My roommate once noted that I only sing in the apartment when we play Brazilian music. I realized that I remember lyrics to Brazilian songs better than American ones, which I tend to misunderstand. Not only that, but I think my voice sounds better when I sing in Portuguese; the sounds come more easily to me.
In an interview last week with New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff, Caetano Veloso said he believes samba — the national beat that underlies much of his music — came to be in part because of the Brazilian language. Caetano was in New York on the occasion of his two performances with Gilberto Gil at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
The warm and nasal intonations of Portuguese, its smooth rises and falls, are both comforting and pleasurable to me. Having spent most of my life outside of Brazil, but always speaking Portuguese at home, the language remains tucked away in my day to day, something I return to privately or with family.
The voices of Caetano and Gil — “your smile / reflects in your singing / rich rhyme / ray of sun,” the poet Paulo Leminski wrote of Gil — occupy that space. When I was growing up, my mother would sing their lyrics, which always struck me as effortless, elaborate poems. My sister and I set Caetano’s album Outras Palavras as our morning alarm. The floating, lulling sounds of Portuguese set to music serve to fill the gap between here and there.
At BAM on Thursday, the duo opened with Gil’s 1972 “Back in Bahia,” a song about his time living in exile during the Brazilian dictatorship, and his longing for the sun, the salty ocean, and “a heart to feel.” The song epitomizes the Brazilian music of that time, known as Tropicália: a bright and musically dynamic style that mixed samba, bossa nova, and rock, with lyrics that expressed both ache and love for a country which, while milder in its dictatorship than most South American contemporaries, was still censoring and torturing its people.
Caetano and Gil have opened with this song at every concert they’ve given on their now yearlong tour. And here in New York, in a theater full of Brazilians singing along, Gil’s ode to his state of Bahia especially resonated as a song about being far from home — particularly now, when the country’s political and economic crisis has been making front-page international news.
Throughout the show, Caetano and Gil harmonized, finishing each other’s sounds while also allowing one another to momentarily take the spotlight. Previously on the tour, Gil told Caetano that if Caetano stopped making music, he would stop too. In a tour that’s symbolic of a century’s worth of music and friendship, the two artists’ almost symbiotic relationship played out fluidly on stage.
Gil and Caetano’s choices of songs were more subdued than upbeat, heightened by the minimal combination of their voices and acoustic guitars. I sang along, my voice meeting the pitch of the many Brazilian voices in the room as we reached a contemplative mood, collectively communicating our longing for the sounds and people at home in songs like “Desde Que o Samba é Samba.”
In Caetano’s interview with Ratliff, they talked about how bossa nova has been misunderstood abroad as a somewhat frivolous, leisurely beat, whereas it in many ways revolutionized Brazilian music from the 1950s onward. Bossa nova did have its local critics, who claimed the style was not aggressive enough for the political climate, but, as Caetano said in his interview, “quietness can have power.” He talked about the “festive left,” which Tropicália embodied: a largely young, urban, and educated group of people who united in a lively protest culture that primarily used music as a tool.
Ever since political upheaval recently broke out in Brazil, Caetano said he’s observed signs of a “festive left” in the concerts he’s given with Gil. After singing the chorus “Odeio você” (“I hate you”), Brazilian audiences around the world (including at BAM) have responded with “Cunha!” — the name of the widely reviled and corrupt president of the Chamber of Deputies. By inserting themselves into the song, contemporary audiences, Caetano believes, are using similar tactics of protest as the festive left of the ’60s.
I’m not really sure, but the outspoken audience members, while animated, also struck me as embittered. As Caetano likewise noted, the country has never been so politically divided, a notable difference from the ’60s. At BAM, people were holding banners calling for President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment — the main point of contention, and something Caetano has openly opposed. At one point in the interview, he said, “It’s hard to fantasize about the future now if you are a Brazilian because it’s so messy there. … We are living hard times.”
Listening to Caetano and Gil, I at once felt for a past I didn’t experience and thought of a country that, although mine, I can still only grasp from afar. The two musicians played a song that they composed while on tour, called “As Camélias do Quilombo do Leblon.” In referencing the camellia — a flower planted by former slaves and symbolic of the abolition of slavery in Brazil — the song calls for a “second abolition,” which it says will come, despite there being “no end to the suffering of the people of Brazil.” The lightly picked, sprightly bossa nova tune seamlessly blends with Caetano and Gil’s other songs, in a language that, when I sing along to it, has kept me closer to my country.