A Musician Who Lays Claim to the World: Caetano Veloso’s “Foreign Sound” and his “Best”

By Daniel Garrett

Caetano Veloso, A Foreign Sound
Nonesuch/Universal, 2004

Caetano Veloso, The Best of Caetano Veloso
Nonesuch,/Warner, 2003

Caetano Veloso has directed a couple of films: Cinema Falado (Talking Cinema, 1986), a collage of monologues, dialogues, and literary quotations, and Bem-Vindo a Sao Paulo (2004), a celebration of Sao Paulo. He has also been featured as an actor and performer in various films, but he is best known as a musician. When I first heard the voice of Caetano Veloso, I thought it was one of the most beautiful male voices I had ever heard: I would put on his Circulado (Elektra/Polygram, 1991) album when I wanted to hear something mellow, but that was not enough for me to stop spelling his name incorrectly. There are various ways of apprehending the musician and writer Caetano Veloso, but the most enjoyable are, for me, two recordings released in the last few years: A Foreign Sound (Nonesuch Records/Universal, 2004) and The Best of Caetano Veloso (Nonesuch/Warner, 2003). The album A Foreign Sound, produced by Veloso and Jaques Morelenbaum, is an English language recording that features songs written by Cole Porter, Kurt Cobain, the Gershwins, David Byrne, Rodgers and Hart, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Irving Berlin. It is a very elegant album, with printed lyrics, interesting photographs, and a note from Veloso. One hears the plucking of guitar strings and orchestral swirls, and Caetano Veloso’s voice is both light and grave. It’s fun to hear him sing Cobain’s “Come As You Are,” which was first recorded by the band Nirvana, and contains sharp contradictions, suggesting not confusion but an aware and complex mind. Veloso uses both a falsetto voice and a low, declamatory voice to interpret “Feelings,” making a song that had become a cabaret cliché sound like a genuine human expression. Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” coming from Veloso, can be heard as a whore’s advertisement, a lover’s cynical awareness of the dating game, and an existential lament. His casually brave singing of the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” is actually one of the best interpretations of the song I’ve heard—I think Diana Ross’s Stolen Moments performance of the song is good too (the strength of both is the intonation of serenity rather than suffering)—and Veloso manages to make the song amusing, charming, proof that Caetano Veloso is capable of more conceptual sophistication than most American male singers. Veloso’s “Cry Me a River” is not enough to make me forget Streisand’s desperately emphatic version of decades past, but his “Jamaica Farewell” is jaunty, terrific. Nature reclaims man-made environments in David Byrne’s “(Nothing But) Flowers” and Veloso’s vocal echoes Byrne in this satirical song. I think that Veloso, who had an English language advisor for A Foreign Sound, mispronounces the word and name “Bronx” in the song “Manhattan,” evidence that tiny mistakes are hard to avoid even in work conducted by a genius. Veloso’s “Summertime” is awkward in comparison to that of Mahalia Jackson, who saw beyond the song’s details to suggest the sorrow of a spirit (her recognition itself was soothing); in Veloso’s version I could hear the song’s irresolvable contradictions: the song seems a lullaby for trouble that neither sleep or parents and only death can stop. More rap than singing is Veloso’s reading of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” but Veloso turns “Body and Soul” into a courtly declaration of love, a troubadour’s offering rather than the half-mad confession the lyrics could be thought to suggest. A Foreign Sound is the work of an ambitious musician who lays claim to the world. The Best of Caetano Veloso is the musician offering sounds that might be more readily identified with him, but they are no less far-ranging and imaginative. Veloso’s work, which consists of many songs that he wrote, is complex, unique, and warm. David Byrne has written the album notes, and he calls Veloso’s music “a sonic representation of a world that allows itself to partake in everything that is available and that works.” The song “O Estrangeiro (The Stranger)” is about travel, sight, blindness, memory, dream, and nationalistic myth, and it mentions Gaugin, Cole Porter, and Claude Levi-Strauss in its opening lines. There’s a cry that the “king is naked,” but “I wake up because all becomes silent/ Before the fact that the king is more beautiful naked.” It’s impressive that on a song such as “Manhata (Manhattan),” a song about an Indian girl, land and water, history, Veloso can perform with such a large group of musicians—instruments include guitar, cello, conga, trumpets, flutes, trombones, and saxophones—and yet the music is delicate: in the song, which could be an account of the taking of the new world, of America, “All of mankind/ Turns its eyes in that direction” and “here wars dance amid/ Love’s peaceful dwellings.” The end of slavery is celebrated in “13 De Maio (May 13th). A song written by Chabuca Grande, “Fina Estampa (Fine Figure),” is a flowery tribute to a gentleman, and features cello, viola, and violins with Veloso’s voice, and the song has a classical sound. “Haiti,” a song written by Veloso in collaboration with Gilberto Gil is about race, poverty, and brutality, about “the epic grandeur of a still unfinished people,” and an atmosphere in which it may happen that “the venerable cardinal declares that he sees so much/ soul in the fetus/ But none in the criminal.” Obviously this is far from the brainless popular music many of us are accustomed to. “Baiao Da Penha,” written by Guio de Moraes and David Nasser, is a sung prayer for voice and guitar. In Tomas Mendez Sosa’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma (Cucurrucucu Dove)” Caetano Veloso caresses the lyrics in a way he does not his English-language songs, and that is especially impressive as the song’s theme—grief over a lost love—is so old, so often treated, that anyone could be expected to fail in interpretive intensity given it. A song about singing that Veloso wrote, “Um Tom (A Tom)” has the simplicity of a folk song. “Tradicao (Tradition),” written by Gilberto Gil, is a song about watching a young attractive couple in a city, and there’s a certain sexual ambiguity that becomes unabashed: “I watched her so much I ended up watching the boy she was going out with” and it turns out that boy is also watching the narrator. The Best Of Caetano Veloso also has other love songs, ballads and uptempo, and includes a tribute to film director Michelangelo Antonioni in a song bearing his name and the lyrics: “Vision of silence/ Empty street corner/ Page with no sentence/ Letter written on a face/ In stone and mist/ Love/ useless window.” David Byrne said in his notes for The Best of Caetano Veloso that Veloso “has reconciled innovation with beauty, intelligence with sentimentality, worldliness with localness and sexual androgyny with time.”

Daniel Garrett’s commentary on Caetano Veloso originally appeared in his long article “Iconography,” for Offscreen, a film journal, in 2006.