At Home in Saudade
Have you ever picked up a book that you had read once before, a long while back, and been struck by how different an experience it was reading it a second time? When we repeat an experience many years later, whether it’s related to art, music or literature, a hobby or activity, or visiting a place or a person, it can reveal very interesting things about the ways in which we may have changed.
Earlier this month I saw the legendary Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso for the second time in my life.
The first time was in New York in 2004. The first time I did not cry. The first time I did not feel such saudade. But the second time it was very different.
On the 18th of May, we were shown into Le Grand Rex Theatre in Paris by a lanky usher dressed in crisp black.
It had been quite awhile since I’d been to a concert, and I was happy to be there, looking forward to an evening of excellent music. I didn’t really expect it to be a high-energy show. I expected a polite audience of cultured Parisians looking for an exotic experience. I expected Caetano to be someone lost in translation, his philosophical, sometimes sexual, often subversive lyrics not at all understood, and turned into a pleasant bourgeois night out. I thought I’d find a sort of quiet room occasionally half-filled with courteous clapping, and the usual academic enthusiasm you see from a French audience when they view something they don’t necessarily understand or feel but believe is ‘quality’ and therefore profess to enjoy.
We sat down in plush chairs and waited while the theater slowly filled up, every seat eventually taken, and then the lights went down.
In that darkness we heard the first notes from the band sprinting towards us, a pumping rhythm punctuated by atmospheric electric guitar. The room burst into energetic, passionate applause in time with the bass drum. Joyful whoops erupted throughout the room as Caetano Veloso appeared, guitar in hand.
Although the man is 71 years old, he has an agile, lively, compact body and his bespectacled face is fresh and expressive, topped with an impressive shock of white hair. As he trotted from one side of the stage to the other and got closer and closer to the audience there was a nearly palpable delight running through the crowd.
I started to look around me, and I began to tune into the voices around me, picking up on snippets of Portuguese coming from every direction. As the band rounded the bend of a verse towards the chorus, many in the audience chanted along, bouncing with the beat. “odeio você, odeio você, odeio você. odei-o”
As Caetano began strumming the second song and then sang the first few notes, an audible “oooooooooh” swept through the room, the sound of satisfied recognition followed by a quiet hum of anticipation. And then everyone began to sing along, word for word. It was as this song played and I heard all these voices around me singing in Brazilian Portuguese, all the words known, all the words treasured, doled out preciously and lovingly, that I began to tear up. There I was in Paris, so far from Rio, and yet I was surrounded by Brazilians…hundreds maybe thousands of Brazilians. And they were singing a love song in a shared quavering voice, a group whisper, a thousand voices singing to themselves in a hush, yet also singing together, to each other.
It was so beautiful. And so unexpected.
The tears were just flowing down my face and I didn’t entirely know why – but I felt so profoundly moved.
The jubilation expressed by the people around me created a certain kind of energy in the space. I no longer felt like I was in Paris; I felt like I was transported somewhere special and private.
The concert was many poignant things at once. It was the gratitude you might expect from people getting to see one of the most beloved and iconic musicians of their country in person, and hearing songs they know word for word sung right in front of them. But all those Brazilians shared something with one another beyond a passion for the same music: the experience, for better or worse of being Brazilian living in France. The expatriate experience. They all were in France for different reasons, different needs, different priorities, and for different lengths of time. Some perhaps saw their entire future in Europe while others would be returning to Brazil at some point. But the differences aside – they were joined together by the distance separating them from their land, from their roots.
Caetano himself has been an expatriate. In fact he spent several years living in exile in Europe.
He and his friend and fellow musician Gilberto Gil had been “two of Brazil’s biggest pop stars, leading lights in the slyly subversive Brazilian psychedelic rock scene Tropicália.” Brazil’s government, a military dictatorship, decided they were a threat and in December 1968 they were arrested in São Paulo. They had their heads shaved, spent two months in prison and a further four months under house arrest. And then they were sent into exile, forced to find refuge in London.
It must have been a strange time – partially exciting to be in such a vibrant new city with such a phenomenal music scene, and partially horribly painful…the ache of feeling like home was out of reach, maybe wasn’t home anymore, maybe wouldn’t be home ever again. Not knowing when or if you’d be able to return…
Caetano made music while in exile – but he jokingly described his 1971 album, London London, as “a document of depression” with lyrics that speak to his homesickness, like “One day I had to leave my country, calm beach and palm beach.”
He recently said, “It is only now that I can say that I like the music I recorded there…The things we learned in exile made us more creative musicians. It also made us stronger people.”
What a beautiful thing for someone like him, who knows the pain of exile, to be able to bring a crowd of his countrymen back home for awhile.
To be an expatriate is to accept being an outsider most of the time, knowing that many of the things that you most cherish are things that the people around you are not likely to have heard of let alone care about. I think a lot of expats feel a great need to find others of their nationality even if they would not be friends in other circumstances, just to be around people that ground them in their national identity, their particular loves and hates, and the flavors of home, people who speaks the same language – not just the language of words – but body language, and the languages of ideas, memories, and feelings.
How special to be able to walk off the streets of Paris and enter that theater, and to go from being the minority, the stranger, the foreigner – to suddenly being mostly surrounded by other people like you, joining in the celebration of sharing something, connecting so effortlessly. There in that large theatre was the collective feeling, reminder, implication of Brazil, of a home left behind, and all those things that Europeans couldn’t understand. There they came together and something lightened, something was easy again, like removing confining clothing and taking a deep breath.
They were home. At least for a few hours.
I was struck by how different my concert experience was than the other time I had seen Caetano Veloso nearly 10 years before. I was a college student, and my father was in town visiting. My father loves all things Brazilian so we went to see Caetano at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side.
He had just put out an album of cover songs in English – including a surprising variety ranging from Gershwin to Nirvana. The covers had a certain brilliance in the way he adapted them to his own persona, style and musicality. It was enjoyable and he was a fantastic performer, yet something was a bit lost in the translation. It felt like an exercise rather than an expression, not quite as open, honest, or comfortable as he seems in his own music.
(Although I do LOVE this cover of “Come As You Are.”)
After the concert we went for a drink next door where we ran into a group of Brazilians. My dad walked eagerly up to them and said his stockpile of Brazilian phrases, and sang them a little Brazilian song (like he does every time, without fail, that he meets a Portuguese speaker…and every time anyone even mentions Brazil). They were pleased and amused and probably surprised. Thinking back on that moment, I realize how unusual that might have been for them – to have their culture and language not only recognized but even exalted a bit. In New York, people’s differences often can start blending, bleeding, growing fuzzy – because you get so used to seeing different kinds of people, hearing different accents. Strangely – in the cultural mixing pot – sometimes there is less flavor because every culture is forced into a bit of a muted state in the context of the roar and flash of the city.
And curiosity suffers.
For me to be honest they were just more of the many many people that fill up New York, speaking one of the many languages. I had never even been to South America at that time. We shared a city but had nothing overtly in common beyond that. I was a young, naive, inexperienced college student, in my New York bubble, where all the world comes to you. This was before I became an expatriate myself. I didn’t yet know saudade for a home that one cannot return to as you knew, or maybe cannot return to at all.
“Saudade, a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Manuel de Melo
“We all experience within us what the Portuguese call ‘saudade’, an inexplicable longing, an unnamed and enigmatic yearning of the soul, and it is this feeling that lives in the realms of imagination and inspiration, and is the breeding ground for the sad song, for the love song. Saudade is the desire to be transported from darkness into light, to be touched by the hand of that which is not of this world … [T]he love song is never simply happy.” Nick Cave
I could not share the specifically Brazilian experience of seeing Caetano because he is not part of my identity or my background but just a musician I love listening to and deeply admire. However I shared something else quite important with them and I felt it very powerfully – the saudade of living so far from where we are from.
I’ve only just recently really taken in and accepted that I’m an actual expatriate. I don’t know why it took this long – I’ve been living outside the United States for eight or nine years already, but it never seemed like all that much time had passed, not enough time to make it official. Perhaps it’s because we haven’t ever chosen to settle down somewhere and make a traditional home there; nowhere we’ve lived has had the equivalent solidity or meaning for me as the only places thus far that I’ve actually truly identified with as home – California, Alaska and New York.
But I think that is finally changing.
Two important events have occurred recently that have helped bring about a shift for me – one was a cutting of ties, the other was the forming of new ones.
In November of 2012, my family home was foreclosed on. This was the house where I grew up, the house that’s been in my family for 30 years, and a place I’d hoped in some naive way to never actually have to say goodbye to. The process of cutting the ties with that piece of land, those walls, those interior spaces and all the memories they contained, was very painful and left me feeling very alone and adrift in the world, unsure of where and to whom I belonged. I felt unrooted, untethered, floating in space. Nowhere I went felt comfortable or safe. I felt like a kind of global vagrant, begging to feel part of something.
But like so many difficult things, I soon realized that the cutting of these ties was a healthy and important thing to have occurred. It has helped me to feel more present actually living where I am living, rather than feeling like part of me is caught like a butterfly behind glass, preserved elsewhere, stuck in time.
The second thing that occurred was that I got married. I plan to write about this in depth later this month, but what’s important for the moment is that in the course of planning the wedding I rediscovered how rich my life truly is in deep, sustainable relationships with wonderful people. I learned that despite my constant feelings and fears of scarcity I am truly wealthy in love, friendship and family. I finally understood on a very deep level that although I am always far away from most of the people I care about, that as I move around the world I am held up by a strong, beautiful and ever growing web of amazing links to people that I have found, connected with and constructed a sustainable bonds with along the way. We are all holding on to each other, holding each other up.
The downside of this, and it is a beautiful downside, is that I know that there is never a place I can go now in the world where I won’t be missing other places and other people. There is never a center now where the effect is lessened. And there is always so much of this beautiful, aching, sweet missing. Endless Saudade, the flipside of all of that love. Life is never going to be uncomplicated.
I am a Californian living in France, married to a Venezuelan, whose family lives Colombia, and our friends are spread all over the world. There’s no way to stuff it back into one place anymore. I can’t ever just “go back home.”
But realizing that I am not on some trapeze, always risking falling, as I swing from place to place, changes everything. I am finding myself more able to get beyond geography in my concept of home, and locate it instead deep inside that ever-growing web of family and friendship. That way I can be at home wherever I go.
It’s complicated. I didn’t have any idea what it would mean to live for so long outside the United States, and how at a certain point there would be no turning back. I didn’t do it on purpose and I didn’t understand the ramifications. But I do now. I know what I have lost and what I have gained. And I feel a certain sorrow – like a loss of some kind of innocence. But I don’t regret it. I am grateful for it every day, because I can feel myself expanding. It is hard sometimes, but worth the growing pains.
“In this world, time is a local phenomenon. Two clocks close together tick at nearly the same rate. But clocks separated by distance tick at different rates, the farther apart the more out of step… In this world, time flows at different speeds in different locations… On occasion, a traveler will venture from one city to another. Is he perplexed? What took seconds in Berne might take hours in Fribourg, or days in Lucerne. In the time for a leaf to fall in one place, a flower could bloom in another. In the duration of a thunderclap in one place, two people could fall in love in another. In the time that a boy grows into a man, a drop of rain might slide down a windowpane. Yet the traveler is unaware of these discrepancies. As he moves from one timescape to the next, the traveler’s body adjusts to the local movement of time…Only when the traveler communicates with the city of departure does he realize he has entered a new domain of time. Then he learns that while he has been gone his daughter has lived her life and grown old, or perhaps his neighbor’s wife has just completed the song she was singing when he left his front gate. It is then the traveler learns that he is cut off in time, as well as in space. No traveler goes back to his city of origin…”
– From Einstein’s Dream by Alan Lightman
For a great article about Caetano Veloso please read “Dinner and philosophy with Brazil’s greatest pop star” http://www.theartsdesk.com/new-music/dinner-caetano-veloso
This is a fun piece of writing that really elucidates what is so special about both the man and the musician.
I also highly recommend Veloso’s most recent album “Abraçaço.” I particularly love the title piece, included here for your listening pleasure: