Using a Range of Tools to Dig Into Deeper Ideas

Jon Pareles

Love, family, technology, faith, mortality, culture and, of course, music itself were all on the Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil’s mind when he played a rare club-size show at Joe’s Pub on Tuesday night. Mr. Gil, 66, was also in New York City to see a newborn grandchild named after her grandmother, Flora, and he started the set with the song “Flora.” It describes a plant flowering and expanding as it matures, with a melody that sends tendrils upward like a climbing vine.

Elastic tunes, elegant wordplay, a world of connections and an ever-benevolent perspective are constants in Mr. Gil’s songwriting. In “M quina de Ritmo” (“Rhythm Machine”) from his new album, “Banda a Larga Cordel” (“Broadband”), he envisions virtual samba schools and digital dances, but also mathematical beats without passion or the pleasure of practicing together.

Mr. Gil needed only his acoustic guitar to sketch the rhythms of various sambas, bossa nova, baião, rock shuffles or jazz swing, with syncopated staccato picking or quietly purry chords. For a few songs, his son Ben joined him on guitar or percussion, and for a vigorous Bahian-style samba he had the audience add handclaps and call-and-response. Mr. Gil sang with a conversational, playful tone, giving his baritone various shades of smokiness or leaping up to whimsical bursts of falsetto scatting and whooping. Often, he sang through a song’s verses twice, toying with the melody in different ways each time, constantly seeking new variations along familiar paths.

He has made it his mission, a cheerful one, to draw from everywhere. He followed Blind Faith’s death-haunted “Can’t Find My Way Home” — a song he learned while exiled to England by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the late 1960s — with a new song of his own, “Não Tenho Medo da Morte” (“I Don’t Fear Death”), a pensive ballad in which he worries about dying but not about oblivion. “La Renaissance Africaine,” with lyrics in French because it was written for a festival in Senegal, had a springy beat and a determined optimism about fusing myth and history, wisdom and possibility. “Others Saw” was a compilation of admiring observations about “our sociocultural blend” by visitors to Brazil — Mayakovsky, Tagore, Theodore Roosevelt — that he sang, appropriately, in English.

There’s nothing didactic about Mr. Gil, who recently gave up his post as Brazil’s minister of culture, a job he held since 2003, to return to music full time. His boundless erudition and his underlying conviction that tradition and modernity can, and must, embrace each other are transmuted into songs that share their pleasures first, inviting everyone to dip into their deeper ideas.

in The New York Times, 24.09.2008
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