March-April 2007

Gig for a Musical Statesman

By Audrey Coleman

One month after a terrorist bomb ripped open the United Nations Headquarters in Bagdhad, killing 22 U.N. workers and injuring over 100 people, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan invoked the healing power of music to help colleagues and families of the fallen recover from the horror and loss. At a memorial service held in the Great Hallof the U.N. General Assembly on September 19, 2003, Annan introduced a musician who, he explained, “… can do justice to all the complex feelings we are experiencing today. Someone who can lift us all out of our sorrow. I can think of no one better suited to do this than Gilberto Gil, an artist with a conscience, an artist with a gift. Gilberto has given the world a kind of music that seeks to empower people as much as to move them.” 

Black-clad, dread-locked Gilberto Gil looked younger than his 61 years as he launched into a gentle, melodic a capella chant. His warm baritone and encouraging countenance gradually coaxed the audience into chanting the wordless melody along with him. Then, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar, and backed up by a second acoustic guitar and a drummer-percussionist, he bridged into a song of hope. The initial chant the audience had learned became the wordless refrain of the song. He continued the concert with uplifting songs in Portuguese, English, and French and built to joyous, fast-paced numbers that had audience members swaying and dancing in front of their seats. At the end, when they demanded an encore, Gil asked Kofi Annan to come over and play the congas. The Secretary-General obliged.

Kofi Annan’ had invited the singer-guitarist-composer to perform for the General Assembly in New York when they both were attending a memorial service for one of the high-profile victims of the Baghdad bombing, Brazil’s Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Iraq. Gil was there in his capacity as Brazil’s Minister of Culture and quickly agreed to Annan’s request even though he rations his performances. Since his government appointment in 2002, the musician has devoted himself to his cabinet duties and scaled back his concert tours to a fraction of what they were.. Fortunately for Angelenos of Brazilian and other extractions, Minister Gil is booked for a gig at Royce Hall on Saturday, March 24.

What path brought Gilberto Gil the unique dual identity of musician and cabinet minister/statesman?

Gil’s four-decade musical career has taken inspiration from his roots in northeastern Brazil as well as from influences in Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. In his home town of Salvador, he was surrounded by the sounds of Bahia, where African roots run deeper and stronger than any other region of Brazil. The intense polyrhythms of the drums and percussion that suffuse Bahia’s music are as African in flavor as the peanut sauces and coconut milk used in the region’s cuisine. In cosmopolitan Salvador, African rhythms have cross-pollinated with Caribbean, European, and North American influences, developing into a variety of distinctive local musical genres.

Gil grew up in a working-class family, absorbing the melodies and rhythms of street singers and musicians and mastering the accordion at the age of eight. In his late teens, he was so impressed hearing singer-guitarist Joao Gilberto on the radio for the first time, that he acquired a guitar and learned how to sing and play the bossa nova, which combined jazz instrumentation with native genres. During the 1960s he discovered his talent for composing and earned money creating jingles for advertisements while attending Salvador’s Federal University. He also began experimenting with the Bahian regional music he knew by incorporating the emerging American rock and Brazilian bossa nova forms. He had his first hit when singer Elis Regina recorded his song Louvacao.

After 1964, however, artistic experimentation was becoming dangerous. A military dictatorship had toppled the elected government of Brazil and the new regime sought to control not only the press, but all forms of artistic expression. At the time, Gil was appearing in Nos Por Exemplo, a show of bossa nova and traditional Brazilian songs directed by more established singer-composer, Caetano Veloso, also a native of Salvador. The two extended their collaboration, combining bossa nova, samba, and other regional genres with rock influences like electric guitars, and studio-produced effects. At first critics attacked their “unpatriotic” incorporation of foreign influences into musica popular brasileira and audiences booed Caetano and Gil off the stage. But as the two also incorporated into their lyrics oblique calls for resistance to the regime, thousands of young Brazilians rallied around the new anti-establishment music called tropicalismo.

In 1968 Gil and Veloso were arrested and placed in solitary confinement for several months before being booted out of Brazil. Little did the ruling dictatorship know that it was helping develop two giants of what is now known as “world music.” The pair headed to London, where Gil had a chance to work with groups like Pink Floyd, Yes, The Incredible String Band, and Rod Stewart’s band in London clubs. By 1972, Brazil’s regime had relaxed enough to allow the exiled artists to return home. Gil made a number of highly successful recordings, working and touring with Veloso, Jorge Ben, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania. However, the time in London had raised his international profile and now he was doing stints at festivals in France and Switzerland and the college circuit in the US.

While tropicalismo was no longer Gil’s vehicle of communication in the 1970s, he did not abandon political activity. At the end of the decade he became a prominent spokesman for the black consciousness movement then taking place in Brazil. This coincided with his intense exploration of reggae music, during which he teamed up with Jimmy Cliff to tour Brazil. Gil’s moving interpretation of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry was one of his most acclaimed recordings of the 1980s. In fact, it was a song he aptly selected to perform for the U.N. Memorial Service in 2003.

In the post-dictatorship era, Gil has blended folk rhythms, samba, and reggae together with social commentary on such issues as poverty, environmental protection, and the resiliency of the Brazilian spirit. With over 30 albums to his credit, Gil has sometimes leaned toward a heavy pop sound, and other times favored rock or reggae. What remain constant are the underpinning of Brazilian rhythms in his compositions and the life-affirming message in his lyrics. His ongoing involvement in social and political and social causes led him to run for office successfully in his hometown of Salvador in the late 1990s and later to accept his current appointment as Minister of Culture.

It is hard to know exactly what to expect from Minister Gil’s upcoming Royce Hall performance. Will half of the fare be reggae style, as it was in a New York Times-reviewed concert at Irving Plaza a few years ago? Will he come across as an ethnomusicologist, explaining the folk roots of the music and instruments he is featuring, as he did at another New York concert? Perhaps he will comment on global warming or mention the inroads he has made into bending copyright law to benefit ordinary listeners. Hopefully, for at least part of the concert, we will be treated to Gil, the acoustic guitarist-balladeer. I confess to letting my leanings show through, after watching a video of his concert at the U.N.

We can only be sure that Gilberto Gil will use his charismatic presence and multi-faceted musical palette to move hearts and open minds. As he told the audience at the U.N. General Assembly on September 19, 2003: “Let the music speak. Let the music talk. Let the music say what is beyond the words. Let the music take the lyrics upwards. And may poetry flow.”

Among Gilberto Gil’s CD releases for 2006 are Eu, Tu, Eles, Live in Sao Paolo, and Gil Luminoso. For less rock and reggae, find his 1994 release, titled Acoustic. Gilberto Gil’s moving performance for the U.N. General Assembly can be viewed in its entirety on Google video.