Caetano – My coconut

Dalton Paula, Sound Barrier, 2013
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By DANIEL BRAZIL*

Commentary on Caetano Veloso's album

Much has already been said about Caetano Veloso, this 79-year-old gentleman who continues to provoke aesthetic and political discussions in the country where a “smiling, ugly and dead child extends his hand”.

Listening to his latest album, Meu Coco, released in October 2021, a collection of brand new songs, never ceases to surprise, although the most predictable thing in any of Caetano's albums is the surprise. Stuffed with nominal quotes and references, the album seems to be a reckoning with a dystopian Brazil, where there is a need to always be separating the diamonds from the gravel.

Account settlement? Unfortunately, this account has no end. Ironically, he sings “the boy heard me and already commented / grandpa is nervous”. Like all of us, we have some concern about the fate of this country.

The generational, family and artistic issue emerges in several songs, such as the beautiful “Enzo Gabriel” (“I know that the light is subtle, but you will already see what it is to be born in Brazil”), rocked by Mestrinho’s accordion. The composer informs that “Enzo Gabriel is the most chosen name to register Brazilian newborns in the years 2018 and 2019”, that is, it is a song to be heard by a future audience. Time, time, time, time. Incidentally, the voice of the “old man” Caetano is still fresh. A phenomenon.

The arrangements are exquisite, in charge of partner Jacques Morelenbaum and the talented Thiago Amud. Caetano manages to dress his cultural and existential concerns with beautiful parangolés. Other giants of his generation, such as Gil and Chico Buarque, become increasingly clear, easy to distinguish in the work as a whole. Chico is the consecrated master of the musical forms he embraced, subtle in experimentation, incomparable lyricist, creator of people multiple, linked from the beginning to the theater, to the representation of feelings. Gil is mystical, pantheistic, sometimes confessional, skilful politician, relativist (“an empty glass is full of air”), an explosive musician in his origins, who has been smoothing over his concerns for decades. Today he is an academic, owner of a work as beautiful as it is unequal.

Caetano's work shares several points of intersection with these giants, of course. But where it differs is in its original discourse, distanced from traditional politics. No wonder he collects enemies left and right. He must be the lyricist who uses “I” the most in Brazilian popular music songs. Egocentric? Word with a negative charge. “Confessional” is cuter (see Gil), and carries the indisputable merit of sincerity.

Like Gil, he flaunts the discourse of blackness, although he is “almost white” by the standards of the rogue Brazilian elite. In the song “Pardo” from the new album (arranged by Letieres Leite), he multiplies cultural references: “Nego, your pink is pinker than the pink of the pinkest pink” is Gertrude Stein reinvented in the very first verse. And he adds: “I’m brown and it doesn’t take long for me to feel my blackness grow”.

Hearing always attentive to the multiple sounds that appear in this country, Caetano was smart when quoting “Maravilia Mendonça”, and at the same time lucid in warning that “without samba, it's not possible”, in the same song. Here he quotes a handful of rap stars, from “sambonejo ou pagobrejo”, but the refrain is adamant: without samba, you can't do it.

Obviously Caetano does not defend the starched, mummified tradition of samba. The reading here is broader, and refers to an entire intangible heritage represented by samba. The artist contemplates the scenery, and critically observes how the pieces of the cultural industry move on the board of Brazilian popular music. An antenna of the race, he anticipates trends, reflects on the inexorability of these cultural movements, does not close his eyes and ears to the disturbing reality that enters us through the seven holes of the head.

It is common to see people who adored Caetano in their youth today being critical of him. Let's just say they aged differently, to say the least. It is a paradoxical reasoning to have thought it cool to sing at Chacrinha in the middle of the dictatorship, and find it reprehensible that he sang on Luciano Huck's show. This is nothing more than a Chacrinha without fantasy, an auditorium entertainer like so many others that have fed the television machine since its inception.

Is it horrible? Clear. But why would singing on the Chacrinha show, with its sexist exploitation of women, its rudeness, its sympathy for the military regime, its exploitation of poverty (“Do you want cod?”), be honorable? Tropicália, this aesthetic movement that made contradiction its logic, chose Chacrinha as one of its symbols: it became the “Old Warrior”, as Gil sang.

And yet, the tropicalistas became cultural heroes of the left. Or, at least, from the less dogmatic left. “Times change, desires change”, Camões already pointed out, in one of his most famous sonnets. And he adds: “You change your being, your trust changes.”

Caetano never showed sympathy for Lula. This is an unforgivable sin for petistas. But I suspect the opposite is also true, which would be an unforgivable sin for anyone who enjoys popular music and poetry. In the great popular party that was Lula's re-election, on October 29, 2006, thousands of people celebrated on Avenida Paulista. The success of a progressive government was cause for celebration. When the president went up to the gigantic electric trio, what did he play? A hit by Zezé de Camargo and Luciano, Dona Marisa's favorite song at the time.

Was this the harbinger of new times? The programmer of the event's soundtrack was prophetic. And I suspect that, as much as Caetano is indulgent with the artists of breganeja music, he would say (if he were present): it's impossible without samba. All the sambistas who supported Lula, from Martinho da Vila to Chico Buarque (who aren't just sambistas, of course), were silent in the face of the new government's aesthetic choices.

Lula, with the sagacity that is peculiar to him, invited Gilberto Gil to the Ministry of Culture. Was there an attempt to make a pact with the tropicalistas there? With the Green Party, then frequented by Gil? It was a bold move, and it calmed the disagreements for a while. They had a beautiful government, we had an active and innovative Ministry of Culture, the Pontos de Cultura were seminal.

Caetano's posture continued to be critical, for better or for worse. Never aligned, he is accused of having supported, in Bahia, the infamous Antonio Carlos Magalhães (ACM), something he denied in several interviews. Did he declare that “ACM is beautiful”? Oops, it's registered. Like many people, Caetano has a certain fascination with enlightened despots, although some apply these adjectives somewhat inappropriately. Sebastianist in his own way, he believes that an Indian will descend from a star. “It will come, that I have seen”. The ACM himself claimed never to have received his vote, but it is not a reliable opinion.

Songs like “Haiti” or “Podres Poderes” are more revealing of the composer's perception than biased interviews or mere provocations. A song lyric is heavy, measured, calculated, it is forever. On the new album, Caetano shouts in “I won’t let it”:

Even though you say it's over
That the dream no longer has color
I scream and repeat: I will not!

A master of ambiguity, his first famous refrain, sung throughout Brazil, was “I go, why not?”. And he knows it. This “I won't go” provokes the listener, nostalgic for the times without scarves and without documents, but the lyrics make the new meaning clear: “I won't let / you make fun of our history”. A message for the current holders of power?

All those who do not pay attention to the subtleties, to the minutiae of the artist's speech, lose. It is the same Caetano who volunteers to sing in an MTST occupation, who writes a song dedicated to Marighella (“an urban guerrilla who was arrested by Vargas/ Then by Magalhães/ Finally, by the milicos”). Oh, you weren't paying attention, haven't you listened to Caetano since he said he doesn't like Lula? Do you only like Caetano from the 1970s? Comrade, I'm sorry to say, but you've aged… listen to grandpa!

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

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