By Jacob Katel
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Gilberto Gil, who makes the last stop of a fifteen-city American tour at Miami's Gusman Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, September 25, is one of two artists (Caetano Veloso is the other) who led the Brazilian pop movement from its inception in the late '60s to now. Along with Veloso, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and others, Gil, in 1967, founded tropicália, a radical cultural movement that embraced experimentalism in music, film, theater, and poetry. It was a fusion that saw the tropicalistas incorporate Western elements of electrified rock and roll into the familiar strains of Brazilian folk music and bossa nova. The far-reaching and heady mix changed the face of Brazilian music forever, and for Gil's trouble he and Veloso were thrown into jail by the nation's ruling military dictatorship for unspecified crimes. In 1969 Gil and Veloso were forced into exile in England for four years. Landing in London, Gil made the best of the situation, broadening his musical horizons by playing clubs alongside the artists of that city's burgeoning psychedelic rock scene, and drawing what lessons he could from the country's different musical climate.
"Being in England and living the swinging London scene, I saw the Beatles, the Stones, Traffic, the Moody Blues, and all the American groups that used to play there," Gil recalls warmly, relaxing cross-legged on a backstage couch before his San Francisco performance. Speaking in a slightly halting English that is almost as seductive as his music, the words roll off his tongue as if they were gently strolling down the street in his home city of Salvador. "I felt there was a different culture going on, where groups and bands were very important, and the band leader was a different thing," he continues. "And so I felt I should try to become a band leader, which I have been doing since."
In the years that followed his return to Brazil in 1972, Gil became something of a national treasure, both for his music (his albums Refazenda (1975), Aô Vivo (1974), and the African-influenced Rafavela (1977), among several others, are considered Brazilian classics), and his still-principled libertarian politics that saw him serve nine years on the city council of Salvador. Today Gil, whose career has mirrored the international rise of Brazilian pop music as a whole, is on yet another upswing. His enchanting 1997 album, Quanta, landed on many American critics' year-end Top 10 lists, and the 1998 live album from that record's tour, Quanta Live, garnered a Grammy Award in the world-music category. Is this a sign that the United States may once again be falling under the spell of Brazilian music?
"I think the American public's expectation of Brazilian music was stuck at the level of the bossa nova, and now it looks like they are trying to appreciate more recent things, tropicália included," Gil says. Reflecting on the cultural climate in Brazil as compared with that of the United States, he adds, "I don't know what specific ingredient makes Brazil different from the States in that sense. We are more open to the contributions from outside; we have been from the beginning and we still are. I think maybe the British [U.S.] Founding Fathers had a different attitude from the Portuguese in Brazil, who created there a culture that is more open to an extent. Definitely the whole cultural and natural environment has to do with the art quality of the country, what the country offers, and what it expresses, what music is and how music could become infectious and seductive." Gil pauses thoughtfully, and then continues with a laugh: "Yes, in Brazil we are different ... but it's for a sociologist to explain!"
A sociologist wouldn't have to labor to decipher the pull of Gil's music, though. Who else, after all, could sing so beautifully about topics as seemingly abstract as Brazilian physicist Cesar Lattes and using the Internet to contact fans in Connecticut, as Gil did on "Ciencia e Arte" and "Pela Internet," two songs from Quanta? His voice can be sensuously deep and rich, and then darting and playful, as when he leads the crowd in nonsense sing-alongs several times on Quanta Live, and his music, as always, is an enchanting mix of samba, bossa nova, reggae, and funk that would probably sound strained in less talented hands.