Get to Know a Brazilian – Gal Costa

This week, we turn to one of the most important woman’s voices to emerge from the Tropicália movement: Gal Costa. While not a central songwriter herself in the ways Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were, Gal Costa’s voice came to be indissolubly tied to the vocal sound of the Tropicália movement and to popular Brazilian music more generally in the latter half of the 20th century.

Gal Costa (1945- ) on the cover of the first of her two 1969 self-titled albums, both of which are important examples of Brazil’s Tropicália music of the late-1960s.

Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos was born in 1945 in the Northeastern city of Salvador in the state of Bahia, the home of Gil, Veloso, and other tropicalista musicians. Even before she was born, her mother hoped for a musical child; indeed, Gal Costa’s mother, Mariah Costa Penna, recounted that when she was pregnant with Gal, she would spend hours each day listening to classical music, hoping to have the child be tied to the musical world somehow. Growing up in Bahia in a single-parent household (Gal never met her father, who passed away when she was just 15), she became very close friends with Sandra and Andreia Gadelha; the two sisters would later respectively marry Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Indeed, it was through this friendship that Gal Costa met Veloso, setting up a lifetime of friendship and musical collaborations with Veloso. Like Veloso and Gil, Costa also fell in love with the rhythms and sounds of Bossa Nova music that had become popular in the late-1950s and early-1960s, thanks in no small part to musicians like Tom Jobim and songwriters like Vinícius de Moraes. These shared musical affinities and personal contacts meant that Gal was in regular contact with the driving songwriters behind what would become Tropicália, and when Gil, Veloso, Veloso’s sister Maria Bethânia, and Tom Zé, who knew each other through university studies, performed together in 1964, they invited Gal to join them. 

In 1965, Costa relocated to Rio de Janeiro, where she began to enter into the music world, appearing on a song on Maria Bethânia’s  debut album and performing in the Music Festival circuit in 1966 and 1967. In 1967, she and Veloso released an album, Domingo, that made clear the influence of bossa nova on both and making her a popular star. However, none of this set the stage for the fame she would achieve through the Tropicália movement. Indeed, her voice became a central component of the Tropicália sound. On 1968’s foundational Tropicália: Ou, Panis et Circenses, she sang solo on “Mamãe, Coragem” (“Courage, Mother”) and, more importantly, the heart-breakingly beautiful song “Baby.” The song’s lyrics, written by Veloso, touched upon themes of national identity in an increasingly globalized culture that he had already explored on his debut album, but with Costa’s voice giving it an emotion and depth Veloso never had, the song became one of the defining moments of the Tropicália movement. Indeed, it has since become one of the most-covered songs in Brazilian music (though no version matches Costa’s original for sheer beauty).

With her success on Tropicália, 1969 saw not one but two self-titled releases from Costa. The first marked the typical mixture of Brazilian musical and international rock and roll that had come to define the sound of the movement, and led to four hit singles for Gal: “Baby” (which reappeared on her self-titled album); “Divino Maravilhoso“; “Nao Identificado“; and Jorge Ben’s “Que Pena (Ela Já Não Gosta Mais de Mim),” a duet with Veloso. The latter two songs played with sexual identity in subtle ways, hinting at some of the paths Costa’s music and performances would take in the 1970s). Her second 1969 album, with its psychedelic and semi-abstract cover, betrayed the significant shift in sound, as Costa embraced a more aggressive and disorienting psychedelic sound, though the album led to two more hit singles: “Meu Nome É Gal,” and “Cinema Olympia.” However, by the end of 1969, Veloso and Gil, both of whom contributed to Costa’s catalog and sound, were in exile in England in the midst of a repressive crackdown during military rule; like her friends and colleagues, Costa herself was soon to leave behind the sounds of Tropicália for other musical forms.

The cover of Gal Costa’s second self-titled album in 1969, making clear its psychedelic overtones.

 By the 1970s, Costa had abandoned the Tropicália sound and become one of the most popular and talented interpreters of Brazilian songs, be they be written by contemporaries like Roberto and Erasmo Carlos or Jorge Ben, or more traditional tunes. However, while she did not usually write her own songs, she did increasingly turn to songs that embraced and explored her feminine identity, sometimes in ways that challenged heterosexual norms in Brazil. Although the cover of her her 1973 album Índia was censored for its sexual tones, it was also one of her most accomplished and consistent albums, and a far cry from  that has nearly reached 50 years. On the album’s title track, originally written by Roberto Carlos, she again showed a propensity to play with gender roles, refusing to change the gender of the woman who is the subject of the song and thus openly declaring that “India of brown skin, with her little mouth [that] I want to kiss.” Costa would create greater controversy, and continue to assert her femininity and challenge heteronormative norms under Brazil’s military regime, later that same year, when, after performing onstage with Maria Bethânia for the first time in five years, Gal and Bethânia finished their duet with a passionate kiss on the lips onstage. The popular magazine Vejaran a picture of the kiss, and the controversy that emerged led to a national conversation on femininity and sexuality among various sectors of Brazilian society.

Costa continued recording and reinterpreting the Brazilian catalog throughout the 1970s, gaining popularity and respect for her ability to completely transform and turn already-popular songs into her own. By the early-1980s, she was acknowledged as one of the leading women in Música Popular Brasileira, or Popular Brazilian Music, and she continued producing music throughout the 1980s and 1990s, ranging from her own old catalog to live performances of Tom Jobim’s catalog (showing her love for Bossa Nova had not faded away). Although she released few albums in the 2000s compared to previous decades, she made a return last year with thirtieth album, the excellent (and surprising) Recanto. The album was made up of songs all written by Caetano Veloso for Gal, showing their ongoing collaboration, even while it embraced electronic music, something Gal had generally avoided and showing a willingness to continue to experiment with other music forms. From her early work with Tropicália to her fame as an excellent interpreter of songs to her recent work, Gal Costa’s has been one of the more successful music careers in 20th- (and 21-st) century Brazilian music,  a career that shows no sign of slowing down as it approaches its fiftieth year.

Gal Costa performing live in 2008.

This is part of an ongoing series on important Brazilian cultural, political, and social figures. Previous subjects have included author Clarice Lispector and black activist Abdias do Nascimento.

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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