The first time that legendary Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso, a founder of the Tropicália movement, was booed on stage was when he plugged into an electric guitar at a show. The left-wing intellectuals, he says, wouldn’t stand for it. Rock ‘n’ roll music was considered too vulgar. Decades later, Veloso would learn that a similar incident happened to Bob Dylan, an artist who he’s often compared to.
On Saturday afternoon, Veloso captivated Modern Language Association attendees during a standing room-only featured interview at the group’s annual convention at the JW Marriott in Austin.
The celebrated musician, often hailed as one of the world’s greatest songwriters, recounted moments from his storied life from the stigma of rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1960s to his forced exile from Brazil.
During the 1960s, Veloso reimagined popular Brazilian music by experimenting with new sounds and incorporating musical influences from near and far. While he grew up listening to American music like Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, it wasn’t until 1965 that he fell in love with rock. “I was one of those pretentious people, not interested in rock ‘n’ roll, but then I started listening to rock with different ears.” The Tropicalía movement was born, but its political nature wasn’t tolerated by the oppressive military dictatorship that ruled Brazil at the time.
Veloso, along with fellow Tropicália movement musician Gilberto Gil, was forced into exile in London from 1968–1972. When he met Gil, he said it was like “love at first sight.” Veloso had seen him on television and adored his music, and credits Gil with elevating his musicianship. “I looked at his hands and tried to reproduce what he was doing,” Veloso said.
Their music, though, got them arrested and the two eventually ended up in Portugal, Paris and then London. “We never thought of coming to the U.S. because the country was in turmoil with students protesting the Vietnam War,” he said. Tensions in Paris at the time were high as well, and Veloso says he had to show his passport at every corner. He followed advice to head to London, where the atmosphere was calmer and the music scene was strong, but Veloso never felt at home.
“I found it dark and gloomy,” he said. “I missed Brazil enormously. I hated that Brazil had become my enemy because it was one of the things that I loved most in my life.” While life in London was miserable at first, he eventually warmed up to the country more by his second year there.
When he returned to Brazil, he had found that his exile had changed him in many ways, but one especially surprising outcome for him was his yearning to be a father. He and his wife had originally planned on not having children.”I have three boys now, and it was because I went back to Brazil.”
Veloso returned to Brazil as a national hero, and he continues to be an influential international figure. In 2003, he wrote his memoir “Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.”