CHICAGO — There is something unnerving about saying “May I speak to Mr. Veloso, please” when you know that the voice at the other end of the line belongs to Caetano Veloso himself.
Days have been spent in ecstasy and fear in anticipation of this moment and now, 20 minutes past our appointment, it’s come at last.
Veloso, surrendering to traffic caused by a sudden summer storm, is not at his manager’s office as planned but at his home in Rio de Janeiro. A bad connection and this decrepit speakerphone only underline the distance between us, and as I nervously shout “Hallo! Hallo!” in unconscious imitation of his manager’s secretary who helped me earlier, I feel more than ever that Veloso is way out of my reach. Then:
Hello, is this Caetano Veloso?
Uh, hi, I’m calling from The Japan Times. I’m, uh, sorry about the delay.
“Yes, I couldn’t make it because of an incredible traffic jam. So I came back.” He pauses, the suggestion of a smile in his voice: “And I am here.”
These last four words are potent, spoken with the same assurance of sincerity expressed in Veloso’s singing voice. Caetano is here. And whatever gap one might logically assume exists between us is instantly bridged.
Yes, it’s Caetano Veloso, the man hailed for decades in his native Brazil as a singer, composer, poet and revolutionary, and commonly celebrated abroad as the “Bob Dylan of Brazil,” despite his dislike for such labels.
The Caetano Veloso who, in the ’60s, along with other Brazilian luminaries such as Gilberto Gil, gave birth to Tropicalia, which turned MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) on its head by blending the country’s beloved bossa nova and samba with just about everything else, including the maligned rock and roll of the capitalist West.
The Caetano Veloso whose activities in pursuit of truly universal art — though decried as blasphemous by the nationalist-populist student movement on whose side his sympathies lied — were considered so subversive by the military dictatorship that they landed him in prison and forced him into a three-year exile.
The Caetano Veloso who wrote songs like “Baby” — a masterpiece of Tropicalia when made famous by Gal Costa in 1967 and now a breezy, romantic favorite for fans of Bebel Gilberto, who covered it last year.
Yeah, that Caetano. And me, a sentimental music lover who gives none of that any consideration while wiling away days listening to him sing “Maria Betha^nia” or “Two Naira Fifty Kobo” and feeling just wonderful.
In mid-May, Veloso will embark on his third tour of Japan, his first in eight years. At the same time, Universal Music Japan will be releasing two CD compilations, “Caetano Lovers” and “Caetano Sings” — the former featuring tracks chosen by Japanese artists ranging from Lisa Ono to Cornelius; the latter put together by noted Brazilian music programmer Jin Nakahara.
We start by talking about “Caetano Lovers,” of which Veloso knows few details, so I read off the track list, with him gently correcting my pronunciation as we go:
“Lua Dee Sow Geor-gee?”
“Lua De Sao Jorge.”
His Portuguese is so delicate and musical that I’m almost disappointed when the exchange is stopped at track 5:
” ‘Gilberto Misterioso,’ that’s great.”
Is he pleased with that?
“Yeah, well, the others are well-chosen, but they are also well-known and this one’s not that well-known.”
That was Cornelius’ pick.
“It was him that chose that one? Oh, that’s nice,” he says with real warmth; Veloso, it seems, is never more comfortable than when sharing his enthusiasms.
Asked to imagine his own compilation, songs he feels Japanese fans should know to truly appreciate the thrust of his career, he says simply, “I would choose only the ones that I don’t really feel too ashamed of.”
For a man who’s made such a lasting contribution to the international pop repertoire — releasing something like an album a year for more than three decades — surely this is too modest.
“No, I’m not modest at all. It’s just realistic. I would choose [a song] if I think I’m singing in tune, it’s convincing, it’s at an artistically high level [in terms of] the recording, the performance. I can remember three or four that I’m sure came out well and that I had no doubts about.”
So, given his status as a revolutionary, the political context of the works would be of no consideration?
“I didn’t think of that, as a matter of fact. Whether the songs are of good quality in terms of performance would be the only criteria. Politics, I never thought anything about politics. Who cares about it? When choosing, I would pay attention to ‘What did this song say mostly?’ and then politics would come about.”
How about if the audience has no clue as to what the songs are mostly about?
“As a matter of fact,” he says, “it came as a surprise to me that people who can’t understand Portuguese could be interested in my music. I understand how they could like Milton Nascimento; it’s reasonable that they love Joao Gilberto or Gilberto Gil.
“But, I was surprised by reality. Because lots of people who don’t understand Portuguese show interest in my music in so many parts of the world. So I have to cooperate with it. [Laughs.] I have to ‘deal with it.’ “
There is, I suggest, some fundamental purity or beauty communicated to listeners even when the songs are absent of context. To use Tropicalia as an example, what may have been conspicuous to Brazilian audiences of the ’60s as a conscious juxtaposition of high- and low-brow, folk and pop, American and Brazilian — and whatever else had infiltrated the culture at the time — may be appreciated by foreign audiences of today as simply refreshing, even exciting and new. Does Veloso still think in terms of creating something genuine out of the marriage of opposites?
“Yes, sometimes I think of exactly that. I think there are the feelings of ‘fresh’ and ‘new’ where there is mastery of the materials of others. You’re in a way magically suspended by styles and nations and periods. You have to be, when you’re doing something that’s going to be strong in any way.”
This refusal to be bound to any sort of tradition, while at the same time being keenly aware of what the realities are, may also be why whatever Veloso sings, and even says and does, seems somehow authentic even if it is a little bit weird.
Take his latest album, “A Foreign Sound,” for example, on which he gives loving treatment to songs by composers as diverse as Irving Berlin and Kurt Cobain. Or that time during his Los Angeles stop on that same album’s tour, when, perched atop a stool center stage of UCLA’s ornate, staid Royce Hall, he suddenly thrust his arm up in the air — his fingers shaped into the heavy metal devil’s horns — and shouted “Yeah!” with true rock and roll gusto. And that after finishing some ballad, maybe a number by Cole Porter.
Struggling to express how foreign audiences might appreciate Veloso simply for his communication of a real immediacy, I suddenly find myself telling him how wonderful it was just to see him on stage and hear him say “Wonderful.”
“Well that’s because,” he says, graciously indulging me, “I really found that what I was talking about was really quite wonderful.
” . . . But there are so many things that are wonderful.”
There’s something about the way he intones the word that makes sticking to any agenda impossible. I’ve got to ask, what’s blowing Veloso’s mind these days?
“Too many things. . . . I just heard that Tom Ze has released a brand-new record and they say it’s fantastic. I can’t wait to listen to it. I am very, very curious about it.”
Ze, of course, was with Veloso at the forefront of the Tropicalia movement, and this raises the question of how Veloso feels about being the bridge connecting the pure bossa nova of artists like Joao Gilberto, whom he has described as “my supreme master,” and the avant-pop that gained international recognition in the movement’s wake. Does he act as a guiding force not just to his own son, Moreno — who has recorded two amazing records with friends Alexandre Kassin and Domenico Lancelloti — but to the whole current generation of Brazilian musicians?
“[As for Moreno], we talk a lot, we consult. He’s a good confidante. He’s a good adviser, more than I am to him. I think his record is so pure and so delicate and so sensitive. He’s a great guy. He’s incredible, Moreno.”
And while Veloso insists there are artists untouched by his personal style, he does mention a few that he has taken under his wing, including Afro Reggae, a musical collective that developed in the mid-’90s out of the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio, which have been plagued by poverty and violence.
“Because of violence between the police and the traffickers, it was really hard, and it’s still really hard, but back then it was really bad. So a very young guy took a bunch of children together when they were about 10 years old and they became a musical group and they asked me to be their godfather. And they were these naive little kids. So while there is no real connection with me because of their style, they are my godchildren.”
It’s a touching story, encompassing despair and violence and hope and beauty, but Veloso is not without a sense of humor about it: “They’re name is Afro Reggae, but they don’t know reggae, they play hip-hop [laughs].”
Our time is soon wiled away, but it seems appropriate before saying goodbye to ask about plans for his upcoming shows in Japan.
“I’m not going to play so many American songs [from ‘A Foreign Sound’], because for many years I have not been to Japan and I think I am invited probably because of my own songs — songs I have recorded in Portuguese. I would like to be true to my Japanese audience.”
Does Veloso have any particular hopes or expectations of his own?
“I’d like to be really there. And I’d like for people to be there with me. To be really present. And to respond truly. That’s what I [pause], that’s what I want.”
Don’t doubt it will be wonderful . . . marvelous. How I long to be . . . there.
Caetano Veloso performs May 15 at the Festival Hall in Osaka (Yumebanchi,  6341-3525); May 17 at the Aichiken Geijutsu Gekijo in Nagoya (Bottom Line,  741-1620); May 19 at Acros Fukuoka in Fukuoka (B.I.C.,  713-6085); May 23 at the Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo (JEC International,  5474-5944); and May 24-25 at the Tokyo International Forum (JEC International,  5474-5944).
A brief look at the life and works of Caetano Veloso
While Caetano Veloso is mostly known outside his native Brazil as one of the founding fathers of Tropicalia, he continues to make enormous contributions to the global art scene. It would be foolish to attempt any definitive review of Veloso’s life and works, but here’s a thumbnail sketch:
1942: Born in the northeastern state of Bahia, the fifth of seven children, including the singer Maria Bethania.
1967: Releases first album, “Domingo,” a joint effort with the singer Gal Costa featuring what may be considered the first example of Tropicalia, “Baby” (note Veloso at the end singing the refrain to Paul Anka’s “Diana”)
1968: First solo album, “Caetano Veloso,” which includes the anthem “Tropicalia”
1968-9: Imprisoned and then forced to leave Brazil along with Gilberto Gil over claims that they disrespected the national anthem and flag
1970: Continues from London to compose songs for artists including Bethania and Gal Costa; releases his first record including songs sung entirely in English
1971: Returns to Bahia, as celebrated in the song “Mano Caetano” by Maria Bethania and Jorge Ben
1973: Releases the conspicuously noncommercial album “Araca Azul,” a mix of psychedelic rock, tribal drumming, pregnant silences and experimental vocals
1981: Receives his first Gold Record for the album “Otras palavras”
1986: Directs “O Cinema Falado,” an experimental film exploring cinema and the arts; releases album for American audiences that includes a medley of “Nega maluca,” “Eleanor Rigby” and Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”
1989: Releases “Estrangeiro” (produced by Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer of the New York no-wave band Ambitious Lovers) to wide critical acclaim
1993: Records “Tropicalia 2” with Gilberto Gil in celebration of Tropicalismo and 30 years of friendship
1999: “Livros” receives U.S. Grammy for Best World Music Album
2001: Performs “Cucurucucu Paloma” in Pedro Almodovar’s film “Hable con Ella”
2002: Publishes “Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil”
2003: Performs with Lilla Downs at the Academy Awards after “Burn It Blue,” from the soundtrack to “Frida,” is nominated for Best Original Song; receives the Latin Honor Award for lifetime achievement at Spain’s Premios De La Musica
2004: Becomes the first featured artist in the Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall, performing two nights, one sharing the stage with David Byrne