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BRASÍLIA — “I still have politics in my harmonies,” Caetano Veloso told a Rio de Janeiro paper just last week — “in the rhythms I choose, the structures I select, in everything I do.”
Fifty years after Brazil’s then-ruling military junta released Veloso from prison on Ash Wednesday 1969, the singer-songwriter, who visits Chicago for an SCP Special Concert on April 9, remains his country’s subversive Carnaval conscience. Earlier this month, Veloso drew the Fat Tuesday ire of Brazil’s newly elected president for frolicking in a bathtub.
Veloso’s latest video collaboration, “Proibido o Carnaval” (“Carnaval Is Prohibited”), shows His Musical Grey Eminence bouncing about in a pink bubble bath — and little else — singing, “I’m running naked through the streets … cloaked only in rebellion.” (Sons Moreno, Zeca and Tom will join Dad onstage during the tour, to keep Veloso’s antics safe for American audiences.)
Pink bubbles seem to be Veloso’s pointed political choice, coupled with the blue suds Daniela Mercury tosses all over in her own “Proibido o Carnaval” video bathtub. Veloso and Mercury — two of Brazil’s biggest musical famosos — lathered up together to protest a cabinet minister’s recent suggestion that families go back to traditional gender values like dressing baby boys in blue jumpers and little girls in pink dresses.
But when Veloso sang “You can’t clothe my soul and I don’t fit in a box,” he drew an unexpected and surprisingly sharp rebuke from Jair Bolsonaro, whose “Trump of the Tropics” appeal — and similarly big Twitter following — won him Brazil’s presidency in October. Bolsonaro, an unapologetic fan of Brazil’s 1960s military dictatorship that suspended habeus corpus and imprisoned Veloso 50 Carnavals ago, quickly accused him and Mercury of misusing cultural grants that support the annual festival to strum up anti-government insurgency (a rare accusation in modern-day Brazil, which returned to democratic rule in 1985).
Bolsonaro even tweeted his own Carnaval marchinha — lacking the catchy rhythms of “Proibido o Carnaval,” but still strong in its counterpoint — bitterly name-checking Veloso and Mercury with lyrics like “It’s not Carnaval that’s prohibited — it’s misappropriating federal funds that’s not allowed.”
Dois “famosos” acusam o Governo Jair Bolsonaro de querer acabar com o Carnaval. A verdade é outra: esse tipo de "artista" não mais se locupletará da Lei Rouanet. ASSISTA: pic.twitter.com/37XQEvyBWt
— Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) March 5, 2019
Bolsonaro’s second Veloso-inspired Carnaval tweet, as Fat Tuesday wound to a close, drew uninvited worldwide attention, setting off one of those “only in Brazil” polemics where — how else to describe it? — pink bubble baths and blue soap suds conjured up certain-hued showers.
Veloso’s subversive “running naked through the streets … cloaked only in rebellion” provoked Bolsonaro to tweet a Carnaval cellphone video from São Paulo that The New York Times described as showing “a man, wearing a black jockstrap, dancing on what appears to be a bus stop. At one point, a second man [relieves himself] on the man in the jockstrap.” Bolsonaro wrote to his 3.4 million followers, “I don’t feel comfortable showing this video, but we have to expose the truth so people can be aware and set priorities. This is what many street parties during Carnival have become.”
Detractors immediately denounced the president’s video as something between homophobic and pornographic. It has since been removed from Twitter.
Veloso still hasn’t spoken publicly about the Carnaval suds, showers and presidential tweets, declining interview requests on the topic. Like the subversive messages caged in cryptic lyrics from his half-century career, Veloso’s political undercurrents are often present but sometimes tough to discern.
Good luck if you don’t speak Portuguese.
Chicago-based lawyer and writer Andrew Huckman, though steeped in Brazilian culture, readily admits he’s not fluent in that nation’s language.
TOP: Caetano Veloso in the video of “Proibido o Carnaval.”