Gilberto Gil - Biography
Gilberto Gil’s life has gone full circle from being persecuted and exiled by the government of Brazil (in the hands of a military junta) to being a member of Brazil’s government, whom he serves elegantly as the current Minister of Culture. Born in Salvador, Bahia, the center of Afro-Brazilian culture in 1942, Gil began playing accordion as a young child. Influenced by the legendary Luiz Gonzaga and the forró music of the Northeast, he also enjoyed the samba music of carnival which inspired him to play drums. He was playing accordion with a band called Os Desafinados (the out-of-tunes) when he first heard the exciting new sound of the bossa nova. Immediately enthused, he picked up a guitar, learned how to play, and while still a university student in 1960, composed his first tune “Feliciade Vem Depois,” a bossa nova. Gil continued to compose and wrote advertising jingles while engaged in his business administration studies at Federal University in Salvador.
While at university in the early ‘60s, he met Maria Bethania and her brother, Caetano Veloso, a philosophy student, who was also a fellow fan of Joao Gilberto and the nascent bossa nova. Gil also encountered Gal Costa and Tom Zé and performed with them and Bethania in a landmark show of bossa nova and folklore directed by Veloso, entitled “Nos, Por Exemplo” (We, For Example). Still pursuing his business career, Gil married and relocated to São Paolo, taking a job with the prestigious Swiss company Gessy-Lever. He continued to perform and compose on several television shows and then, Elis Regina recorded his song, “Louvacao,” which became a hit. In 1966, he participated with Veloso, Costa, and Zé in a few theatre shows, “Arena Canta Bahia” and “Tempo de Guerra” (Time of War). With Brazil under military rule, Gil became known as a “protest song” singer, and along with the aforementioned co-conspirators, as a principal figure in what was being called the “Tropicalia” movement.
As the Western world was exploding with new forms of expression, and youth from Europe and America were creating a rock n’ roll culture, Brazil and Gil were swept up in a wave of new ideas. Visual art, theatre, and film informed the musical scene while Gil also continued to explore the diverse folkloric traditions and music of Brazilian culture. Like in America and Europe, there was a generational gap that became apparent as long hair, wild clothes, and recreational cannabis use became common. Later in 1966, he recorded his first record. Louvacao (1967 Phillips), which shows the influence of the Beatles and cosmopolitan pop as much as bossa nova. The “Tropicalista” movement continued to grow in popularity and by 1968 this new generation of Brazilian musicians had their own weekly television show of TV Tupi, “Divino Maravilhoso.” By then it seemed that he and his like minded, free-expressionists, were headed on a collision course with the authorities.
Ultimately, Gil and Veloso were arrested, their heads shaved and they were thrown into solitary confinement in jail. The “Tropicalista” movement effectively came to an end as the military junta cracked down on the youth and their heroes. Ironically, Gil had his biggest hit to date with the samba-pop “Aquele Abraco” in 1969 as he and Veloso left for a self-imposed, albeit state-encouraged, exile in London. While in England, he bid his time practicing guitar, learning English, participating in theatre projects and hanging out with the likes of Pink Floyd, Yes, and the Incredible String Band. In 1972, he returned to Brazil, reveling in the Afro-Brazilian culture he so missed, and recorded Expresso 2222 (1972 Phillips), placing him back in the hit parade with “Back in Bahia” and “Oriente.” Touring extensively on the university circuit, his sympathy for the dispossessed in Brazil’s favela shantytowns and enthusiastic embrace of tradition and pop, led him to new heights of popularity. His live album Ao Vivo (1974 Phillips) captures him in fine form as he avoids reprising the hits in favor of more obscure tunes, freely mixing rock, bossa nova, samba, and other Brazilian rhythms.
The following year he teamed up with contemporary popular artist Jorge Ben in an acoustic session released under the simple title Gil & Jorge (1975 Verve). A timeless recording featuring the duo on vocals and acoustic guitar showcasing their exquisite harmony vocals, the tunes allow the duo and the accompanying rhythm and percussion team to stretch out and improvise. Perfectly capturing an intimate, live ambiance, the record became an instant classic, poised for international embrace. Originally released as a double album, many of the nine songs exceed ten minutes. Further adding to legend is the melody of “Taj Mahal,” which was not so subtly appropriated by Rod Stewart for his massive hit “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” Apparently, Stewart, acquainted with Gil since his exile in London, was present for the recording session and after years of legal maneuvers over songwriting credits (or lack thereof) Stewart agreed to pay a tidy sum to a charity in Brazil.
The mid-seventies were a prodigiously creative time for Gil who released the critically acclaimed Rafazenda (1975 WEA Latina) and Rafavela (1977 WEA Latina). Embarking on his largest tour ever in support of Rafazenda, he played in over sixty towns in Brazil. Immediately after, he joined Veloso, Costa, and Bethania on the much-heralded “Doces Barbaros” or Sweet Barbarians tour. Invited to appear in a festival of black arts in Nigeria in 1977, Gil embraced the moment to explore his own relation to Africa and the Diaspora in general. This experience informed Rafavela, which was his deepest exploration of Afro-Brazilian rhythms to date. Inspired by sacred Afro-Brazilian ritual he sings “Ilê Ayê” and he includes a tune credited to the Bahian afoxé group Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi) with whom he regularly participates during carnival in his hometown of Salvador.
By now Gil was well known internationally and 1978 saw the release of a live record taken from his performance at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, Ao Vivo em Montreux (1978 WEA). Now poised to tackle the American market, Elektra released Nightingale and Gil embarked on a three-month tour of the US college circuit. Recorded in Los Angeles with the participation of Sergio Mendes, the album is a diverse pastiche of pop that includes a couple tunes in English. The following year he put out the disco influenced record, Realce (1979 WEA Latina), which included his cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” This song became a number one hit single in Brazil- selling over 700,000 copies. In 1980, Gil toured Brazil with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, helping to introduce reggae to a country ripe for this “sufferer’s” music and its Afro-centric pride. Later that decade in the slums of Salvador, Bahia, a fusion of Afro-Brazilian carnival music dubbed “samba-reggae,” would emerge and become a vital part of the popular music scene.
Luar [A Gente Precisa Ver O Luar] (1981 WEA Latina), or “we have to watch the moonlight,” had five hit songs, the biggest of which, “Palco,” charted internationally. A spectacular tour followed that was captured on film by Brazilian director Jom Tob Azulay, and released to commercial and critical success. Gil returned to Montreux, this time performing on a reggae billing with Jimmy Cliff. He continued a heavy performance schedule, including a number of solo gigs and the “Um Banda Um” tour which concluded with a live performance to over 100,000 people in Brazil. The subsequent recording, Um Banda Um (1982 WEA Latina) fell victim to the synthesizer phenomenon in fashion at the time. Extra (1983 WEA Latina) and Raca Humana (1984, WEA Latina), which featured Bob Marley’s band The Wailers, followed and Gil continued to tour heavily in high profile European cities and Japan.
A large part of Gil’s commercial success stems from his charismatic live performances, and in the eighties he released several more live recordings. Soy Loco Por Ti America (1987 Braziloid) contained the infectious title cut that helped cross him over to a Spanish speaking audience. In 1988, he began another chapter of his life as he entered the political realm, running for and winning election in Salvador, Bahia to the post of City Alderman. Parabolic (1991 WEA Latina) brings together Afro-Brazilian, reagge, and funk elements to underpin his philosophical musings and concerns as a civil servant. His Acoustic (1994 Atlantic) is a wonderful unplugged recording showcasing his diverse career. Quanta was released in 1997 on Atlantic and the subsequent Quanta Live (1998 Atlantic) won the Grammy for Best World Music Music Album.
In 2002, he released Kaya N’gan Daya (WEA International) featuring his sweet voice singing tightly arranged versions of timeless Bob Marley songs. He released yet another live album, Electrácustico (WEA International) in 2004, this time capturing the Grammy for the Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2005. Gil has received numerous accolades and awards throughout his long career, including the Polar Music Prize awarded to him by the King of Sweden and the prestigious Légion d’honneur awarded by the French government. But, perhaps the greatest honor of all, was when he was asked by the recently elected President of Brazil Lula da Silva in January 2003 to take the chair as Brazil’s Minister of Culture, a position he still honors while continuing to serve as musical ambassador at large.