Ah! We can see this for what it is: a masterful searching for rhythms and melodies, rooted in heritage, clothed in artistic progress, presented as gritty authenticity. Heritage. Progress. Authenticity. Three weeks ago, when I saw Gilberto Gil perform at Memorial Hall on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill, there WAS a master at work. Over 50 years a professional musician, Gil shows no sign of slowing down. Credited, with fellow Brazilian Caetano Veloso, for creating from a bewitching hybrid of bossa nova and rock’n’roll what became known as tropicalia, Gil is a living legend. And he should be, for at age 70 he boogied and strutted with his audience and band for two hours, electric guitar casually over his shoulder, a set of musicianly masters in their own right, clearly in love with him, backing him up.
The only point of comparison I have for this is seeing Carlos Santana circa 1987 at the Dallas Fair Park Bandshell, where 5,000 Texicans and 4 white people shook their asses for a couple of hours while Carlos played hardly a hit and barely anything I recognized. Revelatory. Fast forward 25 years and the experience is nearly duplicated. I do not discount the Latin commonality of these two experiences. As with the Mexican roots of Santana’s music, in Brazil’s music fusions are perhaps most likely to occur. African, Portugese, Spanish, and Asian musics have mixed with each other for decades if not centuries, and with rock thrown in I defy anyone not to call it progressive. So much so, in fact, that Velosa and Gil were forced into political exile in the late 60s/early 70s, biding their time in London while things cooled down in the home country. Music that matters, like your life depended on it.
I’m not a big into “world music” (whatever that is — shouldn’t all music be world music?), but I always had a soft spot for the bossa nova records Stan Getz made in the 60s, and when I learned about Brazilian music that came in the wake of the wildly popular albums he made with Jaoa Gilberto (bossa nova’s godfather), I was intrigued. Dumbfounded, in fact, when I heard the psychedelic creations of Tropicalia. This was not “Girl from Ipanema,” this was hardcore fused music that could be beautiful, silly, dark, fun, based on something real. Folk melodies were stretched to emphasize the riff or hook, electric instrumentation set the tunes on fire. How could I have missed this? Did my dear FM radio betray me? I felt like the songs had been suppressed, as if the language of the words somehow disqualified them from being played and appreciated among English-speaking audiences. Perhaps it’s because the semantic meanings of words in songs are often secondary for me that I could so relate to what was happening on these records, without knowing the language of the lyrics.
My wife Melissa and I have been fans of Gil since 2004 or so, when we bought his 1998 album O Sol de Oslo on a whim. We also got his second album from 1968, which is Sgt. Peppers for the rest of the world. Along with Caetano’s first four or five records and the albums by Os Mutantes, Gil carved a path for singular Brazilian expression. By 2003 he had become such a hero that he was named Brazil’s Minister of Culture. Sure, “Minister of Culture” sounds Orwellian to me too, but if you’re going to have one, by all means make it Gil.
The show was awesome, no other word for it. Again, I couldn’t tell you the names of most of the songs, but my wife and I and the Brazilian population of North Carolina jammed and shook for two solid hours, as Gil, with bass (Arthur Maia), percussion (Jorge Gomes and Gustavo di Dalva), violin (Nicolas Krassik), accordion (Tonhino Ferragutti – amazing), and electric guitar/mandolin/banjo (Sergio Chiavazzoli) tore the roof off the sucker. Two hours. Seventy years old.
Gilberto Gil loves us because he must.
Here’s some video of the song Asa Branca, which I saw him perform with the same band (maybe same tour?). Check out the banjo break. Prog me, baby.