Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil: Tropicália Icons Talk U.S. Tour
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.
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