The two legends of Brazilian popular music are something akin to poets laureate in Brazil. On April 20-21, they brought their world tour to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. My review from DownBeat (April 2016).
Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil Celebrate 50-Year Friendship in Brooklyn
When the curtain rose, revealing the two un-prepossessing, silver-haired gentlemen seated center-stage and already strumming their acoustic guitars, the audience, a roughly equal mix of Americans and Brazilians spanning all age groups, shouted in recognition, not unlike the way one might greet old friends at a class reunion.
In Brazil, they are known by the single names “Caetano” and “Gil.” Beyond pop stars, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who have been friends since they met in 1963, are something akin to poets laureate in Brazil. This was the second night (April 21) of their two-night New York stand at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s (BAM) Gilman Opera House, the latest stop on a joint world tour in which they played 44 concerts in 21 countries and 35 cities, including U.S. stops in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Miami. The BAM concerts had been sold out for weeks.
The legendary Bahia natives, both 73, played 30 songs over two hours, making the ornate, high-domed opera house as intimate as their own living rooms. Over the course of the evening, they covered much of their 50-year careers in a show entitled, “Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música (Two Friends, A Century of Music).”
For much of that era, their careers have intertwined. Leaders of Tropicália, a late-1960s movement that was both musical and political, each man has reflected and influenced the course of Brazilian society ever since. They began with sambas and bossa nova, then influenced by Dylan, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, among others, their music became impressionistic, sometimes even psychedelic. Their songs were often spiked with social commentary and rebellion against both the repressive authoritarian regime that ruled Brazil and the moral strictures of the country’s buttoned-up Catholic culture. It landed them in jail for a short time, followed by political exile in England, where they continued to write and record. When they were finally permitted to return to Brazil in 1972, they were bigger than ever.
Caetano’s style is hard to describe and has no real analogue in America; imagine a cross between Dylan, Jacques Brel and Pablo Neruda, and you’d be roughly in the right ballpark. His lyrics are by turns political, sensual, and metaphysical. Gil’s music is both traditional and modern, combining regional, folkloric and urban styles of Brazil with American blues, pop, rock and roll, and later pan-African and Caribbean motifs. Caetano is more the sweet-voiced intellectual, Gil the earthy, multi-cultural, spiritual heart of Brazil. Their styles complement and reinforce each other.
Although Brazil is currently in political turmoil once again, the artists offered no commentary on the pending impeachment of the current left-leaning president, Dilma Rousseff, preferring instead to let their songs do the talking.
Throughout the evening they alternated duets with solo performances, during which the other sat at rapt attention; sometimes Gil would tap out the rhythm to a Caetano song lightly on his guitar. They began with a duet of Gil’s “Back in Bahia,” one of his first hit singles upon returning from exile, the original electric boogie refined down to an appealing acoustic blues.
The first half of the evening emphasized Caetano’s songbook, including “Sampa,” (a nickname for Sao Paulo) and “Tropicália,” the song that gave the movement its name. On Caetano’s “Coração Vagabundo (Vagabond Heart),” one of his biggest hits, the audience seemed thrilled to hear Gil’s voice singing the first verse instead of Caetano’s more delicate tenor. By the end of “Terra (Earth),” one of Caetano’s most transcendent songs (inspired by the first photos of the earth from space), he led an audience sing-along on the final chorus, which translates roughly to “Earth, earth / However distant / The wandering navigator / Who could ever forget you?”
For the delightful, slightly naughty Ary Barroso samba “É Luxo Só,” a male appreciation of a Brazilian girl dancing the samba (and one of the few selections not written by the artists), Caetano put down his guitar, stood up and shimmied, over Gil’s samba guitar intro, much to the audience’s delight. Caetano’s London exile song, “Nine Out of Ten,” was sung in English; he also sang moving love songs in Italian and Spanish.
On the Gil masterpiece, “Eu Vim Da Bahia (I Came From Bahia),” Gil and Caetano traded verses over Gil’s subtle, brilliant guitar accompaniment. On this tune and others, Gil truly was a one-man samba band. Other highlights of the Gil songbook were his hits, “Expresso 2222” (named after a train), “Andar Com Fe (Walk With Faith)” and the haunting, virtuosic “Tres Palavras (Three Words).”
For an encore, the pair sang a duet of Caetano’s “Desde Que O Samba E Samba (From Samba Comes Samba),” one of the loveliest songs ever to come out of Brazil. Four more encores followed. The final one was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” with its refrain, “Don’t worry about a thing / ’Cause every little thing is gonna be alright,” inspiring many audience members to sing along. The soothing message, perhaps an oblique reference to the current political tumult in both Brazil and America, echoed over the crowd like a benediction.
An album of essentially the same concert, also titled Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música, was released in the U.S. in April by Nonesuch.