Tropical Truth By Caetano Veloso trs Isabel de Sena

The singer Caetano Veloso is at the heart of Brazil's vibrant musical culture. Ian Thomson thrills to the king of bossa nova
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The Independent Culture

In the early 1960s, America thrilled to a new dance beat from Brazil. "The Girl from Ipanema", with its languid jazz tones, became a bossa nova anthem and a staple of cocktail lounges. Written by the great Brazilian composer Carlos Antonio Jobim, the song has a hushed intensity of emotion and is suffused with saudade, "yearning" or "nostalgia". (This Portuguese word, pretty well untranslatable, is routinely used to describe Brazilian music.) Jobim was born near Rio in 1927, the city famed for its tropical Ipanema beach. His bossa nova songs cleverly re-interpreted samba slave rhythms for Rio's more affluent white tastes, toning them down, cleaning them up, just as Elvis had done with rhythm and blues.

America was ready for bossa nova. The bebop avant-garde begun by Charlie Parker at the war's end had lost its vim and dwindled into mere saxophone showmanship. Both Jobim and João Gilberto, Brazil's peerless bossanovista vocalist, were influenced instead by the tuneful lyricism of West Coast jazz. This (predominantly white) jazz idiom had originated in the wondrous "Birth of the Cool" sessions led by Miles Davis in New York in 1949, and borrowed in turn from classical music as well as the Southern California sun-and-surf culture that later produced the Beach Boys. In Gilberto's bossa nova vocals, underpinned by Jobim's precisely weighted piano chords, you can detect the hand of Miles Davis and even Chopin. Today, Brazilians of all backgrounds smooch to bossa nova.

This marvellous music would not have conquered the United States without the enthusiasm of Stan Getz. Between 1962-3, the Philadelphia saxophonist recorded five jazz albums which effectively introduced the "new thing" (bossa nova) from Brazil. The first of these LPs, Jazz Samba, was hailed by the poet Philip Larkin as "purely enjoyable", while the legendary fourth, Getz/Gilberto, hogged the US charts at No 2 for all of 1964. (The Beatles were unshakeably lodged at No 1.) These albums, with their suave interweaving of West Coast jazz and Afro-Brazilian rhythms, launched what became known as world music. Unfortunately, they also set in motion the death of bossa nova as American studios began to over-produce the rhythm with flutes and heavenly strings. Frank Sinatra was a fan of this new elevator muzak, and traces of it linger in the best-selling Brazilian dance album Tanto Tempo by João Gilberto's daughter, Bebel Gilberto. (Released in 2000, this slightly cheesy record is apparently Bill Clinton's all-time favourite.)

Undoubtedly, Brazil has more exciting and varied music than any other Latin American country. Scores of rhythms are indigenous to this nation from African animist (candomblé) beats in the north to pagode dance steps in the hillside slums of Rio (where City of God was recently filmed). In this marvellous autobiography, Caetano Veloso celebrates his country's vibrant musical heritage and provides a highly personal view of its importance. Veloso, now 60, is among Brazil's greatest singer-songwriters; four of his songs appeared on David Byrne's Brazilian compilation, Beleza Tropical, 15 years ago, so he is not entirely unknown to the English-speaking world. A supremely gifted melodist, Veloso draws on a bewildering range of influences from Stevie Wonder to bossa nova to the atonal asperities of Webern and Berg. Often labelled the "Bob Dylan of Brazil", Veloso has a glorious singing voice (tinged with saudade) and Brazilians revere him.

In 1968 Veloso helped found Brazil's revolutionary Tropicalia movement, which encompassed music as well as film, theatre and literature. The music, with its oddly juxtaposed samba chords and Hendrix-style blues riffs, was forged partly in reaction to bossa nova's exquisite restraint. Indeed, bossa nova was hardly the language with which to respond to Brazil's military dictatorship which seized power in 1964: a more confrontational music was required. Elizabeth Bishop, the American poet who lived in Brazil between 1952 and 1970, praised the military regime and its support of the United States. Nevertheless it murdered many of Veloso's associates and brought a steadily worse corruption to Brazil.

In reality, as Veloso now concedes, Tropicalia was less a break with bossa nova than its continuation. Like its successor music, bossa nova grew out of ideas propagated by the Brazilian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. In a now famous little book of 1928, Manifesto antropófago, Brazil's leading modernist poet Oswald de Andrade provocatively defined Brazilian art as anthropophagic, or cannibalistic, "eating" other forms of European and African literature and music. Just as Gilberto and Jobim had poached from Debussy and West Coast jazz to forge bossa nova, so Veloso and his fellow Tropicalistas (Jorge Ben, Gal Costa, Tom Zé) ransacked European pop and the classical avant-garde. In fact, João Gilberto is the real hero of this book. Veloso was barely 17 when he heard Gilberto's ground-breaking album, Chega de saudade, in 1959. From then on, says Veloso, Gilberto was "my supreme master". Indeed, Gilberto's jazzy bossa nova vocals were far more rhythmically intense and exciting than anything by Elvis, as they incorporated Brazil's deepest black samba roots.

Most rock bands do not like black music, and Tropical Truth is a salutary corrective to their prejudice. Rock music, for (the no less prejudiced) Caetano Veloso, is both "unoriginal" and "simplistic", as well as fatally limited in its appeal. Bossa nova, at any rate in its "Joãogilbertian" interpretation, appealed to Brazilians of all ages and class, from avant-garde poets to music critics to samba percussion masters from the favelas (slums). Surely nowhere else in the world is music's reach so broad and democratic. Marcelo Bratke, São Paulo's gifted young classical pianist, has recorded the Brazilian rhythms of the French composer Darius Milhaud, as well as love songs by the boozy bossanovista poet Vinicius de Moraes. In Brazil today, bossa nova recommends itself to any level of brow.

Born in Brazil in 1942, Caetano Veloso grew up in Santo Amaro da Purificação, a village close to Bahia in the north and dominated by its black slave roots. His father was a state civil servant and reasonably well-off. Music was important at home, and Caetano's sister Maria Bethania went on to become the "queen of Brazilian song", her voice amazingly deep and androgynous. Young Caetano studied philosophy at the University of Bahia, where he met the future Tropicalista singer Gilberto Gil (not to be confused with João Gilberto). The men became friends as their musical ideas coalesced under dictatorship. At their earliest concerts together in Bahia they sang protest songs while simultaneously eating bananas. ("Jazz is like a banana," Sartre had ludicrously pronounced, "it must be consumed on the spot.") Their counter-culture antics did not please the military, naturally, and Gil and Veloso were promptly jailed.

In late 1969, after a harrowing two months in prison, Veloso was exiled by the military to London. Pelé football- mania had exploded and Monty Python's Flying Circus was in its first television season. Happily settled in Notting Hill, Veloso absorbed British psychedelia and even recorded an album (really not his best) in English. He returned to Brazil three years later, in 1972, after his hero João Gilberto had telephoned him from New York to suggest that they sing bossa nova together live on Brazilian TV.

Though he writes beautifully, Caetano Veloso is not without intellectual pretension (Proust and Lévi-Strauss are laboriously name-checked here). Yet he is such a charming, well-informed and urbane guide, that from beginning to end Tropical Truth is a joy to read. Indeed, there can be no better guide to Brazil's beautiful and bedevilled music.

Ian Thomson's account of Haiti, 'Bonjour Blanc', is to be reissued next spring