Caetano Veloso’s A Foreign Sound

By | September 15, 2004

Theory Culture and Society, PUBLICity

I read about A Foreign Sound at the same time in Le Monde (1) and the New York Times (2). The CD is Caetano Veloso’s homage to the formative influence on him of American popular music (3). The 23 tracks, sung in English, are mostly standards, but also by the likes of Dylan and Nirvana.

When I bought the CD, I found that his notes were as interesting as the quotes he gave to the two journalists:

So the world began with a Big Bang. Not only the strangest creatures in the remotest galaxy appear speaking English in the movies, the Universe itself started uttering a typically short English expression….A character in O Cinema Falado (The Talkies), a feature film that I directed in 1986: “The English language is an important subject for those who want to dominate music because it is the language of domination. My master wants to dominate dominion itself. I’ll teach music to him.” (3)

He cites Jacques Morelenbaum:

Americans think ‘Feelings’ is a real American song; they also think the Wright brothers invented the airplane.” (3)

The song is thought, according to Caetano Veloso,

…to represent the quintessence of an American kitsch hit. But it was copied from a French song of Loulou Gast’s written in Brazil by Morris Albert, a Brazilian who passed for an American. A punk group called The Offspring made an ironic version of this. I chose to take it seriously with a string orchestra, without mockery but in full awareness of this history. (1)

[The album opens with The Carioca]. This piece was taken from a musical comedy, ‘Flying down to Rio’, starring Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers. The film was obviously not shot in Rio and I am sure none of the participants ever came to Rio. The song started out with a tropical rhythm contrived by Hollywood to sound Brazilian to American ears. In reworking this piece, I invited some young percussionists from Bahia who added rhythms formed by mixing samba with Jamaican and Cuban styles. American writers and composers created the finest corpus of popular songs in the twentieth century. But American culture’s historical importance in the world and in our lives can support other commentaries. (1)

Clearly, Caetano Veloso is no lover of rock music. He quotes Frank Sinatra as saying

Rock ‘n’ roll… is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons… it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth…brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious… (3)

Yet he can also admit:

At first I found rock ’n’ roll regressive. I much preferred American songs and jazz music. I began to love rock in 1966. This lack of respect for conventional beauty, this raw way of expressing ideas and feelings changed the face of the earth and the way we listen to the old songs.” (1)

The album’s title comes from Dylan’s ‘It’s alright, ma (I’m only bleeding)’: So don’t fear if you hear/ A foreign sound to your ear. It’s all a question of being open to influences from everywhere while remaining proud of the identity one has forged, a common enough theme in Brazil.

I don’t have a simplistic vision of imperialism. Tropicália [the movement he founded in the sixties when in exile] aimed to take account of the complexity of things. But, against the logic of winners and losers, dear to American puritans, my preference is to present original human experience. (1)

You cannot just be syncretic easily. It's dangerous. It's exciting, too, but being both syncretic and eclectic can be very dangerous because creating, performing, composing, these things demand focus and concentration, and also truth in perspective. If one thinks that he can mix anything with anything, he's in danger of getting lost. But nowadays you can't really avoid facing it. Even if you just concentrate yourself in a national, closed stylistic world, you're just responding to the necessity of recognizing mixtures and the dialogues of styles and cultures. It is the era of comparison, that you can put things side by side and suggest surprising comparisons that will change your way of thinking and feeling. (2)

Even if in the future, if we as Brazilians do nothing and we just go on being poor and unorganized and dominated and corrupt, and we slowly disappear in history — even if this dream is only a glimpse in the ocean of history, till now it is alive, and we live the intensity of this ambitious dream. (2)

This is just one more record of mine, and it's just as Brazilian as all the others. Every little track is filled with layers of histories and emotions. (2)

I visited Brazil in 2000. I was impressed by the size and variety of the place and by the people’s interest in exotic novelties; but even more by its insularity. Brazil amplifies the stature of all its different places and people by being itself, one in the many. I was reminded of nowhere so much as the USA. There is a sort of insouciance and self-sufficiency that comes perhaps from taking the language of a minor European appendage and turning it into a continental culture. I found something there that gives me hope for our world – a society so diverse and so much itself. I dream of a new universal that can only be realized through cultural particulars, as in great fiction. America was once its symbol for me, now it is Brazil.

I have my Realplayer internet radio permanently tuned to a bossa nova station; but this CD brought back the intellectual excitement of that visit. And the Veloso website has an ad for IBM featuring Linux…

1. Stéphane Davet Caetano Veloso croise les deux Amériques, Le Monde, 17.4.2004, translated by KH.

2. Jon Pareles MUSIC; Exile on 57th Street, New York Times, 11.4.2004

3. Caetano Veloso A Foreign Sound, Universal CD, April 2004.

Thanks to Sophie Chevalier for the trip to Brazil and for the idea of writing this piece.

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