Aug 222012

For your ‘Protest Songs’ autobiography follow the headings Formation, Fame, Fall (imprisonment), Exile, Return, and finally Memoir.

FORMATION. Are you one of the ’64 Generation’? Or is your founding year 1968? Or maybe later? My formation year was ’73 (September 11 to be precise): Verdade Tropical [1.], Tropical Truth.

For Tropicalismo, the iconoclastic musical and countercultural force that flourished in Brazil at the height of the dictatorship in the 1960’s and 1970’s, 1964 was ground zero. This was the year of the US backed military coup, which became the blueprint for others that followed later, and the ideological testing ground for the new political bipolarity (authoritarian government in a constant state of emergency against the invidious forces of social democracy and all those others who “spend our money on other people”).

Where I was brought up in the East Midlands, in 1964 it was about possible to listen to Radio Luxemburg on our primitive transistor radios. The reception was terrible, but the sound of those early Protest Songs was just able to reach our ears despite the hiss of white noise, high pitched whines, and burble of foreign voices, and created in them a continental intention.

Bob Dylan, and later there was Radio Caroline, and the first lady of protest Joan Baez, then Joni Mitchell and a long line of other strong and beautiful women with clear high pitched voices. But the ‘impulse towards Americanization’ was stronger still, and the marketing men were already sharpening their pencils and calculating the profit margins on their next No 1 hit.

FAME. Of course I didn’t know what was coming next.After Jazz Samba and the Stan Getz,  I can’t say Caetano Veloso was one of my musical heros or that I ever heard of the tropicalismo movement. I knew about Bossa Nova and enjoyed Sergio Mendes, and of course the voice of Astrid Gilberto filled my fantasies, along with other long haired dark skinned women of Brazil, where colour seemed to be less racial and more erotic and exciting, and of course popular.

So it was in 1973 I found myself in Salvador de Bahia, and then in Rio de Janeiro, and strangely impervious to the nightime sound of gunfire, and ignorant of the opposition movement being mainained in these the city universities. Middle class friends in the leafy suburbs warned me about the police death squads, and told me to keep away from the favelas, but the risks of being gunned down seemed slim.

I did spend time on the campas of Brasilia the capital city, went to the student bars, talked and listened to the music,  and perhaps grew some capacity for self-reflection along with a kind of musical courage, and historical mindedness, listening to – anthropological, mythical, mystical, formal and moral – popular songs, but I was still ignorant of the dialectic of artistic creation and its historical moment.:

” To have known rock as something relatively contemptible during the decisive years of our intellectual growth and, on the other hand, to have had bossa nova as the soundtrack of rebellion signifies for Brazilians of my generation the right to imagine an ambitious intervention in the future of the world, a right that immediately begins to be lived as a duty.” Verdade Tropical, P 31.

However, the common experience in the years post 1964 was of an annulment of past hope, and of a rising cost, both moral, social and personal, and  a spreading despair and sense of defeat throughout the continent. Against which Salvador Allende President of Chile stood as the only light, but equally as a terrible affront to the dominant world view ideology. “Be more Brazilian” the Chilean military were told and so they became, and out went the light except for Bossa Nova.

FALL. Imprisonment, complicity and contradiction, primal fear and secondary ambivalence, and a desire for a politics more palatable and simple, and more melodious and romantic: I was free of the ties of traditional politics, but – nas caixas registrados (‘at the cash registers’) was being drawn deeper and deeper into the sticky web of the pop wrapping market.

EXILE. ‘Normalization’ came to Brazil two decades later in the 1990’s, and I was broadening and diversifying myself too, with mocking notes of ‘realignment’ including an interest in self-development, and a capacity for carnivalesque confusion (a new kind of opposition in which protest could sell as well as baked beans), and for scandalous but harmless performance which was less risky than it appeared.

“The soldiers barely paid me my mind: I was moving against the flow of students, my course a tangent, in fact, to the eye of the storm.”

MEMOIR. Caetano Veloso returned to Brazil in 1972 at the height of the dictatorship to play at the Carnival in Bahia and was not arrested again. Commenting more than twenty years later on the famous popular song ‘That Embrace’ which Gilberto Gil had written going into exile himself, Veloso wrote:

“that it was, in this sense, the opposite of my state of mind, and even in such a condition, from the depths of my depression, I knew this was the only way to keep going without being overrun.”

Verdade Tropical. P 266-7


Verdade Tropical

NLR 75 (May June 2012) P. 89-117 – from an essay (tr Nicholas Caistor): ‘Verdade Tropical: um percurso de nosso tempo’ by Roberto Schwarz, one of Brazil’s leading literary contemporary critics and writers, published in  Martinha versus Lucrecia: Ensaios e entrevistas. Sao Paulo 2012.

The quotations of Caetano Veloso are taken from his book Verdade Tropical. Sao Paulo 1997 (published in English as Tropical Truth: a story of Music and Revolution in Brazil. New York, 2002.)

It was the artist Helio Oitica, who, at a meeting in the late 1960’s following which Veloso was arrested, painted a banner with the words ‘Be marginal, Be a hero’. The words were intended for a bandit, now long forgotten, who the police had killed.