Gilberto/ Veloso / Gil / Bethânia – Brasil | Review


João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil & Maria BethâniaBrasil Philips 6328 382 (1981)

There is an old observation that the (western) musical stars of the 1950s and 60s often struggled for relevance in the 1980s.  Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan…these aging stars may have retained some popularity but their work in the 80s is generally critically reviled — and they were definitely less popular and less commercially successful than before.  But why?  My own view is that these changing perceptions and fortunes rested on wider changes in the sociopolitical context, namely the ascendancy of neoliberalism as represented by a shift in a balance of power between labor and capital that undermined the relative power of these stars’ old audiences bases.  At least, all this makes perfect sense when looking at the United States, where those older popular music stars were once associated with revolutionary and iconoclastic new ideas that challenged establishment power.  What about Brazil though?  Brazil was ruled by a reactionary military junta from 1969 to 1985.  Every one of the top billed musicians on this collaborative album Brasil was associated with the (intellectual/middle class) political left — Veloso and Gil were jailed and/or exiled by the junta for a time and Gilberto went into self-imposed exile too.  But by the 1980s, the junta was fading and its power loosening.  In other words, the sociopolitical climate in Brazil was changing in a manner directly opposite to the United States.  No doubt, the junta still held power in 1981 and, in a way, Brazil was changing in order to converge and collaborate with the neoliberal Washington Consensus.  But the sociopolitical vectors here were nonetheless in opposite directions.  This was much like the situation in Spain with the decline of the fascist Franco regime.  So comparisons to, say, the Spanish flamenco artist El Camarón de la Isla are apropos.  New opportunities were presenting themselves in Brazil and Spain that instead seemed to be becoming foreclosed in the United States.

Brasil is a collection of collaborative recordings that speak to a sort of traditional pop sensibility but with a modern (leftist) twist.  Most of the artists here were already starting to drift into irrelevancy, except for João Gilberto who maintained a quite isolated independence and made some of his very best recordings in the coming years.  The problem was also that in the absence of the junta these artists mostly just accommodated themselves to neoliberal imperatives and their music was accordingly listless and vapid, though sometimes adequately mediocre.  But on Brasil there is a spark of challenge.  There is a sense of courage in making a limited yet persistent challenge to the ideology of the reactionary junta.  As someone later said about Greece decades later, “To persist in such a difficult situation and not to leave the field is true courage.”  This album represents a unique historical juncture when challenges to the junta’s regime had potential, and this album reflects those possibilities.  Sure, it occasionally drifts into regrettable synthesized production treatments so common of the day, but only slightly and not to much overall detriment.  The subversive aspect of this album is, unusually, its laid-back demeanor, which instills both a sense of introverted, existential anxiety and a relaxed charm that suggests social changes will still offer an environment that is enjoyable.  It also melds the old and the new in a way that has a high degree of difficulty.

Caetano Veloso – Transa


Caetano VelosoTransa Philips 6349 026 (1972)

Here is an album for which its greatest strength is a sense of indifference, with the most recognizable features resembling an aftertaste.  Caetano Veloso seems distant on Transa.  The music has lyrics that are ostensibly personal, but the music throws together many different styles, from different cultures and geographies, rather carelessly. This stands in contrast to Veloso’s own description.  He considered it very deliberate, an album that reflected what he tried for.  Veloso has named this as a personal favorite of his own work.  This also frequently is named one of the best Brazilian rock albums.

The folk-rock of Richie HavensRichard P. Havens, 1983 (1969) seems a fair comparison, though Veloso is inherently more musical in how quickly he shifts from one sound to the next and how disparate and diverse his influences are.  Perhaps even Love‘s Forever Changes (1967) is a fair comparison too, if nothing else because of the sense of inward reflection and the confluence of disparate styles.  But Transa is a more fluid mashup.  For instance, the opener “You Don’t Know Me” suddenly shifts from a mellow guitar line to a quickened pace interrupted by a stark and haunting ascending chord progression lifted from Hendrix‘s “The Wind Cried Mary” on electric guitar, then back to the opening pace, then driven to more intense singing bolstered by propulsive drumming, then by the end of the song the rockish instrumentation is dominated by flamboyant acoustic guitar noodling that inverts the buildup, allowing the song to wrap up with staccato rhythms that blend all the instruments together with Caetano singing in his most didactic and dramatic tone like a deathly serious European chanson à texte or poezja śpiewana singer.  The epic progression of the song is completely undersold, especially the way the very conclusion of the song seems to be an unresolved melodic figure, yet it is also the crux of how the song works.

You might say this is a completely existential album.  Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus” wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”  For Camus, this meant embracing the absurd, unreasonable world, without any guarantee of meaning, and accepting the need for revolt, freedom, and passion in the face of absurdity.  That is more or less what Caetano attempts here, privileging nothing and holding out no hope of any kind of transcendence.  This is, ultimately, what separates Transa from Richie Havens, Love, or any of the hippie artists of the North Atlantic region.  The song “Neolithic Man” has the lines “I’m in the silence that’s suddenly heard / After the passing of a car.”  What is this nonsense!  Indeed!  This is an album that requires acceptance that Caetano will ramble on about listening to reggae music and what nine out of ten movie stars will make him do (answer: cry), then turn to bongos and kitschy bass lines on a song that is a dirge for his home state in Brazil — he casually asserts that any music, commercial or artistic, can be used to make any point, all without any overt claims to experimentation with form or content.  Such acceptance does not come so easily.  And so, Transa may not be immediately appealing.  Yet it is an album for which an appreciation can grow.  I still prefer Veloso’s second self-titled album (AKA Álbum branco) from 1969, but Transa is nonetheless another excellent platter.