Get to Know a Brazilian – Gilberto Gil

This is the first in what will be a “mini-series” within Get to Know a Brazilian, focusing on major musical artists from Brazil’s renowned and globally-influential Tropicália movement. This week, we start with one of the key figures not only of Tropicália, but of Brazilian music in the last 50 years – Gilberto Gil.

Gilberto Gil (1942- ), one of the founding figures of Brazil’s renowned Tropicália movement and one of the most influential musicians and cultural figures in Brazil across the past fifty years.

Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira was born to two lower-middle class professionals in the Northeastern state of Bahia in 1943. Although born in the capital city (and former capital of colonial Brazil) of Salvador, he moved to the interior of Bahia as a child. There, he was exposed to the countryside’s unique musical forms that drew heavily on syncopated rhythms, repetition, and improvisation, all elements that would come to shape Gil’s music and the music of Tropicália more generally. Early in life, he revealed a particular capacity for music, playing drums, trumpet, and the accordion, drawing inspiration from the music of the interior, the forró of artists like Luiz Gonzaga, and the style of street performers in Salvador. As he reached his teens, Gil also became influenced by new musical forms in Brazil, including the emerging Bossa Nova, as well as international stars like Elvis Presley, and formed his own band, Os Desafinados. This melange of musical influences would play no small role in the movement that came to be known as Tropicália.

While attending the Universidade Federal da Bahia (Federal University of Bahia; UFBA), Gil came into contact with a fellow Northeasterner by the name of Caetano Veloso. Both were interested in a variety of musical forms and on the ways in which Brazilian and international styles mixed. They, along with Veloso’s sister, Maria Bethânia, Tom Zé, Gal Costa, and other northeastern musicians, began playing stage shows that integrated a variety of Brazilian styles. Upon graduating, Gil relocated to São Paulo, working in the business world and earning an income selling commercial jingles. While working there, he released his first studio album, 1967’s Louvação. The album focused on Gil’s interpretations of a variety of Brazilian music forms, including samba, bossa nova, while the lyrics addressed the increasing repression of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which had taken power in 1964. Although it was relatively well-received, it offered only a glimpse into the eclecticism that was just around the corner.

1967’s Louvação, the first studio album by Gil, provided a glimpse of his ability across a variety of musical genres but barely hinted at the musically radical steps Gil would take just one year later.

The same year that Gil released his studio debut, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album’s structure, flourishes, and mixture of international styles had a dramatic impact on Gil and other Brazilian artists who would become a key part of the Tropicália movement. Newly inspired, Gil, along with Veloso and others, began a more radical musical approach that sought to throw international elements lke rock and roll and psychedelic music alongside Brazilian musical structures. Drawing influence from the Brazilian Modernist movement of the 1920s, they declared a radical new form that rejected the more traditional and politicized bossa nova that some musicians advocated during military rule, seeking a more expansive cultural revolution that threw together both the national and international for something uniquely Brazilian. Thus, Tropicália was born.

Just as 1968 was an explosive year politically around the world, including Brazil, so too did it mark a period of fervent and creativity in Brazilian music. Gil gathered with his friends from Bahia to make a group album highly influenced by their Northeastern roots and the Beatles. That album, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circenscis (literally, “Tropicalia: or Bread and Circuses), became a touchstone in Brazilian music, one whose influence would become international. Gil and Veloso joined with Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, Tom Zé, Nara Leão, and others to record the album, with musician Rogério Duprat and poet Torquato Neto providing input as well. Gil’s influence is obvious throughout; he sings the opening track, “Miserere Nobis,” as well as songs criticizing and celebrating mass consumerism (Tom Zé’s “Parque Industrial,” “Geleia Geral”) and toying with nationalism and cultural identity (“Hino ao Senhor do Bomfim“). The album revealed the full extent of musical hybridity, incorporating samba and bossa nova alongside psychedelic rock, musique concrete, and other international styles. The lyrics playfully critiqued not just politics in Brazil under military rule, but social and cultural values more generally. This playfulness and broader socio-cultural critique angered many fans of the more traditional protest song made popular by artists such as Geraldo Vandré and Chico Buarque. However, Tropicália became a hit even while angering Brazil’s military regime, and over time, it became acknowledged as a global classic, with artists including Beck, Air, and others citing it as a major influence on their own work.

The cover of “Tropicália,” with Gil sitting in front along with Rogério Duprat, Gal Costa, and Torquato Neto (second row) and Caetano Veloso (holding a picture of Nara Leão, who sang one song on the album), Os Mutantes, and Tom Zé. The album is acknowledged as one of the greatest albums in Brazilian music ever.

Had Tropicália been the only thing Gil produced that year, that would have been more than enough; however, even before Tropicália was released, Gil had already released his second studio album, Gilberto Gil. Like Tropicália would be later that year, Gilberto Gil was a melange of songs and styles, including “Domingo no Parque,” a heart-breaking tale of two friends with a shared love interest, and “Pega a Voga, Cabeludo,” a song that both celebrated and mocked the counterculture movement of Brazil and the international community. Making the album particularly distinctive was that it also marked the debut of Os Mutantes, who were the backing band for Gil on the album. In addition to releasing these albums, Gil contriubted to Caetano Veloso’s own self-titled album that year, and participated in the growing marches against military rule that came to define Brazil’s 1968.

The cover of Gil’s second album, “Gilberto Gil” (also known as “Frevo Rasgado” after the opening track).

As promising as 1968 was, Gil’s Tropicalista movement would be short-lived. He released another self-titled album that can be categorized as “tropicália” in 1969, an album that simultaneously became more extreme in its experimentation (the musique concrete of “Objeto Semi-Identificado,” the  psychedelica of “2001“) even while it also yielded his first big hit, the samba “Aquele Abraço.” However, given the new repressive era the military regime initiated in 1968 and Gil’s protests against the government, he increasingly became the object of persecution, and in February 1969, he and Veloso were arrested and imprisoned for three months without facing charges. After a period of house arrest, both Gil and Veloso went into exile in England.

This exile effectively ended Gil’s experience with Tropicália; while in prison, he’d begun to embrace eastern meditation, and once in England, he immersed himself in other musical styles from throughout the world, including the fusion jazz of Miles Davis and Sun Ra as well as the music of British musicians like Pink Floyd. Gil also played a role in organizing the second-ever Glastonbury festival in England. While surrounded by much musical effervescence, Gil was visibly saddened by his exile, a sadness that is palpable on his third self-titled album, recorded in England and released in 1971. An almost entirely acoustic solo affair, the absence of experimentation and the melancholy of the songs and lyrics made clear that, for Gil at least, Tropicália was a thing of the past.

In 1972, Gil was able to return to Brazil, and his return was accompanied by a new and open interest in African and Afro-Brazilian musical forms, culture, and identity. Expresso 2222, released in 1972, hinted at this new direction in Gil’s music, but it really became apparent in 1975’s Refavela and 1977’s Refazenda. While these albums continued to incorporate Brazilian and international styles alongside one another, there was a clearer focus on African elements, with soul, American funk, and fusion jazz all making their influence felt alongside the samba rhythms and styles of the music. Gil also recorded an outstanding record with fellow Afro-Brazilian musician Jorge Ben, simply titled Gil e Jorge; the improvisational nature of the recording allowed the two to fully play with differing rhythms and to expand and transform some of their shorter, earlier compositions. Further reinforcing this interest in African culture and its diaspora, Gil traveled to Africa, and in 1980, he recorded “No Woman No Cry” with Jimmy Cliff; the song is often credited with creating an interest in reggae in Brazil (Gil would go on to record his own reggae album, Kaya N’Gan Daya, in 2002).

Gil continued to record throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, although the gap between his great albums and his lesser albums became more marked (1981’s over-produced Luar is a nadir in his catalogue). He and Veloso did return to the spirit, if not the sound, of Tropicália in 1994 with Tropicália 2. However, by the mid-1980s, Gil’s musical output, while consistent, also ran up against his growing political career. He ran for public office in Bahia in 1987 (two years after military rule ended), working as the secretary of culture, as well as in environmental posts, in the city and state governments of Bahia. After stepping away from politics in the 1990s (during which he continued to record, tour around the world, and speak out for causes such as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and for Afro-Brazilian cultural identity), he accepted President Luís Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s nomination as Secretary of Culture in 2003. During his time in office, he worked hard to promote the cultural forms and expressions of Brazil’s poor and marginalized in a variety of ways, including providing grants to residents of the urban favelas as well as to the rural poor; although these grants irritated Brazil’s (often-“white”) middle classes, they also provided an important source of funds to develop musical subgenres and subcultures and give them a greater presence in the national musical scene. Gil also continued to perform, especially for political causes (I had the amazing fortune of seeing him perform for free as part of the International Human Rights Day celebrations in Brazil in 2006).

Gil during his time as Minister of Culture (2003-2008) in the PT government of Lula da Silva.

Although he ultimately stepped down from his post as Minister of Culture in 2008, he continues to advocate for political causes, including the decriminalization of marijuana, as well as for alternative cultures – he is a practitioner of yoga and a vegetarian. He also continues to record, and his celebration of and experimentation with Brazilian music continues to the present; his most recent studio album, 2010’s Fé na Festa, for example, was composed entirely of forró-style music of the Festas Juninhas, or “June Festivals,” of Brazil’s Northeast. Although 70 years old this year, Gil shows no sign of slowing down, and remains that rarest of figures: an internationally-renowned musician whose experimentation and production has never slowed down and an elder-statesmen who continues to promote new and marginalized music in Brazil even while advocating for political causes.

Previous posts in this series have included Princess Isabel and Getulio Vargas. Next week will feature Gil’s colleague and compatriot Caetano Veloso.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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