Caetano Veloso: an exile’s return
They were not, by a long way, the artistic highlights of the remarkable set with which Caetano Veloso enthralled a capacity house at the Barbican last night, but the two songs he wrote during his time in London 45 years ago had a special poignancy when performed in the city to which he and his pal Gilberto Gil were exiled in 1969, having been released from prison and deported by Brazil’s military government. He included them among his encores. In one, “Nine Out of Ten”, he sang about walking down Portobello Road, listening to reggae and feeling alive. The other, “London, London”, had a sweet final line about gazing at the sky, looking for flying saucers, with which the audience joined in, perhaps lost in their own memories.
For Veloso and Gil, London was a cold and not always welcoming place, although at least it offered them safety. No one took much notice of the presence of these two pioneers of the Tropicália movement, which infused traditional Brazilian sounds with the harsher modes of Anglo-American rock music and carried a political message. Veloso will have been all too familiar with last night’s rain and the dropping temperature, but the city is a different place in the 21st century. After a couple of songs he said that he was now going to make an introduction in English: “There must be two or three here, right?”
Indeed, the Barbican was packed with his compatriots, and on the day after the anti-immigration UKIP party’s success in the European elections, this was a good place to be. If Veloso really wanted to know how London has changed since his two-year exile, he could also take a drive through the north-western suburb of Harlesden, perhaps on his way to a football match at Wembley, and see the number of cafes and other businesses established by the Brazilian community, with names like O Estadio and O Jogo, their signs and frontages mostly painted in the green and gold of the bandeira.
A large proportion of Veloso’s set was devoted to songs from his most recent album, Um Abraçaço, delivered with the help of a skilled and sensitive three-piece band. I loved the gorgeous “Coração Vagabundo” (which you can hear here in a version with the great harmonica player Toots Thielemans) and his ardent acapella version of “Tonada de Luna Llena”, by the Venezuelan composer Simón Diaz, which Pedro Almodóvar used in his 1995 film The Flower of My Secret. Veloso’s seamless shifts from falsetto to his natural tenor register and back again were, with his lovely loose dancing and eloquent gestures, among the highlights of an enchanted evening. I hope he felt at home.