An Interview with Caetano Veloso

THIS INTERVIEW was initiated by Roland Greene as part of his Presidential Program at the Modern Language Association Convention, Austin, Texas, January 2016; it was held in one of the smaller ballrooms at the Marriott Hotel. The room was literally overflowing, with people filling every inch of floor and hanging from the walls. The audience was made up not just of convention-goers: many of the hotel personnel came, some of them long-time fans of Caetano Veloso.

The crowd was no surprise: Veloso regularly manages to fill the Hollywood Bowl and Town Hall. The founder of the movement called Tropicalismo, Veloso fused pop and avant-garde elements, and he has amazing charisma. His interests in philosophy, politics, film, and other disciplines have infused his music with a critical consciousness that is all but unique today; he has often been compared to Bob Dylan and the Beatles. And he is as active as ever, working with other composers, with poets and visual artists.

We both first encountered Veloso through our readings of the great Brazilian Concrete Poets, especially Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, both of whom collaborated with Veloso on “verbivocovisual” compositions. To prepare for the interview, we sent Veloso a set of questions. He was a bit nervous because he feels that his English is not very good; it is actually more than adequate, and when he was at a loss about a certain term, he would ask his friend in the audience, the Brazilian philosopher-poet Antonio Cicero. As time went on, he became quite relaxed.

In the course of the interview, three videos were shown: Caetano Veloso’s performance of his song “Alegria, Alegria” (Happiness, Happiness) on Brazilian television in 1967; the critic Gonzalo Aguilar’s adaptation of Augusto de Campos’s poem “O Pulsar” (The Pulsar) with Caetano’s musical setting; and Caetano’s performance of his song “Sampa” (a colloquial name for São Paulo) on a televised tribute to the de Campos brothers made in the early 1980s. Caetano’s memoir Verdade Tropical (1997), translated into English as Tropical Truth (2002), is referred to quite frequently in the interview.

The video of the entire interview appears in a colloquy titled “Tropicalismo Fifty Years Later” on Arcade. The interview was transcribed by Alexis Pearce and edited and amplified for clarity.


MARJORIE PERLOFF: Let me begin with a large question. Caetano, you are both a wildly acclaimed pop star and the favorite artist-performer of the Brazilian Concrete Poets, with whom you worked for decades, even setting some of their difficult poems to music. You say in your memoir [Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, trans. Isabel de Sena, 2002] that “Tropicália” or “Tropicalismo” was a very special fusion of popular and avant-garde, “a genuine blend of the ridiculous aspirations of Americanophiles, the naïve good intentions of the nationalists, traditional Brazilian ‘backwardness,’ the Brazilian avant-garde—absolutely everything in Brazil’s real cultural life would be our raw material.” My question is: What is specifically Brazilian about this mix? What would you say about the fusion of high and low, your particular fusion?

CAETANO VELOSO: Well, the presence of global pop culture (that means mostly American) was part of our lives, you know. But we wanted to express our own culture, to reaffirm the national aspect of our personalities without being afraid of being considered submissive to imperialism as most left-wing nationalists would try to characterize us. And then you have to take into account the backwardness of Brazil. We are backward, we are delayed, we are underdeveloped. [Audience laughs.] “Underdeveloped” is an old word, isn’t it? Now we are emergent. But back then we still we felt underdeveloped. And so all sorts of things became our raw material, really. What can I say? The fact that we met the Concrete Poets in São Paulo was very fortunate because in fact, Augusto de Campos, one of the three most important Concrete Poets from São Paulo, looked me up because he had heard one of my songs before Tropicalismo. The song was called “Boa Palavra” (“Good Word”), and he had liked it. He also read a short interview I gave to a magazine in Brazil, and he liked these two things and wrote an article about that song and what I said in my interview [Augusto de Campos, “Boa Palavra sobre a Música Popular,” Balanço da Bossa e Outras Bossas (São Paulo: Editora Perspectiva, 1968), 59–65]. He didn’t know me. I was very young, and I didn’t know him either because Concrete Poetry was not that well known then. So since he looked me up, we got together. We talked a little, not a little, a lot, because he was talking a long time about Lupicínio Rodrigues, who is an old samba composer from the south, a black man from the south. And in fact, in the end, we had a lot to talk about, and then he started showing me things that they wrote, and first of all things that they liked to read, from Brazil and from the world. And so I added these things to whatever I had read before that, these things that these people showed to me.

MP: Do you think that was a 1960s phenomenon? Or is this kind of conjunction still true in Brazil to this day?

Well, that was a moment, a period in which high and low mingled and sometimes got together. But in Brazil, it had a different meaning, because in Brazil, the majority of our population was illiterate, and at that time, most people lived in rural areas, in the countryside. And I think that that helped make pop songs so important to the culture. That was part of our backwardness. But the result is something that I think could only happen in Brazil. It’s very much like what happened in the United States. Some things are really parallel. For example, the first time I sang with an electrified band, a rock band, I was booed strongly by intellectuals, students, left-wing students, very much like what happened to Bob Dylan a few years earlier. We didn’t know about it. I didn’t know that had happened to Bob Dylan when he first played guitar, with an electric guitar group, but it happened because Bob Dylan was supposed to be a folk singer, and folk was considered serious. Bob Dylan was a fan of João Gilberto, a fan of bossa nova. He said this in a sleeve note for one of his albums, and in his memoir, in his Chronicles. He later remembered that when he was acoustic and folkish, he was respected and not booed. And the same thing happened to us. There’s a funny thing in the United States. This kind of thing seemed to be more easily forgotten. People in Brazil say Brazil has no memory, but I would say it’s worse in the United States, where people now assume Bob Dylan was always rock ’n’ roll!

MP: While we’re talking of things Brazilian, would you say something about your early life in Salvador, when you first met Gilberto Gil and you got started, and having a band with your sister?

We didn’t have a band exactly. We worked together; we played together in the same theater, a small theater that was built by a group of young students of theater that came from the theater school of the University of Bahia. The University of Bahia in the late ’50s, early ’60s, was really very, very important and strong. I came from my hometown of Santo Amaro to live in Bahia in the 1960s, and I found this environment. I’ll tell you, I saw John Cage’s music played live in the auditorium of the university. I saw Camus and Brecht and great authors performed on stage by really good actors. These actors became nationally known and important, and at the same time Glauber Rocha, the film director, was beginning to write film criticism, film reviews, whatever, and also other things. He also wrote about poetry, and he was very young too — older than me, but still very young. I was 18 then, and I met Gilberto Gil, two years after I arrived in Salvador and that environment. I met Gilberto Gil. And that was amazing because in 1959 before I left my hometown, I heard João Gilberto. And hearing João Gilberto was a revolution in my mind; it was an enlightenment, really. I knew that something had to happen, something was already happening and that Brazil could be freer and bigger and could make some kind of original contribution for world civilization. Because this is what countries should have as an ambition.

MP: Was this the moment when you came into contact with Ezra Pound?

Well, Ezra Pound — give me a break! [Laughs.]

MP: [Laughs.] It’s a good story though.

I’ll tell you. Because I loved so much what João Gilberto did, when I saw [Gil] playing the guitar the way he did, he was able to reproduce naturally all those complicated chords and tempos and beats that João Gilberto created, and to restudy the samba tradition. And I was amazed, and Gil was black. But you know, he never said he was black or showed any reaction to the fact that he was black. In Bahia, most people are kind of black. He’s kind of black. [Laughs.] In my memoir, I say that I am a light enough mulatto to be considered white even in São Paulo. And Gilberto Gil is a dark enough mulatto to be considered black even in Bahia. [Laughs.] So I met him. It was love at first sight because although I did not have half or a fifth of his musicality, of his musicianship, he liked me. I adored him because I saw him on television. And so when we got together, he liked me, as if I had played something. I didn’t play anything back then. I learned from him. I looked at his hands and started to, you know, try and reproduce what he was doing. And the sounds responded. I play very little, but he plays wonderfully.

MP: And …

So this was Gilberto Gil. As for Ezra Pound [Laughs], the fact is that in Bahia I had not heard about Ezra Pound yet. I heard, I read Brazilian poets, mostly Vinícius de Moraes, Cecília Meireles, most of all Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and the one who was my favorite, João Cabral de Melo Neto, plus the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, and the Spanish Federico García Lorca. And that was the poetry I read mostly, but of course I heard of other people, but not much of Oswald de Andrade. The Concrete Poets in São Paulo told me about Oswald de Andrade. But the guy who told me about Ezra Pound was a film director, not a film director, a theater director, Rangel, somebody Rangel, what was his name? Flávio Rangel. I hardly knew him. He knew who I was, I knew who he was. Augusto de Campos had written that thing about my song “Good Word.” It’s a long song, you know … So he saw me in a restaurant or somewhere in Rio, Flávio Rangel. He said (he had a high-pitched voice): “You must read Ezra Pound. You must read Ezra Pound!”

MP: So did you?

I didn’t do it immediately. I was like, “Ezra Pound? What’s that?” And he said, the fact that he thought my song — although Augusto de Campos had liked it — he thought my lyrics were too long and not concise. And so when I met Augusto de Campos, he gave me the ABC of Reading, of literature, of reading literature, and that’s where he talks about concision, Ezra Pound. But when I went to read the Cantos themselves, they were very, very long. [Laughs.] So I had to rethink concision, and I almost got it.

MP: You have said that the song “Alegria, Alegria,” helped initiate Tropicalismo. In your memoir, you recall a chic club in Salvador called Anjo Azul and composing a song for its audience. You write:

I wanted to create a song in tune with Anjo Azul’s sophisticated audience, a portrait in the first person of a young person walking through the streets of Rio; the image of the city would surface from lists of products, personalities, places, functions. As the song progressed, I understood that […] what I might call a critical distance emerged — which for me is a condition of freedom — but there was also the joy inherent in things immediately to hand.

I think this is very interesting, like “nothing in my hands or pockets.” That comes again and again. And then you say that some of the words came from Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words. And I also wondered if the idea of walking the streets of the city came from Guillaume Apollinaire or Blaise Cendrars, whose poetry was quite popular in Brazil. I am thinking of a walking poem, like Apollinaire’s “Zone.”

I only heard, I only read something by Apollinaire when I met the Concrete Poets because they were interested in showing me the Calligrammes. But the long poem about walking, “Zone,” I didn’t read it, no, not then, only later. But as for Sartre, yes. I just transcribed the little part of the last paragraph of The Words. In fact, when I read The Words I was so young that I thought, “This is the best book ever written!” And my friend Rogério Duarte, who was a little older than me and a lot more cultivated, said to me, “That shows how ignorant you are.” And I was a little sad. Years — it’s true — years later, I read Simone de Beauvoir after Sartre died, and in one of her books she says that The Words is the best book ever written. [Laughs.] But she had other reasons, I think.

MP: I think so, too. May we have the video?

MP: Isn’t that great? [Applause.] You look so happy in this film, very happy, smiling. [Laughs.]

The band was Argentinian. It was a bunch of Argentinian guys. We didn’t have monitors, really. It was hard to sing at that time on a TV station in Brazil. Not good monitoring.

MP: But you’re smiling all the way.

I was smiling.

MP: Very happy. In the lyrics, the syntax is somewhat dissociated, just the way it is in some of the poetry of the period. It isn’t straightforward. It starts off looking very straightforward, but it isn’t really. The words are quite strange and distinctive and of course so is the music. Now as a young man, you purposefully kept aloof from the United States, disliking Elvis Presley and rock ’n’ roll — you talk about that — and wanting to get beyond Brazilian bossa nova. Why did you feel you wanted to avoid the American influence? How did that work? You once remarked, “The United States is a country without a name. Brazil is a name without a country.” Do you want to elaborate on that distinction?

Well, I wouldn’t say I was aloof from the United States. I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis and Ray Charles. We knew the United States was there. The thing is, in my generation — I think it was not that different in the United States although Americans have forgotten it — but rock ’n’ roll was not respected. I mean, people who wanted to have good taste and know what good music is, didn’t listen to rock ’n’ roll. And I was one of those pretentious people. There’s something that Frank Sinatra said which was very offensive back then. Later on he had Elvis on his TV program and everything, but in the early days, he said, “Nowadays music in the United States, in America, is written and sung by any idiot with a sideburn.” Things like that. And rock ’n’ roll before the Beatles, before the British added prestige to rock ’n’ roll, it didn’t cut it. It was like vulgar music for vulgar young people. And that’s where its energy came from, really. And the energy interested us a lot, but it only started interesting us from the mid-’60s on — from ’65, ’66 on. Before that, I just didn’t pay attention to rock ’n’ roll at all, you know, because I was listening to Chet Baker and Ray Charles and Betty Carter, and that was natural in my environment. And I think it was not that different here [in the United States]. So I was not interested in rock ’n’ roll, but in Brazil, some people were producing rock ’n’ roll. Some people of my own generation were not respected in the beginning in the same way. But I was not in that group of people. But American music was very strongly present in my life.

And then in 1965 to 1966, I started looking at and listening to rock ’n’ roll with different ears. And it became a very important thing to me, and the energy, and the suggestions of new, even intellectual, creation really caught me. And that was a scandal, that was one of the scandalous aspects of Tropicalismo, of Tropicália. The fact that we were paying attention to rock, and our colleagues, of our generation, weren’t, and some still aren’t. For example, Chico Buarque, he was not paying attention to it. But then he understood and he started using things because of Tropicalismo, and some other people too. But for example, Dori Caymmi, he hates it even now. He still hates the idea that we were interested in the Beatles in 1966. He still doesn’t accept that. It’s wonderful. He’s a great musician; he’s a great colleague. He’s incredible, but he’s serious when he says he doesn’t like it. Nor does Nana Caymmi, his sister. She says, “No, no, no, no, Tropicalismo, no. They like the Beatles.” But there were those who were interested in rock from the beginning like Roberto Carlos. Raul Seixas was from Bahia, the same age as us. And he was doing rock ’n’ roll, But they were not respected by students, by intellectuals and refined musicians because the correct thing to do was to enrich harmonies, like in modern jazz and bossa nova. So the three chords of rock ’n’ roll, and the screaming voice, all that was just kind of vulgar to our ears. They still are to Dori Caymmi’s ears, but I fell in love with it in 1965.

MP: Now let’s turn to a slightly darker chapter of your life — the time of the military coup in 1964 that led to your arrest and imprisonment in 1968, for supposedly subversive activities. Do you want to tell a little about that? And how you learned English — it actually has a happy ending in some ways, because it was because of your exile, first in Portugal and then in London, that you speak such good English.

Well, first to Portugal, then to France, then to England. Yes, we lived two and a half years in England in exile. But there was one little thing I wanted to say, but I forgot — something about Brazil, about the United States, a country without a name, and Brazil is a name without a country. I wanted to say something about that because long before that, Godard put that statement in one of his films, a dialogue in which a guy asks a girl, “What is this country that is called United States of America?” America is not the name of the country. America is the name of the continent. And all Peruvians, Brazilians, Argentinians, they all say they are Americans, and they are right. So America is not the name of the country. And United States is not a name, it’s a description. And Brazil used to be called — the official name of Brazil used to be — United States of Brazil. And Mexico I still think is the United States of Mexico. It’s a description. Just say republic, federation, whatever. So the United States doesn’t have a name, but you people built a country. We didn’t. We had this name that was just the name of a plant, of a tree that gave color to cloth. And it’s Brazil. It’s a funny name, you know, and it sticks to your mind for some reason. And there was a legend in Ireland of an island called Brazil that was going to be the utopian place in the world. You know it coincides with the name of the tree. So as for the name, and also we have an unofficial anthem, which is a song that here is known as “Brasil” [hums the melody] … “Brasil.” It begins in Portuguese. In Brazil, it is felt as if it were an anthem really. Even today. And it begins by saying, “Brazil, my mulatto.” The country is called almost officially “mulatto.” These things are important. These things go around. The name, the myth of Brazil that is inscribed in its name, so a name we do have, but we didn’t build the country. That’s why. Well then, you were asking me something else, and I’m sorry to have interrupted you.

MP: About your imprisonment and time in jail; it was, you have written, a dark chapter.

The time in jail was horrible, terrible. For me. I met lots of people who were put in jail, and for them it was just unpleasant. For me, it was hell. For me, it was a nightmare. I am not adult enough to face that kind of situation. I was not. And then it was two months, and I was in solitary first, and I almost went crazy, and then we were taken to Bahia, and we were under a kind of house arrest for four more months. We had to report to a colonel every day and could not leave, trespass the city limits. I could not even go to my hometown, which was 70 kilometers from Salvador. And then they exiled us. They invited us to leave Brazil because they didn’t know what to do with us. It was something that they put us in prison, and we were famous, beginning our careers. It was going to be not easy for them to explain if it became known. Because the press was censored, things were not …

MP: But you were not tried for anything, were you?

No. Trial? At that time, no. No trial.

MP: So they just exiled you to Portugal, right, and then to London?

We went to Portugal, we spent some two weeks there. Then we went to Paris. Our manager was already in Europe, and he suggested to us to go to London because Paris was in the hangover of 1968. It was 1969 when we arrived there, and Portugal was still under a dictatorship, their old dictatorship. And France was still in the aftermath of the ’68 thing. We never thought of coming to the United States because it was in turmoil. It was when your students were protesting the Vietnam War. It was very much like what we were afraid of in Brazil. You can see films like Zabriskie Point, that Antonioni shot in the United States — you see what America was like back then. So Europe was supposed to be calmer in spite of the fact that Paris was in the hangover of the 1968 event. But it was totally controlled. It was unpleasant because they asked for our passports in every corner. Then our manager said we better go to London for two reasons: it’s calm, no asking for passports, and the music is great, as we knew.

MP: Did you like London?

No, not at first, no. I found it dark and gloomy, really, and very different. It’s another planet, England, it’s a different planet. It still is. It’s a lot more continental now, as they say, but still, it’s like another planet. So I felt that I missed Brazil enormously. I hated that Brazil had become my enemy because it was one of the things I loved the most in my life. The idea of Brazil and the physical feeling of being in Brazil. These two things are loved by my heart intensely, so I suffered a lot. We spent two and a half years in London. The first year I just couldn’t like anything. The second year I was already liking the benches on the green grass and the way people behaved. The liberal tradition, you know, of the English people, and that kind of wisdom that they have. They are very European, but they are not that European. They find balance in everything. They make a joke when needed. They are always a little distant, but in a nice way. Mostly.

ROLAND GREENE: A chapter of your memoir discusses your relationship to the Concrete Poets. Augusto de Campos was the first to review one of your early albums. You were close to them throughout your career; only Augusto is still living. And you praised their radical abandonment of discursive syntax, and then you also say your songs were themselves a new kind of poetry that you wanted to establish, a new way of being a poet. Could you talk a little more about your relationship with them?

I was with Augusto two or three weeks ago. We went to Brasília because he was being decorated by the president of the Republic, Dilma Rousseff. And in Brazil, it’s very polarized, the political situation. And people oppose the president and her party, and Augusto backs them. And he accepted the decoration mostly because of that. So I went. He invited me, they invited me, to go and be there and sing two or three songs too, as part of the homage to him. And so I did. And people said: “How could you go and be there with Dilma?” But I found it right because I voted for Dilma, in fact, because I made all my accounts, and I decided to vote for Dilma. It’s hard, it’s too complicated to explain, but the result is that I voted for Dilma. And Augusto, given his position, campaigned for her because he wanted to be clear about it. He’s very, very lively and lucid and creative and demanding. He’s very demanding and rigorous. He’s still the same guy, and we see each other from time to time, and we talk. The thing is, you said I said something about being myself, about being a poet. But it was a different thing. It was like, I thought that I never wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be a painter and then I wanted to be a movie director. I wanted to make movies. I would write things, mostly prose, not poems. I knew I could write. I loved reading. I liked poetry, but the idea of the poet …

For example, as Godard has been many times a poet in making his films, I wanted to be a poet in making my songs, singing them, and playing the part of the songwriter-singer, singer-songwriter in a way that would have as a result something that would be called poetry. But not that my lyrics were poetry by themselves, you know. It was the combination of all things. I remember that Jorge Ben, the Brazilian black composer who started doing bossa nova. He started doing bossa nova his way, a very personalized way of doing bossa nova, a more blackish bossa nova but still during the bossa nova times. He was kind of a conceptual poet because he would just take the briefing that a filmmaker gave him to explain what the film was going to be so that he could make a song about the subject of the film. He just put music to the text he got, to the briefing, you know. Just put music to the briefing. And then at some other time, he wrote a song in which the verse was just a list of Dostoyevsky’s titles, novel titles. And somewhere else he wrote a song that was just copied from a textbook, history textbook, about black people in Brazil. But from the textbook, you see? He was bossa nova, but then he started inviting R&B styles for his creation, and he started playing electric guitar. He was a supertropicalist just at the same time that we were trying to create that thing that became what is called Tropicalismo. So I thought he was kind of a super poet.

The best lyricist of our generation is Chico Buarque. Everything he wrote is perfect. Not a syllable doesn’t go with a note in the melody. His prosody is perfection, and rhymes, they are abundant. They are never forced. They are natural sound-wise and necessary content-wise. He is really a master. But Jorge Ben is a dirtier thing, and just, you know, transposing existing texts to his songs, and disappearing and reappearing. The result of it for me was like, “this is poetry,” you know. And that’s what I meant when I said that I wanted that my work could be some new kind of poetry.

RG: Let’s look at an example of one of your own adaptations of one of Augusto de Campos’s poems. This is Augusto’s poem, “O Pulsar.” The original poem, which we have here, belongs to the later phase of Concrete Poetry in Brazil in which the poems become less visceral and more syntactic. You adapted this early on. I have a copy of the first edition of Augusto’s collected poems, the Viva Vaia, that has a record — a scratchy record — of you doing “O Pulsar.”


RG: So, the austerity of the melody that you brought to it matches the graphic conventions of the poem in which, as you can see, a moon, which stands for the “o,” grows in size over the course of the poem, starting with the first letter of the poem. And a star that shrinks stands for the letter “e.” So let’s play video number two, and then after you can tell us about this.

MP: Do you want to say something about how that came about?

I like it.

MP: [Laughs.] I love it. I think it’s great.

I do. I made two or three more versions of this playing with just my guitar, then with a band with different instruments, but always on this high note, on the star, the drum or whatever, bass drum on the moon. This is a beautiful poem.

MP: Let’s take your story back now a little bit to when you came back to Brazil from London. Do you feel your work changed or you changed? Was that a difficult transition? What was that like? You don’t actually talk about that much in the memoir. That must have been a hard transition.

It was, in fact. I was so happy to be back in Brazil, it really changed everything. I remember that if I was in my car and turned on the radio, and an American or English song came on, I would turn the dial to listen to Brazilian music. And I still do it, yeah, still do it. That didn’t help me much with my English, but what can I do? I was very happy, and I’ll tell you. I and my wife then, we had decided that since the beginning we were not going to have children, just like Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but then when we were back in Brazil, in Bahia, I first started feeling the need to have a child, and it was a physical need. And eventually she joined me, and we had a child, and that changed my life so incredibly that I cannot explain. So now I have three children, three boys, and it was because I went back to Brazil. [Laughs and applause.] So my songs changed: rock ’n’ roll now became the noble, expressional, popular music, you know. It was rubbish, but now it was the noble thing. It’s okay. The rock ’n’ roll brigade reacted against the too much MPB [Música Popular Brasileira] aspects of what I was doing when I went back. Then they put me on the other side, “Now he’s Brazilian Popular Music, not rock ’n’ roll.” So it’s been back and forth, this relationship with rock ’n’ roll, and it began when I went back to Brazil. Before I went back to Brazil, I missed Brazil so much that when I was in London, songs I wrote even before that, songs we wrote, although they were not rock ’n’ roll, they admitted the existence of rock ’n’ roll. They admired and loved it. But they were not rock ’n’ roll. But some were more like rock ’n’ roll. And so it happened.

MP: Did you pick up the same friendships and associations when you came back? Brazil must have changed a lot.

Basically, yes. In fact, when we were in Brazil before we were put in prison, some of our colleagues were angry with us. Some wouldn’t even speak with us because we were using electric guitars. Yeah. But then when we were put in prison and exiled, and then we came back, then all of our friends were friends again, although some, like Dori Caymmi, still don’t accept what we did back then. Or he accepts whatever we do now — only when it’s Brazilian enough and harmonically rich enough because you can be very American for such people if you imitate Chet Baker or Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk, but if you show interest in Paul Anka, no.

MP: That’s funny.

RG: The past couple of decades have been such a fertile part of your career. Your music remains so relentlessly exploratory. It’s never nostalgic, right up to the present, right up to the most recent album, Abraçaço. How do you see the phases of your career in the last 20 years or so?

It’s still something I’m exploring. I make an effort to justify the fact that I’m working professionally with music because I thought, I had an illusion that I was going to do it for one and a half years, and then leave it to do something else and leave it to Gil and Gal [Costa] and [Maria] Bethânia and my closest friends to go on with music because I didn’t think I was musically talented enough, and I still don’t. But I realized, I’ve acknowledged that I had made some relevant things, and so I wanted to, and the fact that I was put in prison and had been exiled, that depressed me a bit, not to say a lot. And that made me less courageous to say, “Okay, I’m not going to make music anymore.” I was already making music. So I had to go on with whatever was comfortable for me. The thing took care of itself, you know, and so I followed it, but I wanted to justify the fact that I was doing it. So I’ve been making efforts to sound and look relevant to myself in my own view. So I still feel I’m looking for … I must do something that really does justify my making music.

MP: Do you feel that now that you’re so famous, there are demands on your time that are irritating or difficult?

Sometimes, sometimes, but no. I provoke. I do things that I know are in a way provocations, and sometimes I still do it. I think it makes me feel more alive and can make other people feel more alive.

RG: We’re going to show one more video. This was recorded in the early ’80s. It’s the song “Sampa”; it’s from a Brazilian TV program, and the first person you see in this first shot is the late Haroldo de Campos.


RG: Last thoughts, anything else you want to say that we haven’t asked?

MP: Do you want to say something to the young artists or young university people in the audience that want to be artists? What advice do you give them for their lives in this bad time?

I just want to thank them. I just want to thank you for being interested in our conversation. [To Perloff] I want to thank you for coming here to talk to me. You know I love you. [To Greene] I have to thank you for inviting me. And it’s been a pleasure. I was nervous. I’m always afraid that I’m not going to understand what people say when they speak English. I can speak more or less, but to understand what other people say is not … I’m always needing subtitles.


Roland Greene is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Greene is a Renaissance specialist and editor-in-chief of the fourth edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012); his second specialty is Brazilian writing, especially Concrete Poetry, and he is fluent in Portuguese.

Marjorie Perloff is the author of many books on modernist and contemporary poetry and poetics; the most recent are Unoriginal Genius (2010) and Edge of Irony (2016).