Groundbreaking Brazilian icon Gilberto Gil, master of inclusive pop music

Edd Hurt

If you believe in the power of pop music to change human lives on a global level, you probably know that pop remains rooted in local realities while reaching out to people everywhere. No pop musician of the past 50 years has done more to illustrate this principle than the Brazilian guitarist, singer and songwriter Gilberto Gil. A pop master, Gil has made some of the era's most penetrating music, and some of its most delightful. Gil's best work is a hybrid, with elements of Northeastern Brazilian grass-roots genres, rock 'n' roll and bossa nova taking their place in his compositions. His only peers are musicians such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder — influenced by Anglo-American rock, reggae and soul, Gil is a national treasure and a global resource.

Born in 1942 in Salvador, Bahia, Gil spent part of his boyhood in the small village of Ituaçu, located in the semi-arid Bahian backland. The son of a physician and a schoolteacher, he returned to Salvador to attend secondary school, and grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood called Santo Antonio do Carmo. Gil took up accordion when he was 10, having come under the spell of the Northeastern Brazilian folksinger Luiz Gonzaga. Gil began playing guitar after hearing the revolutionary bossa nova — "bossa" had been used for years to describe a musician who played or sang with a distinctive style — created in the late '50s by guitarist João Gilberto and composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Although Gil was influenced by Gilberto's stripped-down version of Brazilian samba, the influence of Gonzaga and Northeastern "baião" music has informed his musical life. On his current tour, Gil will be playing songs in the baião style, which is usually in 2/4 time, and quite different from bossa nova and samba.

"Baião is rhythm, you know," says Gil. "It's a style, a musical genre, that was brought from Spain. It's originally Arab, and something that was born in Morocco and Tunisia, and then brought to Spain during the Arab occupation in Spain, and then brought to the Americas — Mexico and Brazil."

Gil is returning to the music of his youth, but he may be best known for his late-'60s and early-'70s pop music — some of which is termed "tropicália." It's inaccurate to characterize the majority of Gil's music as tropicália, since that movement was a short-lived episode in the history of Brazilian music and rock music's relationship. On Gil's first album, 1967's Louvação, the title track demonstrated his melodic and rhythmic concision, while "Lunik 9" — a fusion of The Beatles and bossa nova — found Gil writing about the 1966 landing of a Soviet spacecraft on the moon.

Louvação and 1968's Gilberto Gil established Gil as a pop musician influenced by Joâo Gilberto, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Gilberto Gil is one of pop's perfect albums, with "Domingo no Parque" a brilliant gloss on the music found on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As did the other participants in the tropicália movement — Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and Gal Costa — Gil aspired to create music that was both regional and universal, and in the process he made great '60s pop.

Nearly a half-century after his groundbreaking syntheses of Brazilian regional styles and rock, Gil defines himself in terms familiar to followers of McCartney, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

"The process goes on being a pop process, through pop music," Gil says. "Music coming from records and radios and the show business, all together, for large audiences. This is a way, it's a standard, and I grew as an artist doing that — attending to that kind of situation. So I belong to the pop-music system. I was that 50 years ago and 30 years ago, and I still am attached to that system. That's it — I'm a pop musician."

Gil has made many recordings in a number of styles, with Cidade do Salvador — a collection of outtakes from 1973 and 1974 — featuring Gil's superb acoustic guitar work. I also like the trio of albums he made in the late '70s: Refazenda, Refavela and his yacht-rock masterpiece, Realce. His 1993 collaboration with Veloso, Tropicália 2, is gorgeous, and contains a cover of Hendrix's "Wait Until Tomorrow."

A lifelong admirer of North American music ("I've listened to everything from Nashville music to jazz, going into pop music, Californian rock 'n' roll, European rock 'n' roll like The Beatles and Stones, and Jimi Hendrix and Dylan," he says), Gil continues to explore Brazil's equally varied music. As he says, he's a pop musician, and his genius is to carry forward the innovations of such Brazilian masters as Joáo Gilberto and Luiz Gonzaga without forgetting that the greatest pop is — and will always be — for everyone.

in Nashville Scene, 01.11.2012
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