalism" (something much more respectable), or with the study of tropical diseases. Not to mention that it is free from the -ism, which, precisely owing to its reductiveness, facilitates the circulation of the ideas and repertory created, conferring on them the status of a movement. The word, however, will appear more frequently in these pages with that ending, since this is no more than an effort to disseminate that gesture on an international scale. In any event, in spite of some personal protest, we have long accepted tropicalismo as the most operationally effective term.
I am a Brazilian, and I became, more or less involuntarily, a singer and composer of songs. I was one of the creators and actors of the tropicália project. This book is an attempt to narrate and interpret what happened. João Gilberto, my supreme master, in answering a question about me in one of his rare interviews, said that my contribution to Brazilian music was "an accompaniment of thought" to his own work. Well, this book reflects my conscious effort to carry out that task. In a way it reviews the theoretical and critical endeavors that I undertook as I composed and interpreted the songs, but was forced to interrupt due to the intensity with which I was injecting them in the music. This is not an autobiography, though I do not refuse to "tell myself" with some prodigality. It is rather an effort to understand how I passed through tropicalismo, or how it passed through me: because we, it and I, were useful for a time and perhaps necessary to each other. The tone is frankly self-complacent (and in any event a large dose of self-complacency would be necessary in order to accept this task). I promised myself that I would plan my life so as to be able to stay home for at least a year to write it. Unable to keep that promise, I ended up having to make use of breaks during recording sessions, the wee hours in hotels after a show during tours, the time off between rehearsals and the (few) unoccupied hours of my vacations in Salvador in order to do it. This perhaps overexposed the double (and somewhat contradictory) tendency toward digression and ellipsis that confounds my thinking, my conversations, and my writing. I also allowed myself to slide between the narrative and the essayistic, the technical and the confessional (and to situate myself as mediator/medium of the spirit of MPB-and of Brazil itself) in order to deal with even a part of the world of ideas suggested by the main theme.Copyright 2002 by Caetano Veloso
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