There's a moment in the 2002 Spanish film Habla con Ella ("Talk With Her") when an opening shot of a man swimming underwater pans out slowly and a gorgeous song begins to play. With the accompaniment of live guitar and a small orchestra, the tune, "Cucurrucucu Paloma," instantly captivates all the actors on screen and seemingly most of us who sat in theaters around the world with tears in our eyes. It's a deliriously beautiful moment in an insatiably beautiful film, but for all of Habla con Ella's stellar acting and compelling plot lines, it's the three-minute cameo of Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso that leaves the lasting impression.
Operating as a tour de force within the realm of popular global music for the past 40 years, Veloso has maintained his ability to make your stomach quiver or tears well up in the corners of your eyes throughout his career. The 65-year-old Grammy Award winner is also kooky enough to pull this off just as easily in a rock song as he does with a love ballad.
His midrange soprano vocal stylings and off-brand arrangements have been the principle export in Brazilian music since he helped carry the genre of tropicalismo from the beaches of Bahia to the world at large in the mid-1960s. More so than Jorge Ben, Tom Zé, Gal Costa, or even Sergio Mendes, the unpredictable compositions of Veloso pack concert halls worldwide to this day and have gotten him labeled as "one of the greatest songwriters of the [20th] century" by the New York Times.
Interestingly, instead of accepting such accomplishments and fading into musical obscurity, Veloso is still on the road nine months out of the year, playing shows internationally and keeping the energy of his generation alive through song. Veloso represents not only a nation and a craft but also the infallible counterculture of the '60s that couldn't stop if it wanted to.
Corresponding via email amid his latest tour, Veloso admits that he can't stop writing new songs, he can't stop making music, and as long as his vocal cords and fingers are in shape, he won't stop touring.
Despite his graying hair and a few wrinkles, it's hard to think of Veloso as old. He manages to keep his ear to the streets and is just as knowledgeable about the rhythms in his native Bahia as he is of the funk carioca happening with youth in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
"I don't know exactly what kind of music from the favelas is being glorified by Americans," he writes. "Is it the great rap phenomenon of São Paulo's Racionais MCs? Is it the so-called funk carioca? Or would it be Bonde do Rolê, a group from the South that emulates with irony the funk from Rio favelas? Or new samba singers and composers? Whatever. All these things are interesting to me, and I have always loved it."
It's obvious he knows his stuff as he gets to the origins of the music and the gringo intoxication with it. "Funk carioca was first inspired by Miami Bass," he continues. "It's a fascinating phenomenon. Critics in Brazil first snubbed it. Now, after some European successful presentations of Rio funk DJs and performers, they are paying better attention to it."
Veloso should know a thing or two about fighting for recognition in the face of cultural criticism. When he and long-time friend Gilberto Gil were fashioning tropicalismo into a fire-breathing revolutionary movement, the art and music they were creating didn't go over well with Brazil's government. It was a step that would get both of them jailed and eventually exiled from Brazil in 1968. Even though they may have seemed temporarily defeated, their musical courage planted seeds that are still bearing fruit. Today, Gil is not only a popular musician but he's also the minister of culture for Brazil. It's a historic title to be bestowed upon such a cultural dissident. Asked what he thinks of all this, Veloso shows a political side that hasn't been tamed after all these years.
"First, I didn't want him to accept [President Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva's] invitation," Veloso says, "but it made him happy, so that's all right. He's been very useful to Lula's government and to Brazil. He has brought visibility to the Ministry of Culture, and he has also focused attention to the new ways of looking at copyrights and discussing ideas from the Creative Commons movement. His ministry has no money, but he has not been an innocuous minister."
Not surprisingly, both Gil and Veloso are still releasing new material. They released new albums within weeks of each other earlier this year, and old tropicalia pals Os Mutantes are on the road again. The culture war in Brazil was one of attrition. Veloso and company are still going strong. With so many artists of his generation, once thwarted by the government, still producing relevant music to this day, does Caetano ever feel victorious?
"I sometimes think it's funny, but I never thought, 'We won,' " Veloso answers. "We didn't win. Things we fought that were on the right as well as in the left are still around." As are his comrades. "Two months ago, I played together with [Os Mutantes] in a rock festival in São Paulo and found their talent still amazing. It sounded relevant to anybody who loves music anywhere in the world."
The same can be said of Veloso's latest album, Cê. The music he's making now is a somewhat stripped-down version of his former rocker days, yet it's still beefed up from the ballads and love songs that have made him an icon. He's still lobbying on behalf of Afro-indigenous rights in certain songs and refusing to make music without purpose. If you want to know what keeps him going, his answer is simple:
"I think it's got to be that way. Artists fight for the impossible."