More than Milton Nascimento, more than Gal Costa, more than Caetano Veloso, more than any other Brazilian artist of 35 years ago, Gilberto Gil had the power to lure me into the intoxicating vortex of Brazilian rhythms, textures and words and hold me there. Gil led me to the trough. No, Gil lashed me to the trough, and today, I am still drinking deeply from it.
After some consideration, it seems that, all along, Gil had the gift of coating even the most thought provoking messages—faith in god, his Zen philosophy, his vision of the female side of even the most macho male, the validity of black cultural expression—of coating very heavy stuff with an infectious, addicting, easy-to-swallow variety of musical guises. Even more than Milton, even more than Gal, even more than Caetano.
Gil cast the spell and I was hooked. I learned his language, lived in his country, experienced his culture, played his music religiously on the radio, even made the pilgrimage to his house one Sunday afternoon thirty years ago.
I was a zealot and my friends found me insufferable. I’m sure I heard them say, “Look out, Quinn is coming and he’s carrying that stack of Brazilian records.” Always, the first one off the top of that stack was Gil’s 1977 recording Refavela, a work I still consider to be one of the ten best pop music records ever made anywhere.
For emphasis, I want to repeat that: I’ve been involved with the music biz for 40 years and, in my opinion, Gilberto Gil’s Refavela is one of the ten best pop music records ever made, ANYWHERE!
I remain a zealot.
* * * * *
“I am a performer, a man of music who likes to write songs and translate other people’s songs into my own musical language,” said Gil in a telephone interview.
“What I really like to do is pick up the guitar and play, to write a song and sing it, to incorporate elements from all kinds of music. That’s why I like my [1998 Grammy winning CD] Quanta Live. It’s everything. It’s jazz and samba and reggae and salsa. It’s bossa nova and baião [a dance from Brazil’s northeast]. It’s everything together. That’s what I like.”
In addition to being a musician, Gil sees himself as an entertainer and a teacher.
“What is most important for me in my performances is pleasure. Pleasure for me first. And, if it is pleasurable for me, it will probably be a pleasure for the audience as well.”
Whether he wanted to or not, Gilberto Gil has become a guru for two generations of Brazilians. The spiritual, social and cultural development in his life has been an open book via the lyrics of his songs.
When Gilberto Gil releases a new recording, all of Brazil becomes privy to his current interests and beliefs: eastern religions, social and political injustice, his own awareness of gender ambiguity, the relationship between art and science, birth and rebirth—all manner of personal growth issues are thoroughly examined and described in clever language that is neatly tucked into his complex, yet totally “pleasurable” musical package.
So the question was posed about his work as an ongoing autobiography.
“It is that. Exactly. I like to use songs to transmit my own views of life and to discuss my inner self. I offer people what is universal, what might represent their inner self, by photographing my own interior through my songs. I am what you encounter in my music.
“In my music you will find a large number of references to religion, my vision of life and death, ideas of god, doubts about existence and non-existence, many philosophical concepts. I like to put these ideas into simple language, using simple poetry, so others can understand these very subjective ideas derived from my own search, my own quest.”
This quest began soon after his birth in 1942 in the culturally rich northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, a state much lauded in poetry, prose and music by the likes of Dorival Caymmi, Jorge Amado, João Gilberto, Castro Alves and Ary Barroso.
The family moved to the small backlands town of Ituaçu where the young Gil was exposed to the droning 10-string guitars of song-duelers called violeiros in the marketplace, to the emerging tradition-grounded northeastern pop fusion of Luiz Gonzaga and Jackson do Pandeiro (broadcast incessantly over tinny loudspeakers in the town square), and to the excitement provided all small children by the rousing cacophony of the small municipal band.
Music was commonplace, but Gil was different.
He was privileged to come from a well-educated family (his father a doctor and his mother a professor) in a country where most people could not read. In addition, Gil himself points out that he was gifted with a predilection for the arts and music.
So the incipient guru felt the call at an early age.
“I was destined by my nature to become an artist. When I was very young, I already felt like an artist. When I was only two or two and a half, I told my mother I was going to become a musician. And by three or four, I was already writing poetry, working with my dreams and my fantasies.
“But I had help. My mother was my chief supporter. When I was ten, she bought me an accordion and sent me to music school in Salvador. When I was around eighteen, she bought me my first guitar.”
And it was about that time that Gil himself fell under a spell. The spell of João Gilberto’s brand new bossa nova, a spell felt by so many others of his generation, including his principal collaborator over the years, Caetano Veloso.
Gil was soon performing in clubs and on television, while simultaneously earning a degree in business administration in Salvador. His music began to evolve from a mix of the two-step dance music of his native northeast (baião, xaxado, xote, etcetera), with the lilting, syncopated bossa-samba of Gilberto, with straight ahead samba from Rio, and occasional hints of African flavored influences from Salvador.
By the mid-1960s, he left behind the coat and tie of the business world and devoted himself to pursuing a very different path, a path that would lead to a position of national influence, then international prominence.
“My first phase was one of traditional forms. Nothing experimental at all. Caetano and I followed in the tradition of Luiz Gonzaga and Jackson do Pandeiro, combining samba with northeastern music. We just continued with what went before, but we created a new pop style by simply using some new tools and a new language, adapting the guitar playing of João Gilberto and Dorival Caymmi to a new context.
“We changed the principal instrument of Gonzaga’s style from the accordion to the guitar. We were saying the same thing, we just used a new instrument.”
His first record was a well-received document of various traditional styles and introduced Gil’s insightful use of language and word play that would continue to be one of his most respected trademarks. For example, a Jorge Ben-like samba about the internet on the aforementioned Quanta Live recording refers to the “infosea” (infomar) and “infotide” (infomaré) instead of “superhighway,” playing off the connection between net and sea, and the Portuguese verb “informar,” meaning “to inform.”
Gil’s songs, at least as recorded by others, were soon topping the charts.
It seems natural with hindsight that even on his early recordings, an experimental side was already starting to appear, foreshadowing the revolutionary Tropicália movement usually credited mainly to Caetano Veloso, and so frequently lauded by the ultra-hip press of the United States, 40 years after the fact.
One tune, “Lunik 9”, mimics a rocket launch through a crescendo composed of alternating musical forms and tempos. Another, “Domingo no Parque” (Sunday in the Park) describes a crime of passion on a Sunday ferris wheel ride: Gil using cinematic techniques of quickly changing images and cuts, almost like the famous shower scene of Psycho, but realized through poetry and music.
With the full-tilt onslaught of the northern hemisphere’s mid-60s musical revolution, influences from outside Brazil were bound to manifest themselves in the work of such astute observers as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. The Beatles and others, including Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis all had a profound effect.
But these reflections of other concepts represented nothing more than a shift in the approach through which Gil, et al, expressed their innate Brazilian-ness, their raison d’être that was never intended to take a backseat to anything else. Nevertheless, in 1968 when Gil and Veloso added electric guitars to their previously acoustic performance, they were booed off the stage.
Interestingly, through the Tropicália movement and through most of his career, none of Gil’s music reveals any direct influence or mimicry of his extra-Brazilian sources.
“Hendrix and Miles Davis were artists from another world of expression who had a spirit we could identify with. Hendrix worked within a range of technical elements completely different from ours. But I felt very inside, very close to what he did. It was in this sense, the spirit of what he did, that I was inspired, that feeling captured me.
“It’s the same with other influences like rock, jazz, blues, the Beatles. You don’t hear them explicitly in my music, but rather, as more of an atmosphere.”
Eventually audiences came around and embraced these visionaries.
Gil was beginning to emerge as a guru for the young generation of Brazilians quickly tiring of the repressive actions of the ever-strengthening military government. At least that’s what certain paranoid generals believed.
So, in late 1968, both Gil and Veloso were imprisoned on non-existent charges, and by early 1969 were living in exile in London where the stimulation from a boiling music scene reinforced and augmented their abilities to reframe their art in yet even more complex terms.
When Gil returned to Brazil in 1972 with newly honed composing skills and guitar chops, he entered a phase of strong reconnection with his Brazilian roots and suddenly his music took off as never before.
Songs such as the carnaval anthem “Aquele Abraço” (actually from 1969), “Expresso 2222”, “Pipoca Moderna” and “Chiclete com Banana” [a Jackson do Pandeiro classic, “Chewing Gum with Banana”: “I’ll only put bebop in my samba when Uncle Sam plays the tamborim/When he plays the tambourine and the bass drum/When he learns that the samba is not rumba/Then I will mix Miami with Copacabana…”] offered folk and traditional songs in fresh clothes that owed more to the old than the new, but still sounded newer than old.
At about the same time Gil began a very open period of self-examination and spiritual exploration. His forays into Zen and other religions were public record through songs such as “Oriente” (Orient/Find Yourself), “Retiros Espirituais” (Spiritual Retreats) and “Refazenda” (Re-Farm, comparing the theme of nature’s rejuvenation with spiritual renewal).
In 1977, Gil traveled to Nigeria to participate in the Festival of Black Art and Culture. This trip awakened his interest in the African roots of his own music, resulting in the now classic LP, Refavela, and a body of work that, while focusing on the richness of African traditions in Bahia, did not ignore the strong African element in samba and even bossa nova.
(Footnote: My early assessment of Refavela as a seminal work is shared by Gil himself: “Refavela was my favorite record. So far it is the album I like the most.”)
At this point, Gil adopted reggae as an important mode of expression that would last till the present. In 1979 he made one of his best selling records, a stunning cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”, and a year later toured Brazil with Jimmy Cliff.
“I put black consciousness into political terms. I worked within the black movement and presented myself to people as a model. Not as an ideal, but as a real person who might help validate people’s roots and culture. I can safely say that my work is of real cultural importance in Brazil.”
Amen. Or, as the Yoruba-based religions of Salvador, Bahia might say it, axê babá.
His efforts in this area have extended to active participation within the government of Salvador, helping to restore some of the city’s black architectural heritage, and supporting the then-emerging Africanization of the city’s carnival groups such as Olodum and Ilé Ayê. And Gil recently produced a documentary film on the oldest Afro-Bahian carnival group, the Filhos de Gandhi.
The 1980s saw Gil mature into more entertainer than sage. He fully admits to putting more emphasis on style over content. But in fact, the weighty content continued. And the style? To this day, no one in Brazil can get an audience moving the way Gil can.
Quanta Live, his 1998 Grammy award winner, is a neat summary of everything that has gone before. There are bossas, some catchy northeastern rhythms, some heavier samba, a couple Marley tunes, and of course, some samba-reggae, the now-ubiquitous Afro-Bahian expression of carnival music. He is particularly proud of the music he is making today, “It’s a fusion of everything, with no real emphasis on one style or another.”
Language games are laced throughout, as are nods to the old masters, Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto. There is a very clever contrasting reference to the first samba ever recorded, “Pelo Telefone” (By The Telephone). The last two lines of “Pela Internet” (By the Internet) quote the music of the first two lines of the old 1917 samba and paraphrase the original lyric: “By telephone, the chief of police called to warn that there is a roulette wheel to play at the Plaza Carioca,” with this new version, “By cellular phone, the Carioca (Rio) chief of police called to warn that there is a video poker game to play at the Plaza Onze.” Get your hands on both tunes and the genius becomes crystal clear.
Quanta Live, his 33rd album, and the earlier studio version, Quanta, are vibrant portraits of an artist in his mature stage, seamless montages of 30 years of assimilation, creation and vision, all presented in that irresistible Gil manner: music that makes you want to dance, that makes you smile, lyrics that make you think.
But most importantly, especially to Gil the entertainer, Quanta Live represents where he is today, or, rather, was in the late ‘90s when it was recorded.
“This was the real thing. I won the Grammy with a record representing was the day it was recorded, and that makes the prize more valid for me, to be recognized for what I really am. In fact, twice as much if I had won with the studio version.
“A Brazilian journalist complained that the record was full of imperfections. And I said, ‘Yes, that’s it. No tricks. That’s me. Gilberto Gil, live, in person.’ ”
Another of Gil’s recent disks is also a live set, but in this case, it’s mostly just Gil and his guitar. Bandadois is a laid back Gil accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, along with his two sons on percussion and bass, working through a survey of many Gil standards.
And his newest, Fé Na Festa, is a return to his forró roots, that Brazilian Northeastern accordion-based fais do do that Gil cut his teeth on as a youngster. The live version of this studio session is even more exciting and worth seeking out: Fé Na Festa Ao Vivo is a HOT record with an expanded set list including many Gil and Northeastern classics.
But he’s not done yet. After a stint as Brazil’s Minister of Culture, Gil has returned to performing. No doubt Gilberto Gil will continue to dazzle and entertain those who choose to pay attention to his ongoing autobiography.
I am certainly glad I chose to pay attention back in the 1970s. I am glad I am paying attention right now.
It’s not too late for you to pay attention also. Your effort will be amply rewarded.