Caetano Veloso (Álbum Branco)
Philips – 1969
Recorded while under house arrest in his home state of Bahia, Caetano Veloso’s third album may have lacked the shock value of his previous landmark LP, but it further secured his reputation as one of Brazil’s finest songwriters; its mere existence links it to the defiant spirit of the Tropicália movement that Veloso and Gilberto Gil had spearheaded.
On the morning of December 27, 1968, Caetano Veloso entered the living room of his São Paulo apartment. Waiting there for him were officers of Brazil’s First Army. Though they carried arrest orders, Veloso was not informed of the charges against him as he was taken into custody. Across town, Gilberto Gil – Veloso’s musical compatriot and friend since childhood – was similarly apprehended by military police. Though the artists themselves had recently declared their own “Tropicália” scene dead, they had caught the attention of Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Two weeks earlier, the nation’s president, Arthur da Costa e Silva, had signed the Fifth Institutional Act into law, giving the government broad, unchecked power to crack down on political and cultural dissenters. Veloso, Gil, and their associates in the Tropicália movement hardly fit the profile of the former. In fact, the Tropicalists – particularly Veloso – had been publicly decried by members of Brazil’s left-wing student movement; most famously, Veloso’s performance with Os Mutantes at that year’s third annual International Song Festival ended with the singer-songwriter launching into an impassioned tirade against the hostile crowd, as he and his backing group were pelted with food, garbage, and anything else within arm’s reach.
Instead, what seemed to worry Brazilian authorities about the Tropicalists was their brazen disregard for convention, tradition, and cultural censorship. While young leftists may have turned up their noses at the relatively benign politics of the movement – not to mention its embrace of American and British pop culture – Brazilian audiences were enthralled by the exciting new sounds unleashed by the collective over the previous year: Gil and Veloso’s self-titled records, game-changing debuts from Os Mutantes and Tom Zé, and the remarkable collaborative effort, Tropicália ou panis et circencis. What Tropicália represented – at least through the eyes of a brutal military dictatorship – was a threat to authority; and the fact that their unprecedented music was adorned with cryptic, impressionistic poetry only seemed to make it more dangerous.
Veloso and Gil would be held in prison for nearly two months. As singer-songwriters turned political prisoners under a right-wing South American dictatorship, their experiences were relatively uneventful – at least compared to, say, Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer who was tortured and brutally murdered by the regime of Augusto Pinochet in 1973. At various points, the two Tropicalists were placed into solitary confinement, and Veloso would later recalled how, on some nights, we was awoken by the sounds of other prisoners being tortured. After fifty-seven days, he and Gil were released, for reasons almost as mysterious as those behind their arrests.
For the next four months, Veloso and Gil would be forced to live under house arrest in Salvador, in their home state of Bahia – nearly a thousand miles away from the center of the Brazilian pop scene. It was during this time – with their residential and legal status very much in a state of limbo – that both recorded what would become their first “post-Tropicália” albums.
Veloso wrote eight new songs, and recorded four additional covers, for what would become his second self-titled (and third overall) album. Permitted to work in a small recording studio in Salvador, he laid down the basic tracks – with Gilberto Gil accompanying him on acoustic guitar – along to a metronome click. These sparse recordings were then sent to producer Manoel Barenbein and arranger Rogério Duprat, who – at their studio in São Paulo – added orchestration that included the backing of a rock combo consisting of Lanny Gordin (electric guitar), Sérgio Barrozo (bass), Chiquinho de Moraes (keyboards), and Wilson das Neves (drums); this same group would be similarly employed on the contemporaneous recordings of Gil, which became his own self-titled 1969 record.
Despite the turmoil of the previous six months, there is an almost celebratory feel to several of the highlights from Caetano Veloso (aka Álbum Branco). Opener “Irene,” a re-working of the traditional “Marinheiro só,” the deliberately spacey “Não identificado” – recently recorded for Gal Costa’s brilliant debut solo LP – and the buoyant closer “Alfômega” not only stand out, but each could have found a comfortable home on Veloso’s scene-pacing release from the year before. On each of these tracks, the disconnected nature of the recording sessions is a non-factor, and a party-like vibe permeates throughout.
However, Álbum Branco‘s reputation is also the product of two songs of a decidedly different nature – each of which seemingly point an eye toward Veloso’s next record, 1971’s (also) self-titled album (aka A Little More Blue). Immediately setting these tracks apart is the fact that both are sung in English, but equally important is the sense of weightiness that each brings to the otherwise mostly uplifting record. The first of these songs, “The Empty Boat,” was easily the weariest track in Veloso’s catalog to date. Gil’s insistently repetitive acoustic guitar phrase echoes the existential crisis of Veloso’s lyrics – reflecting on a year that had been defined by both exhilarating highs and terrifying lows. Even Lanny Gordin’s soaring, Hendrix-ian guitar leads can’t shake Veloso out of his despondency.
Better yet is the album’s gorgeous centerpiece, “Lost in the Paradise,” but despite its more upbeat instrumentation, Veloso’s sense of place remains shattered. The contradiction found within the song’s title is further reflected in its surrealist imagery, particularly in its final verse:
I am the sun, the darkness
My name is green wave
Death, salt, South America is my name
World is my name, my size
And under my name here am I
My little grasshopper airplane cannot fly very high
These conflicted lines represent a dramatic turn from the previous year’s “Tropicália” – where a defiant Veloso had stood on a plateau, leading the “carnival” against a nameless-but-known threat.
By the time that Álbum Branco was released in August of 1969, that threat had made its next move known. After being allowed to play a concert for the purpose of generating travel expenses, both Gil and Veloso were “encouraged” to leave Brazil in July. Along with their spouses, the exiled singer-songwriters would settle in London; it would be nearly three years before they were permitted to return home. The albums that each produced in-between their imprisonment and deportation are fascinating entries in their richly rewarding catalogs – records of men with a home, albeit one that had found their presence there increasingly untenable.