At 1 p.m. on April 16, over 2,000 New York public high school kids had an experience parallel to David Byrne’s upon his initial exposure to Brazilian music. They came to hear Caetano Veloso and two contemporary Afro-Brazilian bands at Carnegie Hall, culminating a six-month enrichment program sponsored by the Weill Institute which taught the history, politics, and culture of Brazil through its pop music. Fact is, without the sustained attention Byrne and other “first-world” pop stars began giving nonwhite and non-Western musics in the early ’80s, that cross-cultural encounter might never have happened. The next night, when Byrne and Veloso performed together to demonstrate the many fruits of their 15-year friendship, the sold-out crowd glimpsed a kind of commercial parity among international pop musics that coming generations will hopefully take for granted.
Side by side, trading leads on “(Nothing but) Flowers,” the quirky Brazilian and the quirky American mirrored one another as if they’d been separated at birth. By this point, they’d already moved through most of their respective solo sets using one sideman each (Veloso’s cellist and Byrne’s percussionist) to accompany voice and acoustic guitar; Veloso’s renditions of “Não Enche” (“Don’t Piss Me Off”) and “Coraçao Vagabundo” had given way to a mini-suite of bittersweet odes to New York. A jaunty “(I’ll Take) Manhattan” flowed into “Manhatã,” whose ominous tom-tom pattern introduced the first duet of the night—Byrne’s similarly allegorical “The Revolution.” Later they traded leads in Portuguese during “Um Canto de Afoxé Para o Bloco de Ilê,” but predictably enough Byrne’s solo versions of “And She Was,” “Life During Wartime,” and “Heaven” (to which Veloso added soft, ethereal harmonies) got bigger reactions. This particular double bill didn’t allow either man to do justice to his brand-new Nonesuch album, although Caetano managed to fit in his Talking Heads and Rodgers & Hart covers despite the burden of audience expectations, and Byrne did his post-post-feminist anthem “She Only Sleeps.”
Both David Byrne’s Grown Backwards and Caetano Veloso’s A Foreign Sound are marvelously sophisticated, extremely political albums that approach form and content with the same stylistic rigor but almost opposing emphasis. It’s not just that Veloso chooses to interpret a broad selection of American pop standards while all but three of the tracks on Byrne’s record are his own contemporary compositions. Veloso’s enthusiastic nostalgia for show tunes and urbane ditties reflecting the hybridized sensibility of the nation’s 20th century reminds America of her whip-smart youth. Ultimately all his best intentions are summed up by the allusions to memory and redemption in “Come as You Are” and “Something Good.” Conversely, the two songs most responsible for the sound and structure of Grown Backwards are Italian and French opera pieces by Verdi and Bizet that re-program how we hear vocals and strings throughout the entire album. Presumably, with these pristine artifacts from a pre-atomic era, Byrne hopes to press some sort of reset button on the human psyche.
Although both men adore the sensuality of syncopation, Veloso treats rhythm as a defining category rather than a playful enhancement. The street percussion he adds to “The Carioca” grants Flying Down to Rio‘s Hollywood production number authentic Afro-Brazilian roots; he makes “Cry Me a River” a bossa nova, and gives Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” a samba-reggae backbeat. Moreover, Veloso remains the truer romantic, projecting less alienation and more passion in love songs. Byrne still distances himself from his protagonists, burlesquing their angst rather than claiming it as his own. This is less true of woman-on-top scenarios like “She Only Sleeps,” but the nascent fascist of “Empire,” the illegal immigrant of “Glass, Concrete, Stone,” and the frustrated alpha male of “Civilization” are sung as though observed rather than embodied. What he loses in intimacy by this strategy, he gains in ironic punch, his perennial strong suit when it comes to conveying mood and meaning. But with pop motifs as seductively motile as the Brazilian variety, he’ll always get more bang for his creative buck by opting for tropical heat over Yankee cool.