Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil

Tropical Truth by Caetano VelosoCaetano Veloso
Translated by Isabel de Sena
Alfred A. Knopf ($26)

by Dimitri Kaasan

It is said that American pop stars are bereft of inner lives. So befuddled are they by the din of fans, their own personae as projected by the media, and the difficulty of authentic intimacy behind closed doors, that their faculties of contemplation and emotional self-awareness are all but lost. Call it a side effect of global influence—the same phenomenon, perhaps, that inhibits belletrists in the United States from seeking or winning public office.

It's fitting, then, that the Tropicalia movement Caetano Veloso's Tropical Truth chronicles was launched in response to American cultural hegemony as personified by the likes of Elvis Presley. Veloso writes near the outset of his memoir that his generation took up this task as their "right to imagine an ambitious intervention in the future of the world." Yet in the chapters that follow he recounts how this measured bombast gave way to a different attitude toward American rock and roll. Beginning in the late '60s Veloso and a handful of co-provocateurs from his native state of Bahia responded to American hegemony using the trope of cannibalism—that is, they opted not to reject but to devour all influences both native and foreign: rock, the fetishized themes of Brazilian backwardness, the cinematic and poetic concerns of the Brazilian avant-garde, and of course, bossa nova.

The sound they aspired to bring forth was "something transcendent" and truly Brazilian. Once realized, however, the music and the movement it gave voice to scandalized Brazilian Leftists and conservatives alike. Veloso and Tropicalia co-founder Gilberto Gil were heckled at shows, and soon thereafter were imprisoned and exiled by the Brazilian government. The story of how Tropicalia was seeded, how it blossomed, and how it dissolved after a few short years, only to transform every subsequent branch of popular Brazilian music—all this hangs from the framework of Veloso's memoir. His fluid shifts from "I" to "we" show the extent of the Tropicalistas' shared sense of mission, though at times the "we" dilates to include his whole generation, and at other it narrows to only Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

That this memoir avoids solipsism—a quality almost intrinsic to the genre—is remarkable in itself. But Veloso's ample dramatis personae comes from more than an impulse to share credit for the disruptions Tropicalia brought to Brazilian culture. His writing reveals a simple joy in portraiture, whether he is describing his lifelong worship of bossa nova forefather Joao Gilberto, his wrenching estrangement from his one-time literary idol, Clarice Lispector, or his startlingly beautiful description of his lifelong friend Gilberto Gil.

These are larger than life characters engaged in struggles for the destiny of a country, and Veloso makes deft use of their innate drama. He can in one moment assume a wry, tragicomic tone, as when he describes his posse's raucous strategy sessions for making their music "more commercial so it could serve revolutionary purposes." In other scenes his prose is that of a dirge, or, as in the case of his and Gil's imprisonment prior to exile, that of existential horror. Such range of technique make this memoir a page-turner.

If it is the paradox of the performer/intellectual that engages the readers' interest, it is Veloso's confessional passages that deepen the paradox, endow it with breath and blood. He writes, for example, that he swore off psychedelic drugs because of a few bad trips, yet he describes each of those trips with the richness of DeQuincy on opium or Benjamin on hashish. He professes disgust about the way sex pervades consumer culture, but describes masturbation as an almost mystical prerogative. An avowed heterosexual and monogamist, Veloso has publicly cross-dressed and flirted with homoeroticism, claiming that if, at age 19, he had fallen in love with another man, he would've made "a great queer."

The passages that lag in Tropical Truth are those where Veloso over-indulges not his intimate, but his intellectual voice. His mini-essays on poetry, modern art, and film, while fascinating and relevant to Tropicalia, occasionally seem to grope for the mantles of his several would-be vocations (professor, painter, filmmaker.) Still, his assessments are consistently persuasive. His description of the asonorities of English, for example, would be offensive to native speakers if they were not so astute. Ultimately, the reader is gratified for even his analytical pyrotechnics, because it is in the crucible of his intellect that Veloso distills such truths as:

Stravinsky and Schoenberg seem to intend not that we stop listening to Bach in order to listen to them, but rather that we become better listeners of Bach for having listened to them...Never before modernism has art been so conservative.

These are truths unconstrained by the tropics from whence they came. They are insights that render the label of "pop star" too slight for Veloso, whose inner life, as revealed in Tropical Truth, has the density and fire of an imploding sun.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2002/2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002/2003