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Gilberto Gil:
Cultivator of the Spirit

by Chris McGowan

The following article was published in the Beat magazine in 1991 and includes an interview with Gilberto Gil in late 1989, parts of which were used for McGowan & Pessanha's book The Brazilian Sound.  It offers a snapshot of what Gil was doing and thinking in that era. Since then, he has continued to release adventurous albums such as the superb Parabolicamará, Quanta, the Grammy-winning Quanta Live, and the northeastern flavored soundtrack Eu Tu Eles and album São João Vivo (both of which won Latin Grammys). He is currently serving as the Minister of Culture under Brazil's president Lula.

Imagine a charismatic singer-songwriter from Bahia with a lilting voice and an uncanny ability to conjure up an irresistible groove, whether he's playing reggae music, an afoxé, samba, or rock and roll. One who also has a knack for sweet ballads that charm the ear and engage the mind. Give him interests in Afro-Brazilian culture, the candomblé religion, Zen, philosophy, economics, sociology, future shock, and much else. And -- one more thing -- make him a city councilman.

You've got Gilberto Gil.

Born in 1942 in Salvador, Gil was a leader of the Tropicália movement in Brazil in 1967 and 1968, along with artists such as Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, Capinam, Gal Costa, Torquato Neto, and Os Mutantes. In their music, they mixed native styles with rock, folk instruments with electronic ones, erudite references and kitsch fragments, pop and avant-garde. Anything went, and everything could be utilized.

The Tropicália movement (also called Tropicalismo) took place not just in music, but in the other arts as well; the Tropicalistas liked slogans like "power to the imagination" and "down with prejudice." They followed the aesthetic precepts of poet Oswald de Andrade, who in 1928 had advocated "artistic cannibalism," which he defined as a "cultural devouring of imported techniques to reelaborate them with autonomy."

Musically, Gilberto Gil took this to heart and fused rock, bossa nova, samba, capoeira, baião and salsa together in groundbreaking songs such as "Domingo no Parque" [Sunday in the Park], "Geléia Geral" [General Jelly], and "Soy Loco Por Ti America." In the late 1960s, Gil and his close friend/frequent collaborator Caetano Veloso were achieving "world music" fusions that were decades ahead of similar experiments by North American and European pop musicians.

Because of Gil's threatening Tropicalismo image in the late '60s (which suggested hippies, rock'n'roll, freedom, and other concepts that disturbed the Brazilian government), he ran afoul of the ruling dictatorship and was jailed. During the months he spent in prison, rather than waste away, Gil discovered Zen, yoga and macrobiotics, which would augment his cosmopolitan world view. Upon release, he went into exile and travelled to England, as did Caetano, living there until 1972. When he returned to Brazil, Gil took another new direction, and began to delve into his Afro-Brazilian roots.

In the 1970s, Gil and Veloso discovered reggae, and the latter recorded two reggae vignettes on his 1971 Transa album, years before Eric Clapton discovered Bob Marley. Gil would go on to record many reggae songs that decade and next, share billing with Jimmy Cliff at the "Reggae Night" of the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival, and cut "Vamos Fugir" [Let's Escape] with the Wailers in '84 on his album A Raca Humana [the Human Race].

Gilberto Gil and Caetano's fascination with reggae music had a strong impact on young Bahian artists and undoubtedly had much to do with the flowering of the samba-reggae style in Bahia in the 1980s, as well as reggae's incorporation into other fusions such as fricote (developed by Luiz Caldas).

In 1976, Gil paraded with the Filhos de Gandhi afoxé group during Carnaval, a seminal event in his career that accelerated his "Re-Africanization." The next year he recorded Refavela, which included "Baba Alapalá" (an homage to the orixa Xangô) and "Patuscada de Gandhi" (an afoxé song), the use of Yoruban words, and influences of highlife and ju-ju. Also that year ('77), he attended an arts festival in Lagos, Nigeria, that profoundly moved him, as he discusses in the interview below.

In the 1980s, Gilberto Gil continued to record in a multiplicity of Afro-based styles, and to write vivid and provocative lyrics. And he entered politics: in 1987 he became a councilman for the city of Salvador and also served as Secretary of Education and Culture. He returned to the music world in '89, recording "O Eterno Deus Mudanca" [The Eternal God Change], which features Gil's usual nourishing musical salad, ranging from the unabashed funk of the title cut to the xote-flavored "Mulher de Coronel" [The Colonel's Woman] to the classic samba of "De Bob Dylan a Bob Marley" (whose chorus comes from some cryptic graffiti Gil once read).

This interview was conducted in late 1989 in the restaurant of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, where Gilberto was dining on a health-food salad and drinking apple juice. Our talk touched on many points in his career, starting at the beginning.

Chris McGowan: When you were young, what kind of music did you listen to?

Gilberto Gil: It was more white-oriented.

Q: It was northeastern music, more baião, that influenced you. Not afoxé.

A: Yeah, because I was in the country. I was living in a town of a 800 people. The population of this hotel [Hollywood Roosevelt], more or less. There was just one single radio station to listen to, Radio Nacional do Rio de Janeiro. My parents bought me an accordion when I was ten [also when his family moved to Salvador]. I learned Luiz Gonzaga and classical music and everything, polkas, Italian, German, a little fado, Spanish.

Q:And then what did you listen to as a teenager?

A: Everything available. Cuban, Celia Cruz, mambo, Perez Prado, Duke Ellington, early 1950s jazz, some Miles Davis, Chet Baker.

Q: In a way, you and Milton and Caetano had it better than American musicians at that age, growing up and absorbing everything. Because Americans were more isolated culturally, listening mainly to just their own music, whereas Brazilian musicians could take in the whole world.

A: Yeah, Mexican boleros, lots of them, tango, Sicilian Napolitean, Yma Sumac, everything.

Q: Did you have a band?

A: I joined a local neighborhood band at the age of 17, playing accordion and vibes. Playing all types of music, boleros, sambas, Brazilian urban music.

Q: In college, did you get hit by the bossa nova?

A: Yeah, when I was 19. I was back from school one day, at lunchtime at home, the radio station on, suddenly I heard "Chega de Saudade" and I liked it. I phoned the radio station and asked, "What was that you were playing?" They said, "Joao Gilberto, brand-new, coming fresh from Rio, a new release." A week later I got the album and I told my mother for the first time that I wanted to play guitar. I bought myself a guitar, a songbook with chords and things, and I started.

Q: You've always had a real political side to your music. What sort of influences did you have in this area when you were young?

A: In our generation's university times in the late 1950s, early 1960s, the people in the big cities in Brazil, middle-class people, who went to the university would necessarily come into contact with ideological discussion, and analysis of society. Sociologists [and economists] from Sao Paulo and Rio, like Celso Furtado and Henrique Cardoso, were making available for our generation the first deep criticism or analysis of Brazilian society.

Q: So this all hit you in college, at the Federal University of Bahia?

A: Yeah, yeah. And Marxism and modernism, all together. Those were counterculture times, and we were exposed to all of these things.

Q: And at the university in Bahia, you met your future partners Caetano Veloso and Torquato Neto.

A: Caetano and Torquato and Capinam and Maria Bethania. Then [after that] in Rio and Sao Paulo I met Vinicius de Moraes and Ruy Guerra and Edu Lobo.

Q: The late 1950s and early '60s were an exciting time for Brazil, full of hope both artistically and economically. What would have happened culturally if the military coup hadn't happened in 1964, followed by the repression of the dictatorship?

A: We don't know. When the hard times of military regime [struck] we were just beginning to develop. They were dreamy moments. Kubitscheck [president from 1956-60], Brasilia [the new futuristic capital], bossa nova, a flaring time. It's difficult to see what should have happened differently.

What happened, I think, was a little induced by American politics. What probably was, in perspective, a Brazil developing into something very new and flexible and brilliant and modern that probably threatened the conservative American society. But it was a bad choice of the state department [to support the '64 coup]. I don't know, it happened the way it happened and it's all we have.

Q: Going back to your music, you absorbed all those influences. I think of your groundbreaking 1967 song "Domingo No Parque," your pop manifesto you called it at one time. I think of it as a meeting of Brazil and North America, with the Beatles thrown in.

A: Brazil, Bahia, berimbau, capoeira rhythms.

Q: Cinematic lyrics.

A: Cinematic lyrics. George Martin [the Beatles producer].

Q: George Martin meets Bahia.

A: And Bahia meets George Martin.

Q: I think of the Beatles' "A Day In The Life" [from their 1967 Sgt. Pepper album] to compare it to, but you hadn't heard that before you wrote it--

A: I had. I was actually hearing it (laughs). I had it all the time on the turntable. That was my myth of the time. And we had people like him [George Martin] in Brazil, like Rogerio Duprat [a classical conductor who arranged "Domingo"], who used to deal with modern music and dodecaphony [the 12-tone system] and everything.

Q: And then I think of your song "Soy Loco Por Ti America," which came soon afterwards. It's kind of like a pan-American manifesto.

A: That's salsa.

Q: Salsa, and you had Brazilian rhythms in there too, didn't you? And Portuguese and Spanish.

A: Portuguese and Spanish, samba, baião and rhumba and mambo and cha-cha-cha and all that. Which today is generally called salsa, but then it was not. There was no general denomination of salsa. Cha-cha-cha would be cha-cha-cha, rhumba would be rhumba, mambo would be mambo, merengue would be merengue, cumbia would be cumbia.

Q: From 1969 to '72 came your exile in England. What was that like?

A: Good times. It was generally a good time in England for themselves and their relation with Europe and the world. It was the swinging London times, the peak of those times, the Beatles and Stones, the whole pop music thing.

Q: Did you meet a lot of musicians there?

A: Yeah, we [got together] a lot with David Gilmour, of Pink Floyd. Just jamming. Alan White, from the Yes band, used to be at our house.

Q: Did he influence you?

A: I think a little more the opposite. He got really enthusiastic about drumming.

Q: Did the British bands in general have much influence on your music?

A: Yes, especially the attitude. I decided to be a band leader, [to adopt] the format, being there, driving a band, playing guitar, singing the blues, R&B, rock attitude.

Q: What do you mean? Strong? Rebellious?

A: Like a concept and an action. Like going there, forming a band, travelling, touring, performing, dealing with managers, recording, all of that, the showcase thing for pop music, the bandleader in this contemporary sense. Being there in front of a music combo, the symbolism and the format, it's a little difficult to explain. The condition--psychological and mental--and the material elements to form this thing, the development of this symbol that came from Elvis musically and James Dean culturally. Then the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, all this, driving music, driving electric devices to produce music and culture, a whole concept, modern.

Q: You'd already explored this a little during Tropicália.

A: That's what I was going to say. That was something we were expecting to develop with Tropicalismo, but we were not allowed the time to do that in Brazil with the local elements. We had to leave. So in a sense London was an acceleration of the process. The whole cultural scene there was like that already, was one of the most advanced points, together with New York and Los Angeles.

Q: When you came back after London, were you criticized again for having adapted that attitude and symbolism of rock?

A: No, the criticism had happened already during Tropicalismo. When we got back, that had given way already to understanding attitudes. From the left especially, and from some progressive segments of the conservative society, the middle class. They were saying "We couldn't grasp what they were intending with Tropicália. Now we understand, it's something we need. The aesthetics have to correspond with the economics, with the developing prospects that we have for our society, so let them do what they are doing, they are our cultural equivalent to progressing socially. Recognizing it was fundamental for our going back, for our permission to be in Brazil.

Q: Were you worried about going back? About getting thrown in jail?

A: No, because in London, we started a dialogue with them [the rulers] in a sense and we got the message that we were welcome.

Q: They had put you in jail before you left. For no real charge.

A: Just for this reason I am saying. Just for being different, unexpected, daring, bold, adventurous, unknown, and dangerous. As darkness is (laughs).

Q: After you'd come back, you were always outspoken. Did the government ever pressure you not to sing about certain things?

A: I never considered my lyrics and everything as real heavy. Never. So, it really never happened except for one time when I wrote with Chico [Buarque], the song "Chalice." I never really was censored. Because I don't know where people necessarily take that [attitude] that my lyrics were heavy. [But] my attitude--okay.

Q: Your lyrics were more a critique of society or of yourself than of a political structure.

A: Oh yes.

Q: Or talking about the racism in society, but not necessarily going against a government.

A: Oh yeah. But that sort of racial component in my work just came ten years ago.

Q: After your trip to Nigeria for the arts festival?

A: Yeah. First of all, we had gathered in Lagos 4,000 black writers, musicians, artists, poets, playwrights, dancers--from all over Africa and the world. From the whole diaspora: Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Cuba, everywhere. For one month, we were discussing, trying to produce a reflection on negritude, racism, struggle, the fight for independence. The [whole] black world, it was a strong thing. I met Stevie Wonder for the first time in Fela Kuti's house.

Q: It must have been a lot to absorb.

A: Fela and Stevie Wonder at one time. Very strong.

Q: It started more of your reflections about your Afro-Brazilian heritage.

A: It had been there all the time. But that time in Africa, I used to cry in the streets of Africa just from watching people and their profiles and the facial structure and body structure and the variety of the blacks, they were from all over--tall, small, thin, European-like ones, all the different cultures. That caused something very shaking, emotional, very intuitive, I got into tellurism, like being replanted in the soil of Africa and then being able to flourish as a new tree.

Q: And in the years since, you have had a huge influence on this whole new generation of people from Bahia, because you played with the afoxé group the Filhos de Gandhi and integrated Afro-Brazilian music like that into your work.

A: I was the first one to record an afoxé like a pop song.

Q: And you got into recording reggae songs.

A: In 1976.

Q: What do you think of this whole new generation from Bahia, that is mixing reggae and Afro-Brazilian styles like ijexa [the rhythm of the afoxé style] into their pop music?

A: Gerônimo, Olodum. They got the suggestion, the hint, and they're just doing it. The road was open and they said okay, let's go.

Q: What do you think about what the Paralamas do Sucesso [who are Rio-based] are doing? I think it's great to see them mixing together rock, ska, reggae, samba, soca, compas and so many other styles.

A: They are the ones I like best of the new generation.

Q: Is music in Brazil at a good time now?

A: Brazilian music suffers the general--let us call it--disease that worldish music suffers. Quantity. Consuming. A kind of morbid element. It's a kind of ritual, a necessary thing. Everyone listens to music just because they have to, music has become something like a sandwich or a coke.

Sometimes people don't go to music anymore for the spirit, but just for the materialistic [element] in it. And that is [something] general, the cosmopolitan life induces that. It has lost the spirit, worldwide. It's became a product, cultural industry, automation.

Q: But there is still great pure music coming out, for example from places like Mali, with the griots.

A: It's still very tribal. Like a raw material. At an industrial level but the processing is not that much, they haven't wasted it, washed it out.

Q: What do we do about this?

A: I don't know. I'm just saying it's like that. And it's difficult to see a prospect.

Q: What do you do for your own music? How do you combat that?

A: I'm part of that tragedy. I'm half cultivator of the spirit--I'm always open to a sort of fresh air of intuition and unknown things--but at the same time I have to be there on the assembly line, you know.

Q: Killed and packaged.

A: Killed and packaged. There will be a lot of repetitions, imitations, watery imitations. But there will [also] be talent, new things, spirit, charisma, boldness. It [will be taking shape with] funky fullness, it's what we expect, cha! bam! bah! It takes you here, takes you here, you know, everything, words, meaning, sounds, rhythm, intelligence, intuitiveness, everything together, it's going, progressing, with this mixing of Pythagoras and (laughs) King Kong.

Q: In the last few years, you've been more involved in politics than with music.

A: In 1987, I started a kind of political thing in Bahia. I was Secretary of Culture first, then ran for city council. And since then I've been committed to that. I kept singing and writing when I had some time. Now, I'm sort of resuming it in a more responsible way.

article by Chris McGowan © 1991 (originally published in The Beat magazine, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1991). Reproduction and web use not permitted without consent of the author. We appreciate your cooperation. Email us: thebraziliansound at