Mixing Miami With Copacabana
Brazilian Superstar Gilberto Gil
More than Milton Nascimento, more than Gal Costa, more than Caetano Veloso, more than any other Brazilian artist of the last 25 years, Gilberto Gil had the power to lure listeners into the intoxicating vortex of Brazilian rhythms. Gil has the gift of coating even the most thought-provoking messages -- faith in God, Zen philosophy, his vision of the female side of even the most macho male, the validity of black cultural expression -- with an infectious, addicting, easy-to-swallow variety of musical guises. Even more than Milton, even more than Gal, even more than Caetano. "I am a performer, a man of music who likes to write songs and translate other people's songs into my own musical language," says Gil. "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 [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."
Whether he wanted to or not, 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 Gil releases a new album, all of Brazil becomes privy to his current interests and beliefs: Eastern religions, social and political injustice, the relationship between art and science, gender issues. All manner of personal growth is thoroughly examined and described in Gil's music, his clever lyrics tucked neatly into a complex, yet totally "pleasurable" musical package. His recorded output has been like an ongoing autobiography.
"It is," he agrees. "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 nonexistence, 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 in 1942, soon after Gil's birth in the culturally rich Brazilian city of Salvador, capital of Bahia, a state much lauded for its poetry, prose, and music by the likes of Dorival Caymmi, Jorge Amado, João Gilberto, Castro Alves, and Ary Barroso. Gil's family moved to the small backlands town of Ituaçu, where the young boy was exposed to the droning 10-string guitars of song-duelers called violeiros, 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 town's small municipal band. Music was commonplace, but Gil was different.
Born into a well-educated family -- his father was a doctor, his mother a professor -- Gil was privileged in a country where most people can not read. In addition, he himself points out that he was gifted with a predilection for the arts and music. The incipient guru felt the call at an early age.
"I was destined by my nature to become an artist," explains the singer. "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 10, she bought me an accordion and sent me to music school in Salvador. When I was around 18, she bought me my first guitar."
It was about this time that Gil fell under a spell -- a spell felt by many others of his generation, including his principal collaborator over the years, Caetano Veloso. A spell cast by João Gilberto's bossa nova. Before long, Gil was performing in clubs and on television, simultaneously earning a degree in business administration in Salvador.
Taking cures from the lilting, syncopated bossa-samba of Gilberto, the straight ahead samba of Rio, and occasional hints of African-flavored influences from Salvador, Gil's music began evolving into a mix of two-step dance music of his native northeast (baião, xaxado, xote, etc.). By the mid-Sixties, Gil left behind the coat and tie of the business world and devoted himself to pursuing a 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 album was a well-received document of various traditional styles that introduced Gil's insightful use of language and wordplay, which continues to be his most respected trademark. For example, a Jorge Ben-like samba about the Internet on his most recent recording refers to the "infosea" and "infotide" instead of "superhighway," playing off the connection between net and sea, and the Portuguese verb "informar," meaning "to inform." The singer's compositions, at least as recorded by others, were soon topping the charts.
It seems natural that in hindsight, even on his early recordings, an experimental side of Gil was already starting to appear, foreshadowing the revolutionary Tropicália movement usually credited mainly to Caetano Veloso and recently lauded in the U.S. press 30 years after the fact. One tune, "Lunik 9," mimics a rocket launch through a crescendo of alternating musical forms and tempos. Another song, "Domingo no Parque" ("Sunday in the Park"), relates a crime of passion on a ferris wheel, Gil utilizing the cinematic technique of rapidly changing images and cuts -- like Psycho's famous shower scene -- to realize the composition through poetry and music.
With the full-tilt onslaught of the northern hemisphere's mid-Sixties musical revolution, influences from outside Brazil were bound to manifest themselves in the work of such astute observers as Gil and Veloso. The Beatles and others, including Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, all had a profound effect. But these influences represented nothing more than a shift in the approach through which Gil, et al., expressed their innate Brazilian-ness, their raison d'être, which was never intended to take a back seat to anything else. Nevertheless, in 1968 when Gil and Veloso added electric guitars to their previously acoustic performances, they were booed off the stage. Interestingly enough, through the Tropicália movement and most of his career, none of Gil's music reveals 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."
By the latter half of the Sixties, Gil was beginning to emerge as guru for a 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 jailed on nonexistent 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," "Expresso 2222," "Pipoca Moderna," and the Jackson do Pandeiro classic, "Chiclete com 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 traditional songs in fresh context that owed more to the old than to the new, but still sounded newer than old. Around the same time, Gil began a period of self-examination and spiritual exploration in his music. His forays into Zen and other religions were public record through songs like "Oriente" ("Orient/Find Yourself"), "Retiros Espirituais" ("Spiritual Retreats"), and "Refazenda" ("Re-Farm," which compared 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 Refavela -- one of the finest pop albums ever recorded -- 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. At this point, too, Gil adopted reggae as an important mode of expression that would last until the present. In 1979, he put out one of his bestselling singles, a stunning cover of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry." A year later, he toured Brazil with Jimmy Cliff.
"I put black consciousness into political terms," states Gil. "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."
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 like Olodum and Ilé Ayê. Recently, Gil produced a documentary on the oldest Afro-Bahian carnival group, the Filhos de Gandhi, due for release in Brazil this fall.
During the Eighties, a period that saw Gil mature into more entertainer than sage, the singer began putting more emphasis on style than 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.
His current phase, perhaps best represented by last year's Atlantic/Mesa release, Quanta Live, a 1999 Grammy award winner, summarizes everything that has gone before. There are bossa novas, catchy northeastern rhythms, some heavier sambas, a couple of Marley standards, and of course, some samba-reggae, the now-ubiquitous Afro-Bahian expression of carnival music. Gil is especially proud of the music he's making today, calling it a "fusion of everything, with no real emphasis on one style or another."
In fact, Quanta Live, Gil's 33rd album, and the earlier studio version, Quanta, represent 30 years of assimilation, creation, and vision, presented in the singer's irresistible manner; it's music that makes you want to dance with lyrics that make you think. Most importantly, particularly in regard to Gil the entertainer, the new album represents who he is at the end of the Nineties.
"This was the real thing," states Gil. "I won the Grammy with a record representing what I am today, and that makes the prize more valid for me, to be recognized for what I really am. In fact, [it means] twice as much [than] 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 today.'"
As for Gil's first major tour of the U.S., the singer has a few changes from the Quanta Live repertoire. Besides a samba-reggae version of "The Girl From Ipanema," audiences can look forward to a reggae version of a Beatles song and a few tunes from his older albums. And he's not done yet; an album pairing him with Milton Nascimento is in the planning stages. Gil's new record label, Geléia Geral, is also gearing up for a series of new releases, such as an album with Portuguese versions of Gershwin and Cole Porter, and a similar recording of Beatles tunes sung by Brazilian artists.
In the meantime, Gilberto Gil will continue to dazzle and entertain those who choose to pay attention to his ongoing autobiography. And it's never too late for you to pay attention. Your effort will be amply rewarded.
Gilberto Gil plays La Zona Rosa Thursday, September 23.