Caetano Veloso, 2015
Photo: Roberto Filho/Divulgacão. CCBY 2.0, Wikimedia

The Legacy of Caetano Veloso’s Masterpiece ‘Transa’

Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso’s most celebrated work, Transa, still resonates with audiences young and old 50 years later.

Caetano Veloso
January 1972

Things did not look great for Brazilian artists in the early 1970s. Following the CIA-backed military junta that took over the government in 1964 – in an attempt to refrain supposed communist-adjacent uprisings in the country – many of those considered to be subversive or defenders of opposite views to the prevalent one were persecuted, often to tragic ends. Amongst those who underwent repressive actions, many suffered both physical and psychological torture, being arbitrarily arrested and detained under barely-explained accusations. Many disappeared after entering the premises of police headquarters; their mortal remains were found decades later by future governments seeking accountabilities for the horrors of the dictatorship. More than a few, threatened by the ominous horror that rose, sought freedom through forced exile.

Such was the fate that befell singer and songwriter Caetano Veloso. Originally hailing from the state of Bahia, in the Northeastern part of Brazil, the musician spent time in Rio de Janeiro before finally settling in São Paulo, where he formed a strong, creative, and friendly partnership with fellow artist Gilberto Gil. Together, the duo would be at the forefront of the movement conceived under the name Tropicália, which also included singers like Gal Costa and Tom Zé and the pioneering psychedelic band Os Mutantes. By 1968 – four years after the military government had effectively taken over the country – their ideas (which pushed to strengthen the links between traditional Brazilian music and the avant-garde ambitions that had just begun to permeate the then-new material by foreign rock bands) garnered both awe-inspired praise and latent confusion, particularly by those who saw the collective as a group of imperialism defenders.

That year’s release of the album Tropicália ou Panis Et Circensis did not do much to refrain their detractors; any opposition would be rendered mute by the sheer level of creative advancements proposed on the record, which would go on to be regarded as a masterpiece. At that point, Veloso already had a debut solo record under his belt (1968) and a collaborative album with Gal Costa (Domingo, 1967). And then it all fell apart.

Transa, the record Veloso would release in 1972, would directly result from the immediate aftermath of the movement’s actions and the subsequent impact its consequences had on its artist’s life and country. To this day, Transa remains Caetano Veloso’s most iconic and revered work.

The Institutional Measure nº5 (most known by its original abbreviation, AI-5) effectively granted that police forces could promptly detain people regarded as transgressive or deemed a threat to topple the recently-gained authority of the army forces. Veloso and Gil were arrested in December of 1968 on the heels of that new rule. Having spent two months in isolation, both were released the following February, explicitly forbidden to perform live before audiences or to make any statements regarding their period in jail. Incapable of seeing an end to the oppression, the suggestion was made to go into exile, which the two friends promptly (albeit reluctantly) agreed to. Following a one-off performance to generate funds to back their trip, they left Brazil, alongside their partners, first to Lisbon, Portugal, and then to their final destination of London, England.

While Gil fit in their newfound living situation, going out and spending time with the effervescent Jamaican population of Portobello Road, Caetano Veloso retreated, unsure of what to do or where to go in such an alien place, having little familiarity with the English language and difficulties adapting to the comparably colder British weather. Following the efforts of their record company’s president, André Midani, to ensure proper working conditions for his exiled artists, Veloso got in touch with the Philips subsidiary Famous and with recording engineer Ralph Mace.

Mace became enamored with the Brazilian’s musical sensibilities and was eager to provide Veloso the right amount of effort and attention to reveal his talent to foreign audiences. The resulting first record made in London, 1971’s Caetano Veloso, turned out to be a bitter, melancholic, overall brilliant-yet-inexpressive bunch of songs that failed to make a big impression abroad (in spite of including Veloso’s well-known song “London London”).

Frustrated by the experience yet unwilling to let these opportunities go, Veloso remained open to making another record through the Famous label that would maintain Mace in his position. The next time around, though, he would exert larger dominance over the compositional and recording process; by making a more unified album, the artist would ascertain his positions both artistically and politically. He would not be able to do that alone, though; it took a while, but he would find the right people for the job.

Upon briefly returning to Brazil in early 1971 – under the surveillance of the military – to take part on his parent’s wedding anniversary celebrations, authorities proposed that Caetano Veloso write a song praising the new and extensive Transamazônica highway, which was still under construction but would, upon conclusion, be approximately 4,000 km long. The “proposal” was declined, although it would serve as inspiration for the title of the album the songwriter would start working on soon after.

Upon presenting his (immediately accepted) ideas to the recording label, he enlisted the musicians that would accompany him; in a twist from his previous effort, all of them were Brazilian: Moacyr Albuquerque would play bass, Tutty Moreno would handle drums, with percussionist Áureo de Souza providing the backbone to the new, angular songs, and Jards Macalé would serve as guitarist and artistic director, working alongside Veloso to generate organic, psychedelic and even futuristic arrangements, achieving, as per the singer’s own directions, “a full band sound”.

Said direction seems fully formed from the get-go: as it would be with all songs in Transa,You Don’t Know Me” floats between lyrics in English and Portuguese, laid over a bedrock of truncated rhythms and feverish guitar work, with the main artist’s voice laden with reverb and even a guest vocal courtesy of Gal Costa, who was taking time to visit her exiled friend. The somewhat dreamlike atmosphere conjured also indicates some of the conditions in which the songs were conceived: all musicians except for Veloso (whose famous abstinence from substance use has made him an outlier among his peers) would take daily doses of weed and LSD, which, in turn, directly influenced many of the most forward-thinking, avant garde-like moments of Transa.

Speaking of forward-thinking, the second track, “Nine Out of Ten”, raises both attention and intrigue, especially concerning the word “reggae” in its lyrics. Now a widely popular genre of music originating from Jamaica, it had never been heard in a record by a Brazilian pop artist before, which would later inspire some paranoid-like questioning from authorities upon the album’s release in Brazil. Besides the namedrop, the song also featured a brief prelude that premeditated the mentioned rhythm, first heard by the musicians thanks to the Jamaican immigrants they came to know around the same time.

The third tune in Transa, “Triste Bahia”, is also the first sung entirely in Portuguese; its title references Veloso’s home state and incorporates verses from fellow poet Gregório de Matos (1636-1696). The closing track on side A provides an interesting contrast with side B’s opening song. Carrying mentions of the Beatles and featuring excerpts from Dorival Caymmi’s “A Lenda do Abaeté” and “Consolação” by Vinícius de Moraes and Baden Powell, “It’s A Long Way” remains one of the most unique songs in Veloso’s songbook. Its subtly changing tempos do the son wonders, with even its quietest details making it an endearing experience after multiple listens.

Whereas both tracks were penned by Caetano Veloso, “Mora Na Filosofia” draws entirely from the work of samba artists Monsueto Menezes and Arnaldo Passos, which garnered negative comments from purists that did not see the verses’ coopting by a popular singer with good eyes; nonetheless, it does its original authors justice by keeping a fairly samba-like arrangement. Moreover, “Neolithic Man” is more sparse in its composition and more experimental in terms of wordplay, with dynamics that proved to be head-turning for foreign listeners unfamiliar with the lyrical structures usual in Brazilian songs. It provides a brisk pace change when put side-by-side with the closing song, “Nostalgia (That’s What Rock and Roll Is All About)”. More traditional in format, it features another appearance by Gal Costa (who also provided vocals in “Neolithic Man”) as well as harmonica work by fellow London-based Brazilian and future solo star Angela Rô Rô, and provides a fitting, even if more straightforward, structure.

Transa was released in January 1972 and was met with praise for its unusual format: the original vinyl release shocked buyers by its layout, akin to what was then known as an album-object, with folding parts that were otherwise surprising to most of Veloso’s evergrowing fanbase. In spite of that, the innovative format ended up becoming pivotal in the breakup of the band Veloso had put together to perform it live: although the concerts performed in both the UK and in Brazil (to which the artist would soon move back permanently) suscitated tangible praise, the record itself failed to provide any information regarding those involved in making it happen.

As such, and feeling betrayed by his collaborator, Macalé decided to distance himself from the singer in a publically acrimonious fashion, creating a rift that would last for at least three decades. Most of the other musicians would be back to record Caetano Veloso’s next album, albeit in a less effective way: 1972’s Araçá Azul was the songwriter’s first and deepest foray into de facto avant-garde music, being recorded solely by the musician as he used his own body as a source for percussion-like sounds. Unlike Transa, it was met with criticism and confusion, less for what it was (a genre-defying experiment) than for what it was not (a proper sequel to a groundbreaking piece of work).

Although Transa was considered a classic from the beginning, its reputation has soared even more in the years following: Rolling Stone Brazil ranked it as the tenth greatest Brazilian album of all time; in 2022, the Brazilian podcast Discoteca Básica (helmed by journalist and researcher Ricardo Alexandre) surveyed an extensive number of music specialists, and the record was placed at nº8. Pitchfork deemed “You Don’t Know Me” the 16th best song of the ’70s, and the album was later regarded as part of the website’s “The Story of Tropicália in 20 Albums” special feature.

Caetano Veloso has been touring to support his latest work, 2022’s Meu Coco. In conjunction with the concerts focused on his most recent material, however, the singer has also been performing special concerts in which Transa is played in full. Whereas some of the songs are performed with his main band, the special occasion also features most of the original musicians responsible for recording the album – save for Gal Costa, who passed away in 2022, and Moacyr Albuquerque, who died in 2000.

While serving as a celebration for those who got to know and experience the music firsthand (and an unmissable experience for those who didn’t) and in addition to being the first few performances of Veloso and Macalé together since rekindling their relationship, the new Transa shows also provide a special opportunity for Caetano Veloso himself. A man of many faces, he has released many albums, each deserving of respect and attention, since his most revered one.

Ever-changing and challenging like very few of his contemporaries, Veloso seems to wrestle with his legacy, unwilling to confine himself to his illustrious past. By fully embracing his masterpiece, he has given himself (and his followers) an opportunity to approach his history with distance, maturity, cautious awe, and massive respect. To quote the man himself, that’s what music, art (and, yes, rock and roll) is all about.