Originally published in Arthur No. 2 (January, 2003)
Tropicalista Caetano Veloso remembers authoritarian Brazil, 1968: tanks, hallucinogens, music, street protests, literacy campaigns, witchcraft cults and TV variety shows
Caetano Veloso, now 60 years old, is widely recognized as one of the most important and innovative pop musicians of the 20th century. As a young musician coming of age in the right-wing military dictatorship that was Brazil of the late 1960s, Veloso co-founded the Tropicalia movement, a collective of Bahian artists, poets and performers that included the musicians Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Tom Ze and Veloso’s closest friend, the musician Gilberto Gil. The Tropicalistas, as they called themselves, were dedicated to making a fundamentally new and rule-less music out of traditional Brazilian pop and the radical new rock n roll arriving from England and America. In this excerpt from Tropical Truth: A Story Of Music and Revolution In Brazil, his new memoir of the period, Veloso details how the cultural movement was overtaken by the political developments of the day—and how a strange hallucinogenic drink from the Amazon opened personal artistic and intellectual vistas for him and other Tropicalistas…
Carlos Marques, a young Carioca journalist who had gone to the Amazon region to report a story, brought back for Gil [Gilberto Gil] a bottle of something he said was an indigenous sacred drink that produced dazzling visions and heightened states of consciousness. Gil took some on the same day that he was supposed to fly to Rio to pick up Nara, his two-year-old daughter, and bring her back to São Paulo. He says that when he arrived at the Santos Dumont airport, he came upon a group of military officers who were there to inaugurate some exhibition connected with the air force. The changes in perception caused by the drug were just starting to take effect, and he arrived back in São Paulo saying that he’d become aware of extraordinary things in the presence of those officers. It was as though he had understood in that moment the true meaning of our destiny as a people under authoritarian oppression, and at the same time he could see himself as an individual, alone, carefully carrying his small daughter, but also able to feel—beyond his fears and political inclinations—a love for the world in all its manifestations, including the military oppressors.
The 1964 coup—which the military dates to March 31 but which really happened on April 1, the day of fools—had caught me precisely at the moment when I felt ready for a politically responsible and socially useful action.
Professor Paulo Freire, a left-wing Catholic educator, had created a very effective method of overcoming adult illiteracy, which involved concurrent education in social and political issues. It is important to point out that at the time no one would have deemed such a program political propaganda camouflaged as education. Indeed, with the exception of the reactionary forces that plotted the coup, there was a consensus that Brazil needed such “basic reforms,” a vision shared by the federal government (which was deposed for that reason as well). The classes taught by Paulo Freire’s teams were seen as instructive in the broadest sense, a means of preparing the general population for great social changes. Furthermore, the social and political implications of Freire’s method entered the courses as subsidiary to the final objective, which was to teach adults to read. Yet the Brazilian social structure, entrenched since colonial times down to the unconscious level, reacted against the double threat posed by accelerated literacy and politicization of Brazil’s poor.
I had attended a meeting to train volunteer instructors when the news broke that a coup was going to take place that night, causing the work to be suspended. Some of the participants wanted to continue, arguing that it was no doubt an unfounded rumor. But the more experienced ones immediately canceled the meeting, advising us to go home while they investigated the possibilities of resistance. The next day classes were canceled, and rumors circulated of professors under arrest or being questioned, and of the whereabouts of missing students. Even more frightening were the tanks in the streets. I have a very vivid memory of the sensation I felt walking from the end of the line in the Nazaré neighborhood, where I lived, to the old faculty building of the university, in the middle of Joana Angélica Street. Looking at the tanks, I asked myself whether I had the courage to take part in a revolution, whether I was willing to lay down my life for the social causes I thought I supported. But at that moment—and from that moment on—I was not sure what “my life” meant. The silent streets, the tanks, everything seemed unreal. I felt fear and hatred for the army in the streets, with its soiled colors and anonymous air. I childishly wished it would all go away quickly.
Between 1964 and 1968 the Brazilian cultural movement not only intensified, but took on even more markedly leftist overtones, bringing together writers, actors, singers, directors, plays, films, and the public in a kind of spiritual resistance to the dictatorship.
Politics was never my forte. But I saw myself faced continually with the demands for political definition, in the realm of artistic creation as much as in that of individual conscience.
When I was seven years old, I commented one night at dinner that my teacher had told us communists were bad. My father—filling me with pride by addressing me as an equal—told me not to listen to that kind of talk, because communists, generally speaking, were intelligent individuals fighting for justice among men. His face seemed irate, but it was clear that his anger was not with me but rather with the teacher whose aim was to instill fear. That episode taught me to distrust anti-communists ever after. There was in my father’s tone a complicity with greatness (a profession of faith in greatness, and perhaps a recognition of a vocation for it in me), and that, too, filled me with pride. And so I grew up seeing anti-communism on some level as the reaction of the mediocre against any particular greatness I might possess. At the end of the war, my father was proud to have carried on his shoulders my brother Roberto, who was little then; he made him wave the flag of the Soviet Union during the parade (the Carnival of Victory) in Santo Amaro. He had done so to demonstrate pointedly his resistance to the reigning Catholic anti-communism—thus taking an independent position at the dawn of the Cold War. On the other hand, there was a photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the wall of our dining room. My father used to say that this homage—which lasted perhaps a few years—was owing to the fact that this American president had been a great defender of democracy, and so my father did not endorse the anti-Americanism typical of communist sympathizers. At the end of the sixties, during tropicalismo, the ideas of the New Left concerning sexual freedom, changing lifestyles, and so on, allied to the renewed prestige of Hollywood and rock, opened up a space in which it was possible to scorn orthodox communism. The “Big Party” was old hat, aside from being perennially hitched to whatever might be useful to Moscow where the internal politics of each country was concerned. The Cuban revolution, which seemed to promise a mulatto socialism in the tropics, minus the shadows of the European East, had not garnered in Cuba itself the support of the Communist Party. We believed, to paraphrase the Leninist saying, that “leftist ideology is the infantile illness of communism,” and further, that the French, Brazilian, and American students, by identifying with Fidel against the Party, and by supporting Che Guevara against Fidel, would cure all the Lefts of the senile illness of orthodox communism.
In 1967 and 1968, when the military president was Artur da Costa e Silva, an ex-minister for the armed forces and Castelo Branco’s rival, the rejection of the dictatorship overflowed the theater auditoriums, spreading out into the streets. The demonstrations increased, and student leaders appeared in the headlines.
A student called Edson Luís was killed by the police in Rio during a demonstration at the student cafeteria, and the resulting wave of indignation compelled the leaders of the students, religious groups, workers, and artists to organize a protest that drew more than a hundred thousand into the streets of Rio. Gil and I came from São Paulo to take part in it. There were some uncertainties as to whether the demonstration would be repressed or whether there would be violence. But the only noticeable presence of the mechanism of repression was an army helicopter that followed the demonstrators’ movements from above. Some of the participants declared proudly that the oppressors had been driven back by the sight of the multitudes—the leading lights of Brazilian culture among them. After that protest, many smaller ones followed. In São Paulo one could sense a great indifference or even hostility on the part of the population, while in Rio it seemed the city supported the marches. Confetti would fall from the buildings in the center of town, and the climate was friendly, but this only provoked the military police to intensify their reactions.
During one of the long nights of conversation and beer at 2002, Waly, Luís Tenório (a friend of Dedé’s from Salvador who would later become a famous psychoanalyst), and I had stayed up until daybreak, and we continued to talk nonstop until the sun was high. Suddenly, we became aware of a commotion in the street. Looking down from the twentieth floor, we saw that it was a student demonstration against the dictatorship. I decided to go see it at close range, and Waly and Tenório came along. The procession was moving along Ipiranga Avenue, and when it came to República Square, it was intercepted by police detachments in huge armored cars, whose appearance caused the students to disperse in all directions. Many were caught by the police and beaten. My two friends remained at my side, quiet and tense. I was wearing an old European military jacket (a general’s tunic) over my naked torso, jeans, sandals, and an Indian necklace made of big animal teeth. My hair was then very long, still a rarity at that time, and most observers found me threatening as I approached them. I questioned the by-standers, challenging their fearful indifference to (or perhaps tacit support of) such brutality. But men and women still hurried by, scared of the demonstrators, the soldiers, me. I was sure that, under the circumstances, I was untouchable, and I felt possessed by a holy wrath. In truth, no one would have known what to make of this strange apparition amid the upheaval, the confrontation between the students and soldiers. Anyone listening to me listened out of fear, willing to endure any outrage in order to escape. And outrage is what they heard. The soldiers barely paid me any mind: I was moving against the flow of the students, my course a tangent, in fact, to the eye of the storm, and I did not appear to be one of the demonstrators. I yelled furiously, but no soldier ever came close enough to hear what I was saying. I ended up returning home, still scolding passersby as everyone dispersed and the tanks collected their prisoners. When I read those commentaries alleging the narcissism of the protests in France that May—that the demonstrators were more theatrical than political—it occurred to me I had been right after all to accept Guilherme’s invitation to make a song out of “it is forbidden to forbid.” Now amid this strange descent into the streets, I was conscious of having enacted something—a serious and extravagant performance by the light of the sun, an improvisation of political theater, a poem in action. I was a tropicalista, free of ties to traditional politics, and therefore I could react against oppression and narrowness according to my own creativity. Narcissus? I did feel myself at that moment above Chico Buarque or Edu Lobo, or any of my colleagues thought to be great and profound.
It was in this climate of delusionary exaltation and conflagrations in the street that auasca [ayahuasca], the hallucinogenic drink Carlos Marques had brought back from the Amazon, made its appearance. Following his own experience with it on the flight from Rio to São Paulo, Gil proposed we “trip” together. (At the time it was already common among musicians and becoming the fashion among followers of rock and tropicalismo, as well as the growing ranks of dropouts.) He came over to my apartment with a bottle and poured us each the amount that Marques (“Marx”) had recommended: a little over half a glass. My first experience with a drug other than alcohol or tobacco had been a catastrophe. At fourteen, during the first Carnival I spent in Santo Amaro after coming back from my first year in Rio, Luís César, a friend from high school, suggested that we get high together using an atomizer of what was known as Carnival perfume. The atomizer was synonymous with happiness for me: the perfume was sold in little golden vials or small glass jars, and when it was sprayed on the skin it felt ice-cold and vanished within seconds; we could aim it at girls and hint at amorous passions—it held the aromatic suggestion of a dream. My father used to buy a little bottle for each of us (how he respected Carnival!), but many times I had heard him condemn the practice of using it as a narcotic and warn of the danger of cardiac arrest. Nevertheless, I would hear some of my older acquaintances (including my brothers) praising the marvelous “high.” So when Luís César proposed the experiment, I resisted for a long while, but there came a point when my intense curiosity overcame my fear.
I inhaled a handkerchief drenched in the liquid, and in a second became the unhappiest person on earth. The whole illuminated night of the square in Santo Amaro was plunged into a darkness that seemed to be emanating from me, and a buzz in my ears, which oscillated but also seemed to grow steadily more intense, made me feel I was losing the world—and losing myself to the world. The most ferocious and childish fear of ceasing to be took possession of me in those seconds that seemed to last an eternity. An incommensurate happiness would take hold of me as I felt myself returning to life, but it was not enough to prevent me from falling into a kind of depression immediately following the high, spoiling both my Carnival of 1957 and the following days. I had visited a hell in which the unbearable absurdity of a disembodied spirit—a consciousness without a purpose—was in horrible evidence: I had always hated the idea that we continue to feel after death. So today whenever I hear someone tell of the spirits of deceased parents communicating with the living, I feel a solitary torment.
Gil, Dedé, Sandra, Péricles Cavalcanti, Rosa Maria Dias (then Péricles’s wife), Waly, Duda, and I each had a dose of auasca. Everyone drank it immediately, while I hesitated; years after that experience with the atomizer, and a little over a year before that night, I had known an equally infernal suffering on account of marijuana, into which I was initiated along with some of my Bahian friends by a black American woman who had come to live in Salvador, a very interesting person, whose activities in the city we could never quite fathom. She had large quantities of weed of the highest quality, and she gave each of us a joint. Not knowing that it was too much, I smoked the whole thing, dragging on it and holding the smoke in as she instructed. When I finished the joint, still saying that I did not feel a thing, I got up to go to the window. In one blow, the light disappeared (it was daytime), my heart raced, my mouth dried up, and my body went numb—especially my legs. At the window the cobblestones below appeared to be glued to our third (or fourth) floor windowsill. I understood that this was just the beginning. None of my friends—like me, all first-timers—had a similar reaction. Understanding my desperation they started to concentrate on taking care of me. I felt very far away, longing intensely for the very people who were right there with me. I felt a desperate longing for Bahia, for myself, for Dedé, for life. They gave me sweets, milk, orange juice. Nothing made me feel better. I suffered like a madman for about five hours. When I began to notice I was coming down, an intense love, there is no other word for it, began to take hold of me, toward the people who were there—each and every one of them—as well as the walls, the furniture, the floor of the house, and then for the neighborhood of Barra, and the world. But the interminable hours of anguish—the altered sense of time made them seem like millennia—left me traumatized, so that I promised myself I would never smoke that stuff again.
So now here I was, before the only glass of auasca that had not been emptied. I had listened to Gil’s arguments as he tried to convince me: unlike marijuana, auasca did not cause a failure of light perception, numbness, drunkenness, or tachycardia. You would remain clearheaded and slowly begin to perceive things with greater intensity: lights, colors, textures, relations between forms, and sometimes things that were not “real,” although they could be seen clearly. Wanting to free myself from fear, out of curiosity and the need to share, I raised the glass and drank it. At first it simply seemed to me that the Pink Floyd record Gil had put on was funny. Then the nylon rug in the sound room began to show its peculiar way of being: each neutral tone—straw, sand, ice, ash, and a thousand off-whites—said so much: the speed of vibrations that produced the neutral tone’s appearance, the foolishness of man’s pretense of imitating beauty, or the unity of the moment in which we found ourselves facing each other. I lingered over each object and marveled at how deeply I could understand it. I knew everything about that piece of wood appearing beneath the rug, as if understanding the history of every bit of matter. I was moved by the drama of all inanimate things: it wasn’t as though they had a consciousness, but rather as though I were a consciousness that could pierce everything, including the deep consciousness of unconscious entities. Sometimes it seemed possible to perceive how molecules came together to form this or that perceptible effect: cloth, plastic, paper. I followed the workings of atoms, of chance and convention in the creation of recognizable forms.
The others started to move about in a way that attracted my attention. Sandra went in and out of the room with a serious expression on her face; her eyes were hard and she was frightened. I thought she looked like an Indian. Gil had tears in his eyes and was saying something about dying, or having died, I don’t know which. Dedé circled the room saying that she saw herself in a different place. It made me very happy to see that the others were so clearly themselves. I closed my eyes. Colored points of light appeared in the unlimited darkness, organizing themselves in pleasant patterns. The points were more and more richly organized. The way they fell into place seemed both inevitable and chosen freely by me. I wished for this or that movement and it was immediately, fatally so. Circular forms composed themselves of beautiful luminous points dancing. And little by little I knew who each one was. They were many, of both sexes, all of them naked, and they looked like Hindus.
To say that those figures were dancing around in circles is to try to translate into ordinary language the sensation of absolute harmony those forms produced. I instantaneously alternated—opening and closing my eyes—between the observation of the exterior world and the experience of that world of images as it became each time more dense. In fact, gradually I could recognize things seen with my eyes closed as indubitably more real than my friends who were physically present in the sound room, more real than the walls or the rugs. The conception of space itself—the room in the apartment, the city, the world; the distance between people, the dimensions of the furniture—all was sustained at the price of an ironic recognition of its precarious conventionality.
Dedé called me over to the small carpeted veranda adjacent to the living room. She wanted to show me something amazing: São Paulo by night, seen from the window of our twentieth floor, under the influence of auasca. I don’t know what she saw. It’s obvious that we were expressing similar reactions without much explanation. What impressed me most was the sensation that the city was dead. Not that it was sad—much less ugly. It was immense, metallic, brilliant even though dark (everything seemed dark) but, unlike Dedé, our friends, the apartment—even the nylon rug—and above all the Hindu angels I could see behind my eyelashes, it seemed to have no life. I returned to the sound room and to the celestial experience with my closed eyes.
Years later, when I read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, I quickly understood his observations on the role of color in the mind’s validation of the reality of what it perceives. Black-and-white—or some monochrome—is the very sign of the representation, the abstraction, of irreality. Color, rather than seeming to us a mere attribute (as some of my friends who took issue with Huxley would have it), has the feel of reality as vision captures it. No doubt we automatically use color as proof of reality, among the other indicators that distinguish the real from hallucinations, illusions, and dreams. We come to an intuition of the evidence of reality. In the case of visions caused by auasca, especially because of color—and in spite of the fact of there being no verification through sound, touch, or smell—it was obvious to me that what I saw with my eyes closed was more real than what I saw with them open. But what does more real mean? I could see myself seeing what I was seeing and though I knew that it was all illusion, I was able to tell what came closer to absolute truth. There was no discounting of everyday reality: I knew myself, and mine, and the world, and my capacity to love was much enhanced in this respect. Rather, I had come into contact with a deeper and more intense level of reality. And the fact that I could love more what was thus represented contributed to the intensity of my love for common reality. I felt happy. But this happiness, though sweepingly felt, was nonetheless seen from afar, a mere aspect of that other world, less real than the one of the Hindu angels.
These were also recognized as my ancestors: all the people who ever existed, who might ever exist. These were also the people who actually existed. Unlike us, they had existed always and forever, the unending circle of their dance (this was a circle, though its limits could not be seen, and though it was not two-dimensional, nor was it a sphere) was a movement that brought the absolute closer. We were contingent, they were essential.
The dance of the Hindus described how the center of everything was formed: and without ceasing to be a multitude of naked dancers, it was also a face and a fountain. I knew that I was coming closer to the ultimate meaning of all things, as if I were literally seeing the face or source of God. Everything emanated perennially from that face. That fountain looked and knew. The angels were not simply lending their naked bodies that the pattern might come into being: their kind appearance, that quality of the color of their skin, the style of their movements, everything communicated the idea of face and fountain. They brought in their glances and gestures (it’s important to remember that I felt I knew each one individually) the message of power, knowledge, inevitability, and the greatness of the face of the person-fountain.
There before that representation of the idea of God, I felt that shrinking of one who apprehends that the face of the Creator cannot be contemplated. The fact is, at that moment, I thought that perhaps I had gone too far. But my memory permits another interpretation of that moment when the effect of the auasca began to fade: I did not wish to stop seeing things; rather I wanted, all of a sudden, never to have seen what I just saw, never to have felt what I had been feeling. An overwhelming sense of exhaustion, combined with a great excitement, brought me to a state of despair. I decided to open my eyes and leave the sound room, where I had been nearly the whole time, and to go to the dining room. But the infinitude of complex mental processes this action implied paralyzed me. Then I was afraid of being mentally incapable of deciding to take ten steps. I understood, with the same clearheadedness with which I had come to understand everything I had seen under the influence of the drug, that I was mad. In short: I was no longer able to return whole—as when I had seen the angels and atoms—without losing the world, nor was I able to reintegrate myself into this world whose reality had been challenged. In any event, my mind was exhausted by the aesthetic, logical, and affective operations so spontaneously acted out. I felt the same longing for people and things I had felt from the perfume and marijuana, only this time I felt like a ghost in the shadowy periphery of life, I felt alive, all too alive, full of active nerves and in a state of uncontrollable disorder.
I yanked myself violently out of immobility, but realized to my dismay that this act of will did not return me entirely to myself. The suddenness with which I moved and the screams with which I tried to communicate what I was feeling worried my friends who, from that moment on—as they were all now coming down from their own trips—tried to calm me with caresses and reproofs. I remember Duda talking to me very seriously as if to ascribe to my capacity for self-control a moral responsibility. And Dedé saying little, making herself invisible, trying to find a moment when she might be truly helpful. In retrospect, I see them both being so characteristically themselves! I knew that I no longer knew who or what I was. I then asked Dedé to take me to the bathroom mirror. Seeing myself, I thought, would bring me back. But what I saw in the mirror—though in my recollection I know it to have been exactly my face, no more, no less—seemed an indecipherable image. For some hours I walked around the apartment, the intensity of the pain multiplying with the prospect of its continuation and the awareness of its already interminable duration.
Strangely enough, of all the friends present that day, only one comes to mind as being in some way connected—as agent or mere spectator—to the first moments of the hope of improvement. Waly Salomão, with his wide face, his genuine modesty belied by a meretricious egocentricity, his sweetness checked by his brightness and sometimes arbitrary reactions—all seem to have qualified him to welcome me back to life.
Waly had been introduced to me in the same way João Gilberto had: a classmate from college, Wanderlino, told me that since I liked crazy stuff, I should meet this marvelous fellow from his hometown (the city of Jequié, in the Bahian hinterland) who was a lot like me. He told me he would bring him to Severino Vieira (Waly went to Central School) to introduce us. Wanderlino had also spoken to him about me. After two false starts, we finally met. Waly was no disappointment, but while he appeared to find me pleasant, he betrayed no particular enthusiasm. Wanderlino, however, knew better: soon Waly and I had become friends, and we remain so to this day. His ability to surprise with unsuspected and revealing associations of ideas, his genuinely anarchic humor, his scary intelligence, and finally his immense energy, as destructive as it is enriching—all this I relish.
On the day of the auasca trip I understood clearly what I had always intuited: it was not to be an easy return. Seated with Waly Salomão on the small carpeted veranda, the sun already streaming in through the windows, I groped my way with the expectation of resigning myself to a provisional and precarious alliance with reality. I think the others, Dedé included, had gone to bed, reassured by the outward signs of my return to normalcy. Waly’s face and its aura of sweet seriousness (the exact opposite of his usual persona) became associated for me with the moments in which a fragile happiness seems possible. Yet the quiet elation of returning to life was spoiled by the certainty that this recent experience would always represent a threat. In fact, for over a month I felt as though I were living a few inches above all creation. And for more than a year I suffered vivid flashbacks. In fact, something essential changed in me that night.
Of the four Bahians, only Gal had not yet attained stardom, in spite of her prestige among musicians and bossa nova fans. One afternoon I accompanied her to a rehearsal for an important program for TV Record—the sort of opportunity that at that time did not often come her way—and we discovered that her appearance had been canceled. I was incensed by the disrespectful treatment and made my own appearance contingent on hers. The producers were unmoved and so ended my relationship with the station.
I detested the cynicism of the star system, and bet everything on Gal’s extraordinary singing. There was also an unresolved background issue—that of having our own weekly program on prime time. It was something that would have normally been expected to follow a success like ours. Elis, Nara, Chico, and the pre-tropicalista Gil himself had each moved into a prime-time slot, but the network’s heads apparently didn’t know what to do with the tropicalistas, although in the hallways there was talk of a program to be led by me. In a few conversations with Paulinho Machado de Carvalho, I noticed his uneasiness with the proposals I sketched out. They liked us, but that did not mean they were willing to put themselves at risk for our cause.
Gil finally decided to break with TV Record, and soon we received an invitation from TV Tupi to do our program there.
Guilherme’s formula for expressing his highest praise was the expression “divino, maravilhoso,” divine, marvelous, which he not infrequently complemented with “International!” when his enthusiasm warranted it. We decided to adopt this phrase as the refrain to a song Gil and I were preparing for Gal to sing at TV Record’s next festival—a gesture by which we also meant to pay homage to the grander aspects of Guilherme’s personality. I should explain that at the time, participation in the festival did not obligate a performer to sign with the network. Gal could sing a song of ours and, even if it became a hit, she did not need to sign with Record and could instead come with us to Tupi. The song suggested the climate of student resistance to the dictatorship, and almost prefigured armed conflict in its violent imagery. The melody was, deliberately, pop at its sweetest, but the words were something else: They summoned a “girl” (“cuantos anos você tem?”—“how old are you?”) to participate in something left unsaid but that required her to “a atenção para as janelas no alto / Atenção, ao pisar no asfalto, o mangue / Atenção para o sangue sobre o chão” (“watch out for the windows up above / Watch out, when you cross the street, the mud / watch out for the blood on the ground”), everything converging toward the refrain (which was explicitly announced in the lines: “Atenção, tudo é perigoso / Tudo é divino, maravilhoso / Atenção para o refrão”—“Watch out, everything is dangerous, / everything’s divine, marvelous, / Watch out for the refrain”), which says: “É preciso estar atento e forte / Não temos tempo para temer a morte” (“You have to be strong and watch out / There is no time to be afraid to die”).
Gal’s vibrant interpretation marked a turning point in her style, incorporating new vocal sounds that included both Janis Joplin’s grunts and the cries of James Brown. Divine, Marvelous would be the name for our program on TV Tupi, the oldest network in Brazil, as highly regarded as Record, but with no tradition of musical programming. At the time, TV in Brazil was not so big a thing as it is today. Few homes had TV sets, and there were almost none among the poor or lower middle classes. Early programming included high-quality theater with the best actors doing Shakespeare, Pirandello, Chekhov, and Nelson Rodrigues (the last of these being Brazilian). Even larger audiences were an elite: those who could afford a TV set. And that only in São Paulo and Rio.
Gil and I lined up Os Mutantes, Gal, and Tom Zé as regulars. Among our guests would be Jorge Ben, Juca Chaves (a satirical singer-songwriter who was initially confused with the bossa nova period, although he was actually the anti-bossanovista par excellence), and Paulinho da Viola (also not identified with bossa nova). It was with a certain detachment that I took part in the creative meetings, the rehearsals, and even the programs themselves: I knew the worth of each idea, of each decision, but was emotionally removed from it: auasca had delivered me to a kind of parallel universe. Here my customary interests and reactions obtained—the same inspiration, the same hard-on, the same insomnia—but somehow I was outside it all. Paradoxically, I felt very sad about this—a serene, stable sadness that could scarcely warm my existence. At times I rebelled, although I mostly maintained my composure, against the auasca and its visions. I regretted having taken the stuff. Sometimes I pondered, but not enthusiastically, the religious meaning of the experience. I remembered Rogério’s theological quips—“I don’t believe in God, but I saw him!” Above all I thought how ironic it was that I of all people should have coined the cry “God is on the loose!” joining it to a mystical Sebastianist poem by Pessoa. It was only as I became able truly to reintegrate myself in life that I could weigh the mystical value of what I had experienced, and of mysticism in general, against my genuine attachment to reality and my faith in laws of the material world. While the world of visions could be dazzling, and even beneficial, the daily world, however relegated to an inferior plane of reality, was to be cherished and protected; if the visions woven by my own brain imposed themselves as more real than the world itself, I was essentially losing both worlds. Even as I readapted myself to the world of common sense, I was able to recover what was of interest and dear in the “marvelous” world that had taken form within me, but I did not yet feel calmly reinstalled in life. Indian illustrations, until then virtually ignored (the closest thing to my visions then was the cover to Jimi Hendrix’s Axis: Bold as Love), were just coming into fashion with the rise of the Hare Krishna movement. Reproductions of mandalas (the rose windows of cathedrals, scenes from Esther Williams’s films directed by Busby Berkeley) and other images were popular, yet I felt a sense of revulsion toward them. More than a year later, already in my London exile, I was unable to look for long at one of those images of Krishna without feeling hypnotized or on the verge of hallucination. The fact that my mother looked Indian was, and is, something to take into consideration. (When we were little, Rodrigo, my older brother, used to say that she was the spitting image of the actor Sabu.) In fact, I realized in London that many older Indian men looked like my father (who was obviously a mulatto). I myself was often taken for a Pakistani (which made me fear the skinheads).
While drugs such as auasca may perhaps enhance our capacities to create decorative patterns, that creation may not be accompanied by any heightening of our gifts for loving, understanding, discerning. No one knows how extensive a repertoire of forms, structures, themes, and operations we carry in our brains. I had read in Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs that Sartre spent a year haunted by the lobsters and crabs that were the residue of his mescaline trip. These crustaceans had not the least symbolic value for him; nevertheless, they filled him with anguish, particularly because they represented to him the loss of reason.
Yelling on television that “God is on the loose” while singing “Prohibiting Is Prohibited” was a gesture inspired by the discovery that religion was just as repressed as sex. I myself had a Catholic upbringing. I attended public schools (the religious ones were all private), but the director of my high school was a priest, Father Antenor. The inspector was Father Fenelon. And the director of the philosophy department at the University of Bahia was Father Pinheiro. When I took my first communion, I was frightened to receive the host. I had heard that God would enter into my body, that a great peace would inundate me, that I would be enveloped in the purest light. I wondered what those sensations would be like. They were described in a calm, friendly tone, but I escaped panic only by watching others go before me. Still, I would tremble as I received the host, but I felt no less disillusioned then to notice that nothing had happened to me. Why was I so afraid of God? I don’t know. The fact is that I broke with religion too soon, without overcoming that fear.
Sunday mass, even if I chafed at the obligation, was neither uninteresting nor disagreeable. The Catholic liturgy is beautiful and exuberant—even more so when no microphones were used and the priest officiated with his back to us, speaking in Latin. And in Bahia candomblé was always present. People commonly said things like “my saint doesn’t agree with his,” or “I have a strong saint.” We knew the names of Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea, the great Mother; Xangô, the god of fire and justice, the master of thunder; Oxum, the goddess of the brooks and wells, lakes and waterfalls, the vain and cruel queen of gold; and Oxóssi, my own orisha, the hunter, god of the forests. We heard those names in Caymmi’s songs, but also in conversations with friends and relatives. And we would go to parties given in the Orixá’s honor at the house of Edite, Nicinha’s sister. I remember the first time I saw Edite possessed. I was still a boy and not allowed to stay to the end of the party. After the samba de roda something happened that I was not supposed to see. As I passed through the hallway on my way out, I ran into Edite dressed as an Indian, her eyes closed, being virtually dragged by two other women whose eyes were open. It was she, beyond any doubt, but her face had an expression I had never seen before: her lower lip protruded, her brow was deeply furrowed, her nostrils flared. She looked like an angry man. I was frightened by the evidence that Edite was and was not herself, and was concerned to know whether or not she was awake, what she could possibly be feeling. I was scared of finding myself before the unexplainable, scared to imagine myself in the same situation. This fear never quite left me. It figured in the anxiety surrounding my first communion, as well as in my first experiences with drugs.
The cult I had inadvertently witnessed at Sultão das Matas, in Edite’s house, was and still is an example of the so-called Caboclo’s candomblé, a variant in which the Yoruba pantheon appears mixed with indigenous figures. The Indian that appears does not issue directly from the original cultures of Brazil—although Tupi-Guarani words are used and there are some vestiges of the local. The caboclo is in fact closer to the persona first idealized by the Arcadian poets and then by the romantics, the generic and heroic Indian who came to symbolize the homeland in the struggles for independence and the fantasies of national affirmation. When Edite appeared before me, she was dressed like the clay figure of the cabocla carried in processions every year on July 2, the day commemorating Bahian independence. This is the type of candomblé predominant in the smaller towns of Bahia, while in Salvador the African liturgy characterizes the great terreiros, where it has been preserved nearly intact. When I moved to Salvador, I was hesitant to accompany the few friends who, out of cultural curiosity, sometimes went to Mrs. Olga at the Alakêtu’s terreiro, to Opó Afonjá, or to the Gantois. Here too the fear of possession would prevent me from enjoying the ritual that so fascinated me: as a rule, I would run away from the place a few minutes after arriving, supposing myself to feel faint and interrogating every one of my nerves to reassure myself that I remained lucid and awake.
I don’t remember whether I chose the title Divine, Marvelous before or after taking auasca. I suppose it was before. To have adopted a mainly (though not exclusively) intellectual atheism before facing up to my fear of God, while pursuing a public project that channeled the courage to take up religiosity—these were the ideal conditions for turning a single psychedelic experiment into a rich source of anguish.
When we left Brazil a year later headed for our London exile, our first stop was Portugal. My friend Roberto Pinho asked me to go with him to Sesimbra, where he was supposed to meet a Portuguese gentleman, the caretaker of a medieval castle perched on a hill, who was thought to be an alchemist. I recall some sheep with twisted horns nuzzling the old man as though they were pets, and a deep blue sea surrounding the stone ramparts. At one point Roberto asked me to sing “Tropicália” for the alchemist. I don’t remember whether I sang or simply recited the words. I am sure that I imparted the lyrics in their entirety. When I finished, the gentleman looked at me with an exultant expression, and, even as Roberto winked at me conspiratorially, the man produced the most unlikely interpretation of “Tropicália” I had ever heard. Everything in the lyrics was taken literally and interpreted positively. “I lead the movement,” for example, meant that not “I” but some force that was able to say “I” through me was organizing something; and “I unveil the monument in my homeland’s central plain” was a clear reference to Brasilia as the concrete manifestation of a prophecy of St. João Bosco. And that was it. There was no trace of irony, no desire to denounce the horror we were then living. I don’t know whether I had emphasized the passage that says “a child, smiling, ugly, dead, stretches out her hand” when I tried to explain that my motive for composing the song had been the opposite of vainglory, but I do know I tried to discuss the topic with him. But he, at first unable to conceive any reason for me to write such a song other than the happy certainty of Brazil’s grandiose destiny, seemed not at all surprised when I protested; laughing at Roberto and saying repeatedly, “I know, I know,” he concluded: “What do mothers ever know about their children?” I understood then that he was sure he knew better than I what my intentions had been. That was no news: I had already realized by then that songs have a life of their own, and others can find in them meanings unsuspected by the author himself. Nor was I surprised to hear that the song seemed to represent Brazil in a positive light. Above all, I was not unaware that every parody of patriotism is nevertheless a form of patriotism in itself—not I, the tropicalista, who would first love what he satirizes, and would not glibly satirize what he hates. But the fact that this man refused to consider that in my song I was describing a monster—a monster that had confirmed its monstrosity by turning its aggression toward me—this simply fascinated more than it irritated me.
I was not ignorant of the connection between my friend Roberto and that purported alchemist: Professor Agostinho da Silva, the Portuguese intellectual who had organized the Center for Afro-Oriental Studies in Salvador. This heterodox thinker disseminated a kind of erudite Sebastianism linked to Pessoa, and my inclusion of Pessoa’s poem during the premiere of “Prohibiting Is Prohibited” was not coincidental.
But I had not gone the way of those Sebastianists, either as a student or, shall we say, as a militant. I simply thought it was exciting that there would be people talking about the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit in a future civilization of the Atlantic at a time when most people around me were speaking about surplus value and proletarian theory. I knew the Fernando Pessoa of “Poem in a Straight Line” and “Maritime Ode.” And also the one who’d written about the other Child Jesus and, naturally, the one who composed the little poem of the “feigner” (“The poet is a pretender / Pretending so completely / He comes to pretend what’s real / The sorrow he truly feels”): these were poems that children would recite, that people read out loud to me, entire passages of which were repeated by heart and which I myself on occasion read in a copy belonging to some college friend. I was familiar with some apocryphal data about Pessoa’s life. I classified those poems as modern Brazilian poetry (along with Vinicius de Moraes, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Manuel Bandeira, and Cecília Meireles, and later also João Cabral de Melo Neto) and that was all the poetry I knew, aside from that of the blacks in Castro Alves, the Indians in Gonçalves Dias, and the gypsies in Lorca. With Message the Pessoa of the little poem of the pretender gained gravity. Each short poem was a labyrinth of forms and meanings and, most important, it did not seem possible to me that one could go deeper into the heart of the Portuguese language than in those poems. My favorite poet—the one I had read most extensively—was João Cabral. Next to his concision everything seemed diffuse and unnecessary. But with Message I felt I was in the presence of something more profound, in the treatment of the words, of each syllable and sound. Each suggestive idea seemed to be there out of a need arising from the Portuguese language itself: it was as though those poems had invented the language and were its ultimate justification:
All beginning is involuntary
God is the agent
The hero attends, multiple,
To the sword found in your hand
Your eyes descend:
“What shall I do with this sword?”
You raised it, it happened.
The fact that this little book, the only one Pessoa published in his lifetime in our language, had as its theme the return to Sebastianism and the greatness of a deferred Portuguese destiny, lent enormous dignity to the people who cultivated those ideals and to their interests. So if while in Sesimbra I was at first startled to see my song “Tropicália” absorbed into a vision that annulled the song’s critical intelligence, I eventually began to understand “Tropicália”—and to think of tropical-ismo as well—a part of my own brand of Sebastianism. In fact, much of Black God, White Devil and Land in Anguish made more sense in this context. (And Glauber would later confirm this realization by confessing to me that “Sebastianism is the secret of Cinema Novo.”)
As a child I had a dream I was taking a walk with my sister Clara along Purificação Square. It was difficult to walk, because the ground was made of long wooden slats suspended over an infinite void. Seated on a bench at the other end of the square was Norma, a girl with whom Clara was not on speaking terms. I thought it strange that my sister was going to talk to her. The benches, the trees, the houses, the church, everything was precariously suspended over the void. When we approached Norma, I heard every word of the dialogue between them, although I was small still and so treated as though I would not understand: “Norma, what do you want to tell me?” asked Clara. And Norma said: “I want to tell you I’m going to kill myself.” I was awakened by some noise in the house in the middle of the night. I got up and asked what was happening, why everyone was up. No one wanted to tell me anything at first. But eventually I found out that Norma had turned up dead in the hallway of her house, next to the boyfriend who swore she had killed herself in front of him with a gun. Everyone suspected the boyfriend. I did not have the courage to say that I knew it hadn’t been he. I was afraid, but I also felt very excited to have lived something supernatural. I was not very vehement when I finally spoke up: I was embarrassed to show off my excitement and had doubts as to how credible my story would seem. In time I would reassure myself that we frequently hear conversations while we sleep and as a trick to avoid waking up we create dreams around the fragments of what we hear. In fact, everyone in the house was talking about Norma’s “suicide” (perhaps thinking that I, being a small boy, would not hear and, if I heard, would not understand, just as had happened in my dream). I did not, however, close the case, and pondered it for years to come: nothing like it ever happened to me again, even as my dreams provoked by events in the outside world multiplied.
Near the end of 1968, Roberto Pinho came to São Paulo solely to tell us that a friend of ours had gone into a kind of trance and had prophesied that the political situation in Brazil would become harsher by the end of the year and that Gil and I were fated to suffer the violent consequences. I attached great weight to Roberto’s words—not that the mythology of the Sebastianists was gaining stature within me, but Roberto himself had an imposing personality—and I was distressed. A few days later, however, that distress was no longer just a memory.
The opening night of our program Divine, Marvelous was a great critical success, although I couldn’t know how large the audience might have been. We created a set of bars and cages, and the stage was inside the biggest cage, in which Os Mutantes, Gal, and Tom Zé were singing; Jorge Ben was in a cage suspended from the ceiling. At the end, I came on screaming Roberto Carlos’s hit, “A Lion Is Loose in the Streets,” and I broke the bars of timber made to look like iron, inviting the whole cast to take part in the destruction. The audience of young people were on the same wavelength and responded enthusiastically. In another program, we spread ourselves out somewhat like Christ and the Apostles in the Last Supper—reminiscent of Buñuel’s Viridiana—but on the table there were only bananas. We would sing as we ate bananas. Os Mutantes carried out a mock funeral: a small procession, the placing of a cardboard grave marker with the inscription AQUI JAZ O TROPICALISMO, (Here Lies Tropicalism). The number of Catholic ladies who protested in letters from metropolitan São Paulo, as well as from the interior of the state, indicated that the program had a larger audience than we had suspected. What we were doing was certainly giving offense to some people, but we, proud and confident, remained unintimidated.
On December 13, 1968, a coup within the military government enacted Institutional Act no. 5, which revoked the right of habeas corpus, permitting the police to enter any house, establishing in effect a police state that would make the four years under martial law seem reasonable and amiable by comparison. I had been in Salvador for a few days and traveled to São Paulo precisely on that day, the thirteenth. I found out what had happened when I got home. I did not gauge the extent or depth of the changes announced on the television news. It was clear that the hard-liners had taken over. But we were justly looked upon with hostility by the noisier elements of the Left. Our sincere and secret sympathy for Marighella—the Bahian former Communist Party member who became the leader of the urban guerillas in São Paulo—and for others who engaged in armed resistance, was known to neither radicals nor conservatives, though our admiration for Che Guevara had been suggested in the song “Soy loco por ti, América.” The comedian Jô Soares told us he had heard a list of artists holding contracts with Record was circulating among the military (Jô worked at Record, where we had been until recently). The list included Gil’s name and my own as possible subjects for interrogation. I imagined that at most they could ask us why we had participated in the March of a Hundred Thousand protesting the death of Edson Luís, the student killed by the police. Our reply would be that practically all Brazilian artists had participated.
We had already written a show to be aired at Christmas. As tribute to the great composer Assis Valente, who had committed suicide, and also to deflate all the rosy Yuletide sentimentality, I myself would sing the beautiful, sad song by that composer (“I thought everyone was a child of Santa Claus . . .”) while pointing a gun to my head. And so I did. Originally a marchinha, the song is associated in Brazil with Christmas much as “Jingle Bells” is elsewhere (even if the words protest the fact that some receive Christmas presents while others don’t). We stripped the song of its rhythm, presenting it as an adagio with the syllables of the lyrics obscured. The result (I saw it on video) was frightening. I felt proud of what seemed to be its “poetic” density, although in my heart of hearts I feared that perhaps, once again, I had gone too far. On December 27, Gil and I were arrested.
Guilherme Araújo had gone to Europe, where he was preparing for Gil’s imminent appearance at the Midem, the annual recording-industry festival in Cannes. Guilherme, excited as he was by what would constitute the international premiere of one of the artists he handled, was shocked by the news of our arrest and proposed to the festival organizers that a protest be launched and a denunciation issued. They steadfastly refused to get involved, suggesting that if Guilherme wanted to organize a political protest, he should do so in his own name. He then accepted a suggestion to write a manifesto, which he signed and personally distributed to the spectators as they entered the theater. This brave gesture of defying the Brazilian dictatorship forced Guilherme into de facto exile, which would bring him even closer to us in later years.
After that, Divine, Marvelous led by Tom Zé went on for two or three more episodes; they were hoping we would come back to take the lead again. But we did not return.
Excerpted from Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil by Caetano Veloso, as translated by Isabel de Sena, edited by Barbara Einzig and published by Alfred A. Knopf. This material (c) 2002 Caetano Veloso. Permission to reprint granted by Alfred A. Knopf.