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03.17.10

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Phaedra

Photograph by Andre Camara
US THREE: Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil (center) is touring with his son, guitarist Bem Gil (left), and cellist and producer Jaques Morelenbaum.

Renaissance Man

From Brazilian pop stardom to public service and back again, Gilberto Gil never stops moving forward

By Andrew Gilbert


FROM PRISONER and exile to pioneering pop star and government minister, Gilberto Gil's musical career has taken him on an extraordinary ride. Since the mid-1960s, when he helped launch the psychedelic Tropicalia art movement, Gil has been at the center of Brazil's teeming music scene as a composer, bandleader and iconic performer.

Gil defies comparisons to artists in the Anglosphere. There's simply no equivalent to the role he's played as an ever-evolving musician, political activist and hero for the Afro-Brazilian people, the largest black population outside of Africa. Steeped in the folkloric styles of northeastern Brazil, he's among the most worldly of musicians, embracing Fela's propulsive Afrobeat, Stevie Wonder's soaring soul and Bob Marley's defiant and tender reggae.

While Gil never put down his guitar when he picked up the minister of culture portfolio in the cabinet of leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2003, he's been delving into his vast catalog of songs with renewed vigor since giving up his government gig in 2008. After nearly a decade's absence from North American stages, he celebrates the release of his new album Bandadois with his second recent tour, performing at the Rio Theatre on Thursday, March 18.

A live CD and DVD, Bandadois features a trio with guitarist and vocalist Bem Gil (Gilberto's son) and cellist Jaques Morelenbaum, a brilliant arranger, conductor, producer and composer whose credits range from Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso and Marisa Monte to David Byrne, Dulce Pontes and Julieta Venegas. Morelenbaum crafted the stripped arrangements for the project, no easy feat considering the self-sufficient nature of Gil's music.

"Singing and playing the guitar, Gil is already complete," Morelenbaum writes in an email. "Nothing is lacking there, and when Bem joins him the 'symphony' is ready. When we listen to the two guitars together, we are listening to the universe, father and son, the master and the pupil, the source and the perpetuation. My function, I guess, is to bring new colors to Gil's music. And the cello is very suitable for that. I play pizzicato bass lines, mellow or romantic counterpoints, energetic bow strokes a la George Martin, and even humorous comments."

In many ways, Bandadois flows directly from Gil's previous album, an even more distilled project focusing only on his voice and guitar. Following the release of Gil Luminoso, he toured as a one-man band, including several Northern California gigs in 2007. Featuring spare arrangements of songs spanning his five-decade career, the album sustains a mood of quiet, ineffable spiritual joy and longing.

"That record was produced and conceived by a friend who wanted to focus on the more mystical and spiritual songs from my repertoire," says Gil, 67, his English still carrying traces from the years he spent exiled in London. "That album is very intimate, soft and tender, with songs relating to intangible elements in life."

In developing Bandadois, Gil followed a similar solo process, gradually adding input from his collaborators. While not quite as naked as Luminoso, he still revels in the exposed nature of the setting, with his supple voice supported only by strings. But where Luminoso tends toward the ethereal, Bandadois is an earthy project, marked by wry commentary and keen self-awareness.

"This project is a direct consequence of Luminoso," says Gil. "I worked first completely alone, then with Bem and more recently with Jaques. There's no way to hide anything, neither in the singing nor in the playing, and it's very good to be so stripped down on the stage."

For Gil's fans, what's most exciting is that he has rummaged through his treasure trove of songs, dusting off pieces that haven't been part of his repertoire since the 1980s, like "Viramundo" and "Banda Um." He didn't choose casually. He focused on pieces built on well-defined guitar parts and lyrics with enough heft to withstand intense scrutiny. For Gil, the experience has been revelatory, uncovering facets of his music—hidden meanings, harmonic shadows—that he hadn't heard before.

"First I looked for songs that clearly mark a very sharp way of how I accompany myself," he says. "Second, the criteria was density of the themes, of the lyrics, of the subjects treated in the songs. Bem complemented many of the arrangements that I had done to certain songs in a very creative, very personal way, revealing aspects that I alone hadn't discovered. The same goes for Jaques, whose instrument's sound is very near the human voice. It 'sings' things unsuspected in the songs that my own voice is not able to sing."


Tropicalia to 2.0

The son of a doctor, Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira was born and raised in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia, which is the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture. He started gaining attention in the early 1960s as a second-generation bossa nova singer/songwriter deeply influenced by Joao Gilberto. Later, he found inspiration in the music of Jorge Ben, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who assimilated American funk and R&B more effectively than any other Brazilian. By 1967, Gil was at the center of Tropicalia, a movement founded with fellow Bahians Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa (and the outrageously creative São Paulo band Os Mutantes), who brought an internationalist perspective to Brazil's insular popular music scene.

Inspired by British rock, particularly the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the avant-garde concrete poetry movement and Brazilian roots styles like forro and samba, the early Tropicalia projects adopted a cut-and-paste aesthetic, incorporating distortion, found sounds and elaborate sound design. Infuriating leftist students, who saw the use of English lyrics and rock instrumentation as capitulating to American cultural imperialism, Gil and Veloso insisted that Brazilian music had nothing to fear from the rest of the world.

Brazilian artists had plenty to fear, however, from their own military-led government. A crackdown on culture in 1968 resulted in the jailing of many musicians, including Veloso and Gil. They were both forced to flee the country in 1969. Landing in London, they both recorded several albums, mostly in English. Returning to Brazil in the early 1970s, Veloso and Gil took different musical paths while maintaining a tight creative bond. Gil became a leading force in Brazil's black consciousness movement, a stance that greatly expanded his sonic palette as he embraced a myriad of influences, particularly Bob Marley.

Now Gil is in the vanguard of another movement seeking the free flow of information. In his role as minister of culture, he championed the Creative Commons concept, which seeks to establish an alternative to the international copyright regime that enables license holders to greatly restrict the dissemination of sounds, images and text.

Creative Commons allows makers and consumers to freely copy, alter or sample cultural creations as long as the originator is proper credited. Developed and advanced by Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, the concept has won over other high-profile supporters like the Beastie Boys, David Byrne, Brian Eno and the BBC. "I don't see Creative Commons as something I do because of the specific implications it would have on the Brazilian scene," says Gil, who has licensed several of his songs for Creative Commons use. "It's universal, but especially for developing countries, for Africa, Central and South America, I think this possibility of being able to share, to continue to be creative in this cooperative way, is very important."


GILBERTO GIL performs Thursday, March 18, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $35 general/$50 gold circle, available at 831.427.5100 or www.kuumbwajazz.org.


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