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Caetano Veloso's songs of freedom

Imagine a musician who is as iconic as the Beatles, as enduring as the Rolling Stones and as political as Bob Dylan.

In Brazil, that's Caetano Veloso, the 72-year-old singer-songwriter, one-time political dissident and famously confrontational performer. It's likely, however, that Veloso would resist such "stupid classifications," as he described them in his 1997 book, "Tropical Truth."

Resistance has long been a hallmark of Veloso's career, which began in the 1960s and has at times found the songwriter at odds with the press and the Brazilian government. His lyrics are often defiantly political, social and sexual. In 1975, the cover of his album "Jóia" was censored for featuring a drawing of a nude Veloso, his wife and first son.

Veloso's most recent album, "Abraçaço," which means "huge hug," was released in North America this past March, two years after its original release in Brazil. It won two Latin Grammy Awards, including one for best album by a singer/composer. This Saturday, Veloso will perform songs from the album at the Fillmore Miami Beach, the first date on his new international tour.

In an email interview, Veloso says he chose to begin his tour in South Florida for a simple reason.

"It's closer. Geographically and culturally, there are so many Brazilians and Latin Americans living there," he says. "I feel good in Miami. It has the feeling of Northeastern Brazil, and the seawater is the temperature of Bahia, not ice-cold as in Rio or L.A."

Bahia is a state in Northeast Brazil known for its strong Afro-Brazilian culture, beautiful beaches, great seafood and laid-back atmosphere. Veloso was born and raised in Bahia, and learned to perform in its bars and restaurants, side by side with his younger sister, Maria Bethânia, who's also an iconic singer in Brazil.

"I have always loved songs, from early childhood on," he says. "When I was very young, I painted and wanted to make movies as a director. But [I] would sing all the time. I knew all the tunes I heard on the radio."

Veloso enrolled in college to study philosophy, but dropped out and moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1965, one year after the coup d'état that put Brazil under a military dictatorship. With the dictatorship came censorship, and Brazilian music became conservative, with many songwriters going out of their way to ignore the regime in their lyrics and disregarding international influences, such as rock 'n' roll.

But Veloso, along with Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé, Gal Costa and the band Os Mutantes, took a different direction, mixing elements of rock, psychedelia and bossa nova and other Brazilian forms. They used metaphors and ambiguous messages in their lyrics to challenge the system.

This innovation became a cultural movement, known as "Tropicália," or "Tropicalismo," that expanded to theater, visual arts and cinema. Veloso became one of the most influential leaders of the movement.

In 1968, Veloso was booed when he performed the song "É Proibido Proibir," which means, "it's prohibited to forbid," during a music festival. He responded with a historic speech directed to the "youth."

"So this is the youth that says they want to take the power?" he yelled. "This is the problem: They're trying to police the Brazilian music!"

Veloso and Gil were arrested by the military dictatorship after playing a concert that displayed onstage an image by artist Hélio Oiticica of a criminal who had been executed by police in Rio. The image read, "Be a criminal, be a hero." Veloso and Gil were also accused of disrespecting the national anthem and the national flag.

The military released Veloso and Gil, but sentenced them to four months on house arrest before exiling them. They moved to London, where Veloso lived for 2 1/2 years before he was allowed to return to Brazil.

"It took me years to get over it. And indeed I would never be the same as before," Veloso says. "And as I changed, so did my music."

Yet he says his creative process hasn't changed much.

"It's always been like, I think some kind of song should exist for the sake of the history of popular music in Brazil, and even the world, or just to solve my own personal problems. So I start inventing it," he says. "Most of the time, I come out with something totally different from what I planned."

Through the years, Veloso has experimented with many genres of music, including samba, bossa nova, rock, jazz and tango. He has written songs in English, released an album in Spanish and performed in Pedro Almodovar's film "Talk to Her."

But again, he says that as a musician, little has changed.

"It's all mostly the same: me, myself and I," he says. "My country and family origins, my mulatto DNA, my joy, my basic sadness, the Portuguese language, sex, African polytheist religions of Brazil, Christianity and atheism, the same hope for something I can't name."

His new album acts almost as an overview of his career, with songs featuring heavy guitar, hints of psychedelia and lots of percussion. Critics have praised the album.

"I started writing songs for a new record of mine, without thinking much about it," Veloso says. "I was living a very strong love affair, and images from it appeared in the lyrics."

He's surprised by the critical and public approval, as he says he was more excited and more focused while making the albums "Cê" and "Zii e Zie," the first two parts of a trilogy completed by "Abraçaço." All three were recorded with Banda Cê, the ground with whom Veloso currently performs.

"But Abraçaço is something that walks with its own feet," he says. "Maybe the band is more relaxed and organic, and the audiences and critics notice our unpretentious ways. I just let myself be taken."

He tends to take audiences with him, as well. Although his opinions may still spark controversy in Brazil, when it comes to his music, he finds little opposition.

His secret? Veloso just really enjoys doing it.

"I like to sing," he says. "That's why I never get tired of working with songs."

bduarte@sunsentinel.com, @babicorb or 954-356-4710

Caetano Veloso

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13

Where: Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave.

Cost: $50-$95

Contact: 305-673-7300 or FillmoreMiamiBeach.com

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