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Bossa Brazil: Caetano Veloso plays the Civic Auditorium this Friday.

Caetano Veloso

One of Brazil's favorite sons comes to the Santa Cruz Civic.

By Alex Gilrane

Halfway through Pedro Almodovar's surreal sex farce Talk to Her, the hilarity is interrupted for a sincerely stirring musical interlude. The scene takes place in the evening glow of a cocktail party on an elegant tropical countryside veranda, where a singer and his band perform a heartbreaking ballad. As a cello swells and the singer's voice slides up into a plaintive falsetto, telling a tale of "de pasión mortal" (a passion that could kill), the partygoers fall into a languorous rapture. The movie's protagonist wanders into the evening for a smoke, and Almodovar stays with the song through the end, allowing its profound mood of the deepest and sweetest melancholy to completely take over the movie. One of the most stunning uses of music in recent cinema, it's a small directorial triumph, and owes its power entirely to the singer and his song. Caetano Veloso has been a force of nature in Brazil for more than three decades, in part because of his power to evoke such powerful emotions. With more then 30 albums to his credit, he is famous for his ability to mesmerize a crowd armed with only his guitar. But he is not, as it happens, primarily known as a moody singer-songwriter. Veloso is, after all, based in Rio de Janeiro. His fame, which has expanded far beyond the borders of his homeland, also rests on his ability to party like it's Carnival.

When he launched his career in the 1960s, Veloso was part of a new generation of Brazilian musicians who helped invent a new genre dubbed Tropicalismo. The musical movement was best known for fusing home-grown bossa nova with styles imported from abroad, primarily American jazz and psychedelic rock.

In his 1997 biography, Tropical Truth, Veloso explains the diverse cultural ingredients that went into the Tropicalismo cocktail: '60s rock, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole. In addition, he says, "American music ran into stiff competition from the Cuban rumba, the Argentine tango, the Portuguese fado, as well as Brazilian music itself."

Tropicalismo became instantly and hugely popular, propelling Veloso to stardom at an early age. And it quickly became more than a musical movement. Brazil at that time was ruled by a military dictatorship. While breaking rules stylistically, Veloso and his colleagues, including Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, openly attacked the junta with lyrics that were as polemical as they were poetic. As a result, their records were censored and banned. After spending several months in jail in 1968, Veloso moved to London, where he lived in self-imposed exile and continued his musical rebellion. When he returned home in 1972 to a new political landscape, he was a hero.

American audiences first picked up on Veloso in 1988 on Beleza Tropical, the first of several collections of Brazilian music produced by the Talking Heads' David Byrne. In the decades since, Byrne and Veloso have become friends and frequent collaborators.

An entry in Byrne's online journal gives testament to Velosos's enduring popularity. Byrne describes a live 2004 recording session for MTV Brazil that was plagued by technical problems."Caetano's getting really pissed now. We stop the song again and he makes some 'satan' finger gestures and starts a tirade saying, basically, 'Get your shit together ... shame on you, MTV.' He's shaking with anger."They cut to a commercial. He then walks to the edge of the stage and shakes hands with the young audience, who are screaming his name in the front row. The MC reappears and we check our mics and give it one more try. It's still a weird-ass mix ... but we actually give an energetic performance and I hope it sounds OK.

"This whole incident becomes front-page news in the following days. Cover pictures appear in the national papers of Caetano rebuking MTV and editorial comments such as 'the old baiano [a person from Bahia] stole the show.'""Brazilian popular music plays a larger role in the cultural life of Brazil than popular music seems to elsewhere," writes the guitarist Arto Lindsay in his liner notes for Beleza Tropical. Clearly. How else to explain the youngsters in the front row screaming for the 60-year-old star, or the front-page coverage of the event?

On his latest album, last year's multiple-Grammy-winning Ce, Veloso manages once again to invigorate that cultural life. In one of many remarkable pieces, he performs the same trick he mastered so long ago, merging politics and romance in a piece called "Manhattan."

"A whirlwind of money sweeps the whole world, a light Leviathan. And here wars dance amid love's peaceful dwellings," he sings. It sounds even better in the Brazilian Portuguese, but it translates pretty well.

CAETANO VELOSO plays Friday, Nov. 16 at 8pm at the Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $31.50-$68.25. 831.420.5260.

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