"I knew that music would be my language and that I would discover the
world through it." With a career lasting 60 years, 65 records, 2 Grammy and 7 Latin
Grammy Awards, Gilberto Gil is one of the most famous Brazilian
artists in the world today. The trajectory of this multi-talented
musician—at once guitar player, hit maker and Minister of Culture under
president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—captures the range of musical
genres present in the Atlantic world.
From the pop esthetic of the Tropicália movement to his collaboration
with Jimmy Cliff or with Benin artist Angélique Kidjo, Gil has been
a veritable purveyor of cultural influences. He has contributed to the
appropriation of American and African musical genres in Brazil as well
as to the popularization of Brazilian music on foreign stages.
Luiz Gonzaga, João Gilberto and the Beatles
Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira was born in Bahia in 1942 into a
middle-class family—his father was a doctor and his mother a teacher.
Gil spent his childhood in Ituaçu, a small town located in the interior
of the country, until he came to Salvador to pursue his secondary and
university education. This is when he discovered Luiz Gonzaga, the
celebrated maestro of baião music and Brazil’s Nordeste rhythms.
Following in his footsteps, Gil learnt to play the accordion and made
his debut with the group Os Desafinados (the out-of-tune). Like many
musicians of his generation, Gil experienced the emergence of bossa nova
at the end of the 1950s as a revelation. Impressed by João Gilberto’s
technical mastery and musical sensibility, he moved on from the
accordion to the guitar. In 1963, he recorded his first album at the
initiative of producer Roberto Santana, who introduced him to Bahia’s
young generation of musicians: Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, Tom Zé
and Gal Costa, with whom Gil gave his first collective performance at
the Vila Velha concert hall in Salvador.
Gil then left for São Paulo, and worked for a year at Unilever, before
devoting himself exclusively to music. Success first came in 1967: his
debut album, Louvação, was released by Philips and his song Domingo
no parque was awarded a prize at the Brazilian Popular Music Festival.
Claiming to be influenced by the Beatles, this "pop manifesto" mixes
electric guitars with berimbau, the traditional musical bow that
accompanies capoeira rounds.
Gil and Caetano Veloso were at this time already defending an aesthetic
of métissage, open to the world. They promoted a som universal
(universal sound) that drew equally from Anglo-Saxon pop, Carmen
Miranda’s sambas and from the rhythms of the Nordeste. The desire to
modernize Brazilian music gave birth to the Tropicália movement in
1968, which gathered an eclectic mix of artists behind the leadership of
Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, including singers from Bahia, musicians
from the rock band Os Mutantes, the poets Capinam and Torquato Neto, the
bossa nova muse Nara Leão, and the composer Rogério Duprat who was one
of Stockhausen’s students.
Tropicália claimed the heritage of both Brazilian modernism and of the
Anthropophagic Manifesto written by poet Oswald de Andrade. Published
in 1928, the text opened with a provocative interrogation: "Tupi or not
Tupi? That is the question." For in the image of Tupinamba Indians who
devoured their enemies to absorb their vital energy, Brazilian artists
were to "cannibalize" Indian, African and European traditions in order
to create an original culture, which was to be neither a pale copy of
European models nor the simple reproduction of an outdated folklore.
This aesthetic of métissage is highlighted in the collective album
Tropicália. Panis et Circensis (1968), that associates pop sonorities
with classical music and revolutionary hymns.
Exile in London
Tropicália didn’t last long however. The military dictatorship
inaugurated by the 1964 coup took a turn for the worse with the adoption
of Institutional Act Number 5 in December 1968. Gil and Caetano were
arrested for desecrating the flag in one of their shows, where the décor
was modeled on the work of plastic artist Hélio Oiticica, Seja
marginal, seja heroi ("Be marginal, be a hero"). After spending two
months in military prisons, and four held under house arrest in Salvador, they were "invited" to leave the national territory, marking the beginning of long years of exile in
Europe: landing in Portugal, Gil and Caetano spent a short period in
France before settling in London, where they resided until 1972.
In London, Gil acquainted himself with the pop scene and worked on his
guitar skills. "Everything was an opportunity to learn. All at once, I
would think: the Beatles came through here; Jimmy Hendrix too. I was
going to play at the Marquee and I would tell myself: 'Mick Jagger
played on this stage!'" Beginning in 1971, Gil recorded an album
entirely in English at Chappell studios, combining original compositions
and covers of songs by Jimi Hendrix, Steve Windwood and the Beatles.
He toured Europe—The Isle of Wight Festival, France, Switzerland,
Germany and Sweden, etc.—and performed in New York, but his music
remained unfamiliar to most and his audience was primarily composed of
Brazilian and Latino exiles.
Exile also thrust Gil into the heart of the Black Atlantic. Until his
departure for Europe, the musician felt “little concern for black
conscience” and claimed he had never suffered from racism due to his
middle-class origin. It was in London that the racial question
resonated with him due to the bonds he developed with American activists
and with African independence movements. This new consciousness brought
him to take an interest in African and afro-American musical genres,
starting with reggae, which he discovered in England and popularized
upon his return to Brazil. In 1979, just as the military regime was
beginning to show signs of weakening, Gil recorded a version of "No
Woman, No Cry" in Portuguese. This tribute to Bob Marley also provided
the opportunity to comment on the political situation in his country.
"Good friends we have / Oh good friends we’ve lost / Along the way"
became in his version "Amigos presos / Amigos sumindo assim / Pra
nunca mais." Literally, "imprisoned friends, friends gone missing that
way, forever"—a direct allusion to the crimes of the dictatorship.
Performing the Black Atlantic
London is also the place where Gil developed a new approach to
Afro-Brazilian culture. Upon his return to Brazil in 1972, he attended
for the first time a religious ceremony of candomblé, and started
playing with the Afro bands of the Bahia festival. The worship of orixas
along with the carnival’s rhythms haunted his records from that period:
Cidade do Salvador, or Gil Jorge Ogum Xango, a duet recorded with
Jorge Ben Jor.
In 1977, Gil made his first trip to Africa to attend the Second World
Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Lagos. In order to
assert its strategic position in the South Atlantic, Brazil had indeed
sent an important delegation to the FESTAC. Artists and intellectuals
were chosen with care by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affaires to
embody the "historic and human relations between Africa and Brazil."
Despite being a political opponent, imprisoned, exiled and subjected to
censorship since his return to Brazil, Gil was officially invited by the
Ministry of foreign relations to participate in the festival—a
contradiction which displays the contrast between the military regime’s
internal politics and Brazilian cultural diplomacy.
After the festival, Gil recorded the concept album Refavela (Phonogram, 1977), mixing
sounds from the Black Atlantic. The tracklist included: Samba do
avião, a bossa nova by Tom Jobim played to funk rhythms; Ilê Ayé, an
Afro chant from Bahia; the reggae No Norte da saudade; and Balafon,
a tribute to Nigerian juju music. In his own words: “Refavela is a
concept. It speaks of art in the Tropics, of black communities that have
contributed to the formation of new ethnicities and new cultures in the
New World, in Brazil, the Caribbean, Nigeria, the United States.”
Still, the aesthetic of métissage remained founded upon a universal
aspiration: “Refavela has a Brazilian accent but it is written in an
Musician and Diplomat
The 1980s marked the return to democracy in Brazil and the development
of the musician’s international career. In 1978, Gil recorded a double
live album at the Montreux Festival. The following year, Warner released
his first US record, Nightingale. Gil toured in Europe and the US and
was consecrated by the global music industry with Gilberto Gil
Unplugged (Warner/MTV) in 1994. In 1998, he received his first Grammy
Award for Quanta, winning the “best album of the year” award in
the world music category. He repeated this performance in 2001 for
Gil and Milton, and in 2005 for Eletracústico. Since the creation of
the Latin Grammy Awards in 2000, he has also received several prizes
in the Brazilian music category.
Parallel to his musical activity, Gil entered politics: elected to the
municipal council of Salvador in 1989, he adhered to Brazil’s Green
party in 1990. In 2003, he was named Minister of culture by newly
elected president Lula. Gil’s mandate was marked by innovative projects
such as the establishment of pontos de cultura, small cultural centers
that aimed at democratizing access to digital cultures; he also
initiated a reflection on intellectual property and Creative Commons
licenses. Throughout these years, the musician-minister continued to
perform in public and at official events. In 2003, he sang at the UN
headquarters in New York as a tribute to the victims of the attack on
the UN building in Baghdad. He interpreted 16 pieces in Portuguese,
Spanish, French and English, among them John Lennon’s "Imagine," before
inviting to the stage General Secretary Kofi Annan, who, to the great
surprise of the audience, accompanied him on the drums. This highly
symbolic performance echoes the conviction shared by both men that music
can serve the goals of unity, reconciliation, and cross-cultural
Brazilian cultural diplomacy did not however limit itself to European
and North-American stages: Mercosul, the Community of
Portuguese-Speaking Countries, cooperating with African countries were
also priorities of the Lula administration. South-South diplomacy
determined Brazil’s participation as a guest of honor to the third
edition of the World Festival of Negro Art in Dakar in 2010. Gil
composed the hymn for the festival, "La Renaissance africaine" (African
Renaissance), which he interpreted in French and recorded in several
albums, with various arrangements, in solo or with Vusi Mahlasela, the
celebrated voice of South-African activist music.
On the eve of the twenty-first century, this tribute to Africa, to "its
people and its territory which extends with the diaspora to the end of
the earth" occupies a significant place in the oeuvre of Gilberto Gil.
The Brazilian musician and political activist has been at once a
privileged witness and major actor of the contemporary cultural
globalization process. Tropicalism, exile, and African renaissance
constitute critical prisms through which to view his work, enabling us
to grasp his relationship both to the world and to the many cultural
appropriations that have sustained his compositions. Based upon the
métissage of tones and rhythms, Gilberto Gil’s work attests to the
vitality of cultural exchanges in the Atlantic space well beyond the
North-South commercial circuit of world music, and to the importance of
politics in the process of musical globalization.