DI takes its role as edutainers seriously, and in that spirit we’re spotlighting great albums and choice cuts from 1970-1999 to edify our readers’ musical breadth of knowledge. Each week will focus on a single year and some of the sweetmeat it produced.
Exile (noun): a situation in which you are forced to leave your country or home and go to live in a foreign country.
Between late 1969 and early 1972, Brazilian superstars Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil found themselves sharing a house in London with their families, forced out of their native land because of the trouble they’d stirred up as part of the Tropicália movement. Tropicalismo’s blending of social disobedience, art, and youth culture was reflective of similar movements going on all over the world, but Brazil was still a dictatorship at the time and arranged to have the two luminaries booted after short prison sentences in Brazil. For a sense of how big a deal this situation was imagine the U.S. booting Bob Dylan or Joan Baez at the height of their early stardom.
To say the least, England suited them poorly, a longing for Brazil never far from their thoughts, but the forced stay in London did fabulous things for the music of these two pivotal 20th century artists, the psychedelic revolution (sonically and pharmacologically) and cosmopolitan play of ideas and styles in London putting a happy zap on their creative imaginations. However, the first fruits of these fresh influences reflected a fair amount of homeward longing and alienation in their forcibly adopted new country.
Both released their first (and in Gil’s case only) English-language albums [Veloso made one more, 2004’s cover tunes set A Foreign Sound] in 1971. Both self-titled and featuring somber cover photos, the records are rather un-Brazilian outside of the delicate percussion, occasional bursts of Portuguese, and the thick accented English of the singers. Mostly, both sets explore ground similar to Richie Havens, Bill Withers and Terry Callier with a lovely scoop of solo Syd Barrett – flowing folk-pop uplifted by fits of electricity, grey-tinged humor, compact experimentation, and a pervasive sense of wonder and melancholy. Each reflects the intersection of Brazil’s 60s musical flowering and what was happening in England’s swinging capital, and friends, it’s an exciting, seductive collision.
”Don’t waste your time in looking for sorrow. I’m as sure of the past as I’m certain about tomorrow.”
Veloso’s offering is the more despondent of the two, opening by announcing that his exile has him “a little more blue” than his prison time or the day Carmen Miranda died. Things lift a bit – literally to the skies with a peculiar reference to flying saucers – on “London London” before the tuneful but pointedly sad note to his sister (and fellow musical celebrity still in Brazil) “Maria Bethania,” who he claims “has given her soul to the devil and bought a flat by the sea.” Things grow more poetic and abstract on “If You Hold A Stone” and the romping ”Shoot Me Dead” before holiday super-bummer “In The Hot Sun of a Christmas Day” and Portuguese closer “Asa Branca,” which translates as:
When your tears wet the dry land/ And spread the green of your eyes/ Over the dead trees/ I promise you that/ Then I’ll be back, dear.
But as seemingly forlorn as Veloso’s album may be there’s palpable musical excitement, the swirl of busy London crashing into Caetano’s battered spirit and producing some of his most resonant work.
”We let our moments become what they really had to be. Develop our photographs as simple dreams that will come true.”
While Gilberto Gil’s eponymous ’71 record contains a sighing cover of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” the overall mood is less bleak and more open to play in his exiled circumstances. Drugs may have been a positive factor for Gil, as evidenced on the sweetly speculative “The Three Mushrooms,” which begins, “The first mushroom makes room for my mind/ To get inside the magic room of Dionysus’ house.” – groovy, man. There are still plenty of jabs at the state of being in their chilly U.K. environment including “Babylon” and the mad-but-very-charming disconnection of “Crazy Pop Rock.” Time and memory, perception and reality are puzzled over, and conclusions are few and far between. Gil’s guitar work is superlative throughout, clearly sparked by seeing Jimi Hendrix in action [further confirmed by a great live cover of “Up From The Skies” that’s a bonus track on the wonderful 2007 CD reissue of the album from SF’s Water label]. There is tenderness and turbulence to this song cycle refracted by Gil’s ever-intriguing voice and guitar.
While both Veloso and Gil hightailed it back to Brazil as soon as the powers that be allowed them to, their London years lingered prominently in the music they made throughout the 70s and beyond, heard in the great openness of both artists to dance with any mood, style, instrumentation, etc. that struck their fancy. Being up close to The Beatles, Cream, Hendrix and countless others and bringing their Brazilian sound to the English masses at festivals during those years rubbed off on this pair in positive ways – musically if not personally.