Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are titans of Tropicália, a strain of Sixties Brazilian pop (or música popular brasileira) that drew on João Gilberto's sublime bossa nova, the Beatles' kaleidoscopic pop and Jimi Hendrix's soaring psychedelia, swirling it all together into a heady new sound. Tropicália has gone on to influence new generations of musicians, including Beck, David Byrne, Dirty Projectors and Devendra Banhart. Yet Veloso and Gil have few parallels in western pop, in that their visionary music not only broke pop parameters, but also social, cultural and political barriers — causing them to run afoul of Brazil's military dictatorship in the late Sixties. In February of 1969, they were arrested by the regime and exiled to England, only allowed to return home in 1972.
Since then, they have been Brazil's musical ambassadors to the rest of the world, with Gil even accepting a role in then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's cabinet as Minister of Culture. The two continue to record exquisite, playful, even noisy music belying their septuagenarian status. This week sees the release of Dois Amigos, a warm and casual two-album live set featuring the lifelong friends performing as a duo. They make their way to the United States this month for a series of concerts, including two this weekend in Miami, capped by a two-night stand in Brooklyn. Rolling Stone reached out to the two icons to ask about the lasting legacy of bossa nova, new artists they like and the politically tumultuous moment in their home countries.
What was the musical climate like when you first began your careers
Caetano Veloso: We met when the bossa nova movement had already proved totally successful. João Gilberto's albums had been among the top hits, although his work was scandalously different from what had been done in popular music among us up to the late Fifties, and it was very refined too, both technically and artistically. I knew Gil from afternoon local TV shows, in Bahia. I loved his musicianship and his always-happy round face. A common friend introduced us as I walked down Chile Street in Salvador. Gil was coming with him. An instant friendship was born, and we began immediately to talk about music and it was clear for both of us that we were going to do things together.
Gilberto Gil: When we first met, it was the moment bossa nova was being created and we both had been caught by its magic. I had music as a possible area to dedicate myself and Caetano [was] interested in different forms of art. As I found Caetano's musical talent very particular and intense, I proposed that we both do a collaboration that included some others like Maria Bathania, Gal Costa and Tom Zé, a group that moved to Sao Paulo and we all started the Tropicália movement soon after.
Caetano, in your book Tropical Truth, you mention something Gil once said, about how "the spirit of underdevelopment" haunted the recording studios. Does that mean neither one of you could ever be satisfied by a studio recording? Do they always feel "underdeveloped" in some way?
Veloso: Yes, we were never satisfied. But we didn't make extra efforts to solve that problem. We were in a hurry. We felt MPB needed what we had in mind. I must tell you that all our recordings still sound underdeveloped to me. But I am sometimes surprised by feeling otherwise. Last year I heard — in a sample of Tropicália songs Beck presented on his site — my recording of "Alfômega," a song Gil wrote for me to sing, and it didn't sound "underdeveloped" at all. Gil plays guitar on it.
Your early albums take inspiration from Oswald de Andrade and his idea of anthropophagy. Do you still consider yourselves hungry'to absorb other cultures and musics still?
Gil: We are still very curious about local and foreign pop music. In my case not as voluptuously as before, but I'm still very much interested.
Veloso: I do feel hungry, i.e., curious. I listen to James Blake, Joanna Newsom, Buika, António Zambujo, Kanye West and I feel like taking something from them — to name just a few. I know now, maybe better than I knew in 1967, that I have no skills to absorb anything from what these people do, but it all informs me and whatever I am able to do will come out different because I listen to those people.
Caetano, there's a famous live recording of "É Proibido Priobir" of you with Os Mutantes from 1968 that started a riot. Have you ever played a concert that had a similarly volatile reaction to it?
Veloso: Some similar things like that did happen, but nothing of that intensity. Os Mutantes were wonderful, and their wearing sci-fi clothes and playing avant-garde electric guitars in front of a crowd of leftwing nationalists is something that can't be repeated.
You both lived through a very brutal and repressive time in your country's history. Recently, there has been news that there is more political upheaval of late. Do you see that Brazil and the United States both have a great divide between the rich and poor? Are you surprised how little some things have changed over the years?
Gil: Yes, the divide between rich and poor is still there in our countries, but it's a lot more severe in Brazil. The two different colonial modes — the British and the Portuguese — caused a balance favoring the USA. We in Brazil remain very unequal and asymmetric. This is very visible as a basic cause of the political and economic crises of today.
Veloso: Once again, facing the complicated political turmoil that has taken Brazil, I focus on the economic and social inequality. That's the deepest level of all our drama, the only reality that can give us a criterion to judge individual and group attitudes. I think that's valid for the USA, too. It's globally valid, as disparity is far from being overcome.
In playing the Dois Amigos shows, do you discover things in the playing and singing of the other person that you didn't notice before?
Veloso: One always discovers new things in real artists. Seen close, Gil now seems to me at the same time more primitive and more spiritually refined than I ever thought before.
Gil: Definitely, yes. Caetano has been developing a very personal and unique style of singing — especially Latin-American songs — that brings a true special taste to the interpretations. I have been trying some new elements, too.
When I you last performed in New York City, you were both supported by much younger musicians. What's it like to perform with someone closer to your own age?
Veloso: I think my band was notably younger. It's a bunch of great guys who understand clearly what I want to do. But Gil is an old friend and a master. It's a totally different thing.