Caetano Veloso is a Brazilian songwriter and musician who emerged in the 1960s as a leading figure in Brazil’s Tropicália movement. The sensual intelligence of his music, as well as the breadth of traditions from which he drew, made him a national hero and the object of much admiration abroad.
Veloso grew up in a lower-middle-class family outside Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. When he was a teenager, the family moved to the city itself, where his evident interest in music, especially the bossa nova recordings of João Gilberto, intensified. He soon took to playing guitar and singing, frequently alongside his sister, Maria Bethânia, in local clubs. While studying philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia (1963–65), Veloso met several other young musicians, including Gilberto Gil and Maria da Graça (later Gal Costa), with whom he wrote and performed. After leaving school, Veloso began recording his songs and promoting them at popular televised music festivals. His first album, Domingo (“Sunday”), a collaboration with Costa that demonstrated their debt to bossa nova, was released in mid-1967.
By late 1967, however, Veloso and his friends had begun to craft a new syncretic style of Brazilian pop music that incorporated regional folk rhythms, elements of psychedelic rock and musique concrète, and poetic socially charged lyrics. The compilation Tropicália; ou, panis et circensis (1968; “Tropicália; or, Bread and Circuses”), which included songs by Veloso, Gil, Costa, and others, served as a manifesto for their motley aesthetic, which had affinities with concurrent trends in Brazilian visual, literary, and performing arts. Veloso’s self-titled solo debut (1968), which featured his signature hit “Alegria, alegria” (“Joy, Joy”), was in the same eclectic vein. As central participants in a burgeoning Brazilian counterculture, the musicians won a devoted following, which even led to their own television program.
Under the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil at the time, Tropicália (or Tropicalismo)—the name by which the entire social and artistic movement became known—was considered especially provocative. Veloso courted controversy with his androgynous persona and with politically subversive songs such as “É proibido proibir” (“It Is Forbidden to Forbid”), and in December 1968 he and Gil were arrested and imprisoned for two months under the terms of a newly promulgated act that restricted free speech. Subsequently placed under house arrest, Veloso made a second self-titled album, which included the first of several songs he recorded in English. In July 1969 he and Gil were allowed to exile themselves to London, where they remained active musicians.
In 1972, having ascertained that the political climate at home had improved, Veloso and Gil returned to Brazil. Although Tropicália had effectively ended as a movement, Veloso went on to release albums—such as Transa (1972), Araçá azul (1973; “Blue Guava”), and Bicho (1977; “Beast”)—that channeled its restless, omnivorous spirit, with nods toward reggae, disco, and Bahian Carnival music. He also joined with Gil, Costa, and Bethânia to form the musical group Doces Bárbaros (“Sweet Barbarians”). In the 1980s Veloso’s emerging status as a Brazilian icon contributed to the best record sales of his career to that time. Extensive touring helped establish his international reputation, which grew with the release of Estrangeiro (1989; “Stranger”), which he recorded in New York City, and attention from musicians such as David Byrne. Veloso professed to be bemused by his global popularity, noting that most of his songs were in Portuguese and addressed distinctly Brazilian topics and themes.
In commemoration of Tropicália’s 25th anniversary, Veloso and Gil reunited for the engaging Tropicália 2 (1993). Veloso’s subsequent recordings include the Grammy Award-winning Livro (1997; “Book”); Noites do norte (2000; “Northern Nights”), which was inspired by the writings of Brazilian abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco; A Foreign Sound (2004), on which he covered English-language songs; and the brash Cê (2006; “You”). Beyond his musical career, Veloso dabbled in film, notably directing the experimental O cinema falado (1986; Talkies), and he published the books Alegria, alegria (1977) and Verdade tropical (1997; Tropical Truth), a memoir. The recipient of numerous Latin Grammy Awards, he was named the Latin Recording Academy’s person of the year for 2012.