'It's just madness': Brazil music legend Caetano Veloso on Bolsonaro

The musician, 77, exiled to London under Brazil’s military dictatorship says he fears the president’s ‘ultra-reactionary bunch’ will not let go of power easily

Half a century has passed since agents of the Brazilian dictatorship appeared on the doorstep of the music legend Caetano Veloso and announced: “You’d better bring your toothbrush.”

Six months of detention and confinement later he was forced into European exile, spending the next two and a half years as a resident of Chelsea, West Kensington and Golders Green, where he would rehearse what remains his most celebrated album, Transa, in the vestry of a local church.

“I’d only been to London once before and I hadn’t liked it. I found it so aloof, so strange,” Veloso remembered during a rare, three-hour interview with the Guardian. “I felt so depressed about the whole situation.”

Fifty years later the composer, now 77, is again perturbed by the intolerant political winds sweeping his native land – although this time he has a front-row seat to the turbulence from his seaside home in Rio.

Brazil, which emerged from two decades of dictatorship in the mid-1980s, is governed by Jair Bolsonaro, a democratically elected but openly anti-democratic former paratrooper who has packed his administration with military figures and reveres the generals who banished artists and intellectuals such as Veloso from Brazilian soil.

In recent months hardcore Bolsonaro supporters have hit the streets with banners calling for the closure of Congress and the reintroduction of the dictatorship-era decree that paved the way for Veloso’s exile – with the president himself attending several of the rallies.

“An utter nightmare. It’s just madness,” the musician said of the rightwing “fanatics” demanding the return of military rule, with Bolsonaro at the helm.

Brazilian music legends Caetano Veloso, right, and Gilberto Gil in Trafalgar Square during their exile in London.
Brazilian music legends Caetano Veloso, right, and Gilberto Gil in Trafalgar Square during their exile in London. Photograph: Archive Caetano

“Having a military government is awful and Bolsonaro is so confused, so incompetent. His government has done nothing,” Veloso complained. “What has the Brazilian executive done in the period since he’s been president? Nothing … There’s been no government – just a racket of insanities.”

Veloso’s banishment to Britain began in December 1968, when he was a rising 26-year-old star, and the immediate trigger was surprisingly contemporary: fake news.

Following a show in Rio with the psychedelic rockers Os Mutantes, a rightwing radio shock jock falsely accused Veloso and fellow artist Gilberto Gil of desecrating the Brazilian flag and swearing over the national anthem – unacceptable acts during what was the dictatorship’s most repressive phase.

Soon after, the pair were arrested and held for two months, including a stint at the parachute regiment in western Rio, where Brazil’s future president, Bolsonaro, would serve just a few years later.

After another four months they were forced on to a plane and eventually set up camp on Redesdale Street, Chelsea.

“It took me a while to start liking London,” Veloso recalled of his new home, where his melancholy was softened by the chance to see a “Dionysian” Mick Jagger strut the stage at the Chalk Farm Roundhouse and watch John Lennon, Led Zeppelin and Herbie Hancock up close.

“It was almost like I was going to another planet, a different tribe, a different culture and way of being,” he remembered.

For all the differences between Brazil’s democratic present and dictatorial past, there are disturbing echoes of Brazil’s current political panorama in Veloso’s experience of exile.

Then, Brazil’s military rulers appropriated the country’s green and yellow colours as their patriotic symbol, just as Bolsonarista hardliners have done so now, to the despair of progressive Brazilians.

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro demonstrate in Brasíia earlier this month.
Bolsonaristas demonstrate in Brasília. Jair Bolsonaro is ‘very much like many Brazilians I know. He’s very similar to the average Brazilian.’ Photograph: Joédson Alves/EPA

When Veloso and Gil decked their brown-brick Chelsea townhouse with Brazil flags to celebrate the 1970 World Cup they caused consternation among visiting friends “because it was as if we supporting the dictatorship”.

“I’d say: ‘No, the dictatorship isn’t Brazil!’ But of course we knew that the dictatorship was a symptom of Brazil, an expression of Brazil – and that was what Brazil was being at that moment, just as it’s being a whole bunch of things today that aren’t easy for us to swallow,” Veloso said.

“You can’t say that Bolsonaro isn’t Brazil,” he added. “He’s very much like many Brazilians I know. He’s very similar to the average Brazilian – in fact, the ability of him and his bunch to stay in power depends on stressing this identification with the ‘normal’ Brazilian.”

For all Bolsonaro’s popular appeal – polls suggest that despite his calamitous response to coronavirus he retains the support of about 30% of Brazilians – Veloso described his administration as a disaster and a danger to democracy.

“There’s something rather farcical about it – but you know that the European experiences of the 20th century, in Italy and Germany, teach us that lots of things that seem farcical – and indeed are – can also have really tragic results that last for a long time, for many people,” said the artist, who has thrown his weight behind a series of recent initiatives and manifestos denouncing Bolsonaro’s attacks on education, culture and the environment.

Like other rightwing populists in the US, Hungary, Poland and Britain, Bolsonaro proposed “suspiciously easy solutions to complex problems”, Veloso said. (“‘Bolsonaro will sort everything out! Bolsonaro’s the solution!’ … That’s why he got so many votes!”)

But since taking power in January 2019 the nationalist had achieved nothing, Veloso said.

“What we’ve seen has been more about destruction,” he said. “Everything that’s been done in the Amazon has been to encourage deforestation; everything that’s been done in the cultural sphere has been about dismantling … museums, theatre groups, makers of music and film.”

Meanwhile, nearly 90,000 Brazilians had lost their lives to a pandemic critics accuse Bolsonaro of catastrophically mishandling, with the help of an interim health minister who is an active-duty army general.

“It’s beastly – and the president sticks to his position, even though he’s been infected himself. He didn’t even behave like Boris Johnson who changed tack after being infected,” said Veloso, who has gone out just once since the epidemic began – for the birth of his grandson, Benjamin.

Veloso admitted he was afraid of falling ill or dying because of Covid-19, and had been sheltering at home in the company of his wife and son, the books of the Italian philosopher Domenico Losurdo and classic films by the likes of Glauber Rocha, Hitchcock and Antonioni.

“I’m a very curious person, and I don’t want to miss out on seeing how this will play out – because this will unravel somehow,” he said of Brazil’s current political bind.

Caetano Veloso performs in 2004 with Gilberto Gil, who was also exiled in London with him during Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Caetano Veloso performs with Gilberto Gil in France in 2004. Photograph: David Redfern/Redferns

But he feared Brazilians “would have to suffer greatly because of all these backwards steps” under Bolsonaro and saw the risk of “great violence” being sparked by the political tension between the president and his hardcore supporters and their opponents.

“I fear these people won’t want to let go of power so easily,” he said of Bolsonaro’s “ultra-reactionary bunch”.

But the musician, who has continued to compose during his five-month quarantine, said there was also a convenience to pessimism and insisted he remained “scandalously optimistic” about Brazil’s future. Perhaps being subjected to “an affliction like Bolsonaro” was the price Brazil had to pay in order to fulfil its enormous potential.

As its young democracy faced perhaps its greatest test since being reconquered 35 years ago, Veloso clung to childhood memories of a “sweet Brazil” in Santo Amaro, the culturally rich north-eastern town where he grew up steeped in Brazilian customs, patriotism and tradition.

“If I was sitting in front of a foreigner who was interested in Brazil … I’d tell them: ‘Brazil is here, right here,” the composer said, smiling.

“Our forests, our songs, our plays and our films … are being threatened by this government – and are in the process of being destroyed. But, as one of the members of the group that produces popular music, I can assure you we are here – Brazil is here.”


Caio Barretto Briso and Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro

The GuardianTramp

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