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Tropicalista Troubadour

Prison, exile, a Grammy Award -- it's all a day in the life of Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil
Lars Bourne

Ever since jazz saxophonist Stan Getz journeyed to Rio de Janeiro in 1963 to record with some then-little-known Brazilian musicians named Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto, the phrase "Brazilian music" has, to most American ears, conjured images of cool, sophisticated guitar strumming and delicately hushed vocals intoning the praises of the alluring "Girl from Ipanema." Which is well and good. Bossa nova is, after all, a sublimely seductive and original sound that revitalized not just the jazz of the mid-'60s, but the pop music of that era as well, ushering in a breath of creative fresh air that musicians in and out of Brazil have been inhaling ever since. But while American listeners wore out their Getz/Gilberto and Jobim albums in the years that followed, Brazil also produced a stunningly original pop movement of its own. Stewing together generous helpings of samba, American rock and roll, reggae, Stevie Wonder-inspired funk, Afro-beat, and a distinctly Brazilian perspective, Brazilian pop has developed into an extraordinary blend of music that has largely flown under the radar of the mainstream-America music world.

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.

Gil's set in San Francisco is exhilarating, including the nod to Bob Marley via the ubiquitous "The Girl from Ipanema," this time rearranged with a reggae beat. Like Gil's entire career, the show encompasses a seemingly endless mix of cultural influences, yet manages to fashion it all into coherence, an ability that probably stems from the fact that he has been able to integrate the various phases of his remarkable life into his music, starting with the turbulence of the tropicália period. But Gil humbly deflects any suggestion that living through those times makes him somehow special.

"In Brazil we had no choice," he says. "Liberties, freedom, everything was cut off and we had no choice but to fight for it. It's like defending yourself when you're attacked, you know? In Brazil it's different than here. We had dictatorships in the '30s and in the '60s and '70s again, and so the society is in need of some help from the ones who are well-known and exposed enough to make a difference concerning what they think and what they say. And so it's been in charge of the artists to address people about several questions, politics included. And that's a difference from here. American society never really needed to put in the hands of the artists that role that's been naturally in the hands of the politicians."

Whether Brazilian society still needs Gil as a political influence is a matter for some debate. What isn't up for discussion is that American society truly stands to be enriched if Gil continues catching on here. He seems to be doing just that, as evidenced by the popularity of his current tour and his Grammy Award for Quanta Live, something Gil says he was particularly happy about. "It was nice, especially since it was a live record that was awarded," he says. "I was very happy, because I think that really does justice to what I do, because I'm a live performer. My music enhances when it's live."


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