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Gilberto Gil: Mystical Tropicalista in Toronto



It is eight o’clock and the audience has taken its seats in the musical shrine, Massey Hall. A cursory look around reveals that the audience comprises more teenagers and young adults than baby boomers, who would more than likely be an audience for a concert by a founding member of Brazil’s revolutionary MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) movement, but then Gilberto Gil’s reputation precedes him.

Poet, musician, revolutionary, Gil—together with his soul-brother, Caetano Veloso and a group of Baianos (people from the North-eastern State of Bahia—created tropicalismo, a revolution that rejected Americanism which was rampant in Brazil of the ‘60s and in doing so blew up the status quo in Brazilian culture.

As a young man, Gil, as followers and fans of all ages have called him, rebelled against the influx of commercial, American-imported-rock, choosing instead to follow the path created by Bossa Nova’s maestro, João Gilberto, in devising an alternative. Tropicalismo aimed to “cannibalize” the beauty and riches of Brazil’s folk songs—especially those Gil brought from the Northeast—while assimilating the most original and elevating elements of Anglo-American pop, creating a music that has earned discerning fans as diverse as Beck and Bill Laswell.

Tropicalismo also celebrated freedom not only in music, but also in lifestyle and politics. This “rabble-rousing” as the government of the day saw it, caused Gil and Caetano to be arrested by the Brazilian Military Government in February 1969, and incarcerated for three months and spent another four months under house arrest. Gil believes that the government felt his actions “represented a threat to them, something new, something that can’t quite be understood, something that doesn’t fit into any of the clear compartments of existing cultural practices, and that won’t do. That is dangerous.” During his prison sentence, Gil began to meditate, follow a macrobiotic diet, and read about Eastern Philosophy—which, in turn, caused him to practically forsake Christian religious practice. He composed four songs during his imprisonment, among them “Cérebro Electrônico,” which first appeared on his 1969 Gilberto Gil 1969 album and later on his 2006 album, Gil Luminoso.

Thereafter, Gil and Caetano were exiled to London, England after being offered to leave Brazil. The two played a last Brazilian concert together to raise money for their trip across the Atlantic in Salvador in July 1969; then they left for Portugal, Paris, and finally London. Gil and Caetano took a house in Chelsea, sharing it with their manager and respective wives. While in England, Gil was involved in the organisation of the 1971 Glastonbury Free Festival and was exposed to reggae. He recalls listening to Bob Marley (whose songs he later covered), Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear. He was heavily influenced by and involved with the city’s rock scene as well, performing with the top bands of the day—Yes, Pink Floyd and the Incredible String Band. However, he also performed solo, recording Gilberto Gil – Nega while in London. In addition to involvement in the reggae and rock scenes, Gil attended performances by jazz artists, including Miles Davis and Sun Ra.

Gilberto Gil at Massey Hall in Toronto

When he went back to Bahia in 1972, Gil focused on his musical career and environmental advocacy work. ( He released Expresso 2222 the same year, from which two popular singles were released. Gil toured the United States and recorded an English-language album as well, continuing to release a steady stream of albums throughout the 1970s, including Realce and Refazenda. In the early 1970s Gil participated in a resurgence of the Afro-Brazilian afoxé tradition in the Carnival, joining the Filhos de Gandhi performance group, which only allowed black Brazilians to join. Gil also recorded a song titled “Patuscada de Gandhi” written about the Filhos de Gandhi that appeared on his 1977 album Refavela. Greater attention was paid to afoxé groups in the Carnival because of the publicity that Gil had provided to them through his involvement; the groups increased in size as well. In the late 1970s he left Brazil for Africa and visited Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. He also worked with Jimmy Cliff and released a cover of “No Woman, No Cry” with him in 1980, a number one hit that introduced reggae to Brazil.

From the mid ‘90s onwards Gil’s reputation soared throughout the world. In 1996, Gil contributed “Refazenda” to the AIDS-Benefit Album “Red Hot + Rio,” which was produced by the Red Hot Organization. Then, in 1998 the live version of his album Quanta won Gil the Grammy Award for the Best World Music Album. In 2005 he won the Grammy Award for the Best Contemporary World Music Album for Electracústico. In May 2005 he was awarded the Polar Music Prize by King Carl Gustaf XVI of Sweden and, in doing so, he became the prize’s first Latin American recipient. On October 16 of the same year he received the Légion d’honneur from the French Government, coinciding with the Année du Brésil en France. In 2010 he released the album Fé Na Festa, a record devoted to forró, a style of music from Brazil’s northeast. His tour to promote this album received some negative feedback from fans who were expecting to hear a set featuring his hits.

The stage is dark and the audience holds its breath as several shadowy figures are seen entering from stage right, proceeding to occupy various instruments that have been brightly lit. As bassist Arthur Maia picks up his burnished-wood-looking fretless bass, it is clear that this is the real thing. A loud “whoop” goes up from the full house. The percussion sets are gleaming and the stage is tremulous from the thundering bombs on the surdo by Gustavo Di Dalva and the rapid-fire slaps by Jorginho Gomes on the pandeiro. Maia starts slapping his bass to the rhythm of a “maracatú”. Nicholas Krassek joins in on what looks like an antique “rabeca” and soon begins to wail delightfully. Toninho Ferraguti follows suit on the accordion. Paz e Alegria all around! Then it is the turn of Sergio Chivazzoli on a guitarra bãiano. Just when the anticipation is too much to bear, a Gil skips and shuffles his way between the two elevated percussion stages, not looking like but very much the afoxé sambaista, hands above his head, clapping rhythmically in “maracatú”—time. The band is playing “Assim Sim”. Gil reaches for the sky with both hands, then whacks out the chords on his gleaming indigo-blue electric guitar and joins the fun of song. And the ensemble soars carrying the ecstatic audience of some, one thousand souls on their shoulders.

Gilberto Gil at Massey Hall in Toronto

The years have not weathered Gil. He is dapper from his famous diet and slim, with only his white hair providing a tell-tale sign that he is now in his early 70s. He sings with pure alegria, his voice commanding in the baritone register as it is when he slides easily into the falsetto. It is easy to forget his serious side; that he is a committed artist, conscious of his Afro-centric and his tropicalista-and-alma-de-nordeste beings. The government of the New Brazil acknowledges this and honours it by placing him in high office. Gil describes his attitude towards politics thus: “I’d rather see my position in the government as that of an administrator or manager. But politics is a necessary ingredient.” His political career began in 1987, when he was elected to a local post in Bahia and became the Salvador secretary of culture. In 1988, he was elected to the city council and subsequently became city commissioner for environmental protection. However, he left the office after one term and declined to run for the National Congress of Brazil. In 1990, Gil had left the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and joined the Green Party. During this period, Gil founded the environmental protection organization Onda Azul, which worked to protect Brazilian waters. He maintained a full-time musical career at the same time, and withdrew temporarily from politics in 1992, following the release Parabolicamerá , considered to be one of his most successful musical sojourns. Then, in October 16, 2001 Gil accepted his nomination to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, having promoted the organization before his appointment.

When President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva takes office in January 2003, he chooses Gil as Brazil’s new Minister of Culture, only the second black person to serve in the country’s cabinet. The appointment was controversial among political and artistic figures and the Brazilian press; a remark Gil made about difficulties with his salary received particular criticism. Gil is not a member of Lula’s Worker’s Party and did not participate in creating its cultural program. Shortly after becoming Minister, Gil began a partnership between Brazil and Creative Commons—a non-profit organization headquartered in Mountain View, California, devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. As Minister, he sponsored a program called Culture Points, which gives grants to provide music technology and education to people living in poor areas of the country’s cities. Gil has since asserted that “You’ve now got young people who are becoming designers, who are making it into media and being used more and more by television and samba schools and revitalizing degraded neighbourhoods. It’s a different vision of the role of government, a new role. Gil has also expressed interest in a program that will establish an Internet repository of freely downloadable Brazilian music. ( Since Gil’s appointment, the department’s expenditures have increased by over 50 percent. In November 2007 Gil announces his intention to resign from his post due to a vocal cord polyp. Lula rejects Gil’s first two attempts to resign, but accepts another request in July 2008. Lula says on this occasion that Gil was “going back to being a great artist, going back to giving priority to what is most important” to him.

The band—with Gil acknowledging the applause by joining his hands as if in thanksgiving—segues into a Luiz Gonzaga composition, “Dança da Moda”. Gil has always been a huge fan of Gonzaga and never fails to include at least one chart in his performances. The singer is considered one of the most revered keepers of Gonzaga’s repertoire. Gil begins to showcase his vocalastics here. Gil sings in the baritone or falsetto register, with lyrics and/or scat syllables. His lyrics are on subjects that range from philosophy to religion, folktales, and word play. Gil’s musical style incorporates a broad range of influences. The first music he was exposed to included The Beatles and street performers in various metropolitan areas of Bahia. During his first years as a musician, Gil performed primarily in a blend of traditional Brazilian styles with binary, two-step rhythms, such as bãiao and samba. He states that “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.”

Gilberto Gil at Massey Hall in Toronto

As one of the pioneers of tropicália, influences from genres such as rock and punk have been pervasive in his recordings, as they have been in those of other stars of the period, including Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé. Gil’s interest in the blues-based music of rock pioneer Jimi Hendrix, in particular, has been described by Veloso as having “extremely important consequences for Brazilian music”. Caetano also noted the influence of Brazilian guitarist and singer Jorge Ben on Gil’s musical style, coupled with that of traditional music. After the height of tropicália in the 1960s, Gil became increasingly interested in black culture, particularly in the Jamaican musical genre of reggae. He described the genre as “a form of democratizing, internationalizing, speaking a new language, a Heideggerian form of passing along fundamental messages”.

Visiting Lagos, Nigeria, in 1976 for the Festival of African Culture (FESTAC), Gil met fellow musicians Fela Kuti and Stevie Wonder. He became inspired by African music and later integrated some of the styles he had heard in Africa, such as juju and highlife into his own recordings. One of the most famous of these African-influenced records was the 1977 album Refavela, which included “No Norte da Saudade,” a song heavily influenced by reggae. Conversely, his 1980s musical repertoire presented an increased development of dance trends, such as disco and soul, as well as the previous incorporation of rock and punk. However, Gil says that his 1994 album Acoustic was not such a new direction, as he had previously performed unplugged with Caetano. He describes the method of playing as easier than other types of performance, as the energy of acoustic playing is simple and influenced by its roots. Gil has been criticized for a conflicting involvement in both authentic Brazilian music and the worldwide musical arena. He has had to walk a fine line, simultaneously remaining true to traditional Bahian styles and engaging with commercial markets. Listeners in Bahia have been much more accepting of his blend of music styles, while those in southeast Brazil felt at odds with it.

Gil is on song now. The band is tight and runs through a number of charts, stopping occasionally to introduce the songs. Most of the charts are from Gil`s albums post-Parabolicamerá. There are a couple of English ones—the chief among them a beautiful ballad attributed to Stevie Wonder. Toronto is seeing a new and wiser Gil. He is acutely conscious of his own mortality and the ache in his voice, when he interprets some of his sad songs is palpable. Although he has been to Toronto before, somehow this visit and this performance are special. Gil is re-writing Brazil’s music history and Toronto is privileged that he has chosen the city as one of those that are graced by his presence.

Check our Flickr Photo Gallery of Gilberto Gil

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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