Strings and Rhythm Machines Concert, from Brazil to US
Iconoclast and musical shaman, this father of Tropicália launched the crowd dancing on October 26, 2012, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during his first North American Tour in two years
Brazil’s former Minister of Culture now serves as unofficial cultural ambassador, continuing to share his personal blend of Brazilian music with the world since he retired in 2008 from the Lula Administration. Officially, he’s also the Goodwill Ambassador from the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNESCO Artist for Peace from the United Nations, and winner of four Grammy Awards, the Polar Music Prize, and the French Légion d’honneur. With or without titles… Gilberto Gil knows how to rock.
Only the second black man in Brazilian history to occupy a seat in the country’s Cabinet, he established a grant program while there to fund music technology and education for poor urban areas. Long before that, he founded Onda Azul, an NGO to protect Brazilian waters. He was first elected politically in 1987 (in Bahia, as Salvador Secretary of Culture), and has managed to successfully blend music and politics for 25 years.
In the 60s, Gil and Caetano Veloso mixed Beatles influences, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley with samba and bossa nova to completely alter Brazilian pop music, creating the form known as Tropicália, and expanding beyond national boundaries. This break with tradition was not always appreciated, and to some his work was seen as a threat. In 1969 he and Veloso were jailed without charge and later exiled to London, where they played music with artists like Pink Floyd, Yes, and the flourishing reggae scene, all of which Gil mixed and blended into his unique sound.
A master at mixing things up, he explained his history in an essay he released by Creative Commons, a copyright-sharing concept he promoted as Minister of Culture. “When I play the rhythms of the Brazilian countryside with the electric guitar of the Beatles and of the Rolling Stones, I shocked the continental spirits of my country. The consequence was that I was considered a threat to national security. Tropicália was my child, my destiny, and my space of affirmation as Brazilian.”
His continued respect for Bob Marley became apparent in this California show, with very Brazilian-flavored covers of “Three Little Birds” and “No Woman No Cry” sung in Portuguese (“Não Chore Mais”).
In 2010 he released “Fé na Festa”, his 55th album since his debut in 1967, and the album’s title song opened the show with high spirits. The album’s devoted to the baião music like forró from northeast Brazil that Gil grew up with. Of course, he mixes traditional instruments like cavaquinho, zabumba, triangle and accordion with modern ones like electric guitars and drums, for a joyful sound to raise spirits and unavoidably incite dance.
“Thank you to the university for inviting us here,” he said to open the show. “We’ll be playing a form of music called forró. During the Second World War, there was an American Air Base in Pernambuco, one of the air force bases in Brazil. Sometimes they would make parties, and they would make them ‘for all’, and the word would spread, ‘The Americans are making a “for all”‘. This is where the name comes from.”
The Cultural Ambassador delights in educating, and peppered the space between songs with colorful introductions to set the scene. Special tribute was paid to mentor Luis Gonzaga, and two Gonzaga covers had the crowd dancing and clapping in surprisingly perfect syncopation, “A Dança da Moda”, and later “Xote da Meninas”. He introduced the xote form: “The monarchy in Brazil, they brought the parties and the dances from Europe, and there was one dance they did that was called ‘Scottish’; and outside, the people on the streets, they started to find out what was going on inside, and they started dancing to it… and they like this Scottish dance. But they couldn’t say the word, so they started calling that style of music ‘xote’ (pronounced ‘shot-she’).”
It’s obvious why people liked the dance, whose infectious rhythms and soaring melodies captivate and spark bodies into motion.
This new project, the String and Rhythm Machines Concert, features a group of exceptional musicians: Nicholas Krassik on violin and rabeca, using two bows; Sérgio Chiavazzoli, a guitarist who plays slide as well as a very impressive banjo; accordionist Toninho Ferragutti, whose flying fingers alternately mimic and harmonize Gil’s melody… but it’s the rhythm section that has the audience on their feet from early in the show, casting decorum aside to fill the aisles. Drummer Jorge Gomes (also on zambumba) and percussionist Gustavo Di Dalva fill beats and counter-beats with masterful drumming mixed with traditional sounds like the triangle and shell rattles to spice the rock-solid melodic bass of Arthur Maia. Gilberto Gil shines on guitar and yelping vocals, fusing sounds and influences effortlessly into the bubbling, syncopated, note-perfect stew.
The diverse audience had talents of their own. The hall was filled with perfectly on-time clapping early on, continuing through the show whenever possible, even with tricky beats… the dancing was exceedingly hot. And Gil played to thrill them, with favorites from four decades. The crowd sang chorus and verse of a number of songs like “No Mundo do Lua”, “Expresso 2222″, “Vamos Fugir”, and “Andar com Fé”, leaving the song master to conduct the crowd with sheer delight, which he expressed in high joyful yips.
The ovation was continual and loud from the audience who’d been on their feet all along; “Esperando na Janela”, followed by the final “Barracos”. The mood was so high that it felt like the music might have continued right to the stars, had not the house lights dawned to cast off the illusion.
(Excerpts below are from a Creative Commons essay (free download from Wikipedia) without title, released before 2008 by Gilberto Gil):
“I am from the seaside. Even if I spent my childhood in the countryside, I grew up with eyes to the seaside. More specifically, I am from the city of São Salvador of the Bay of All Saints, Brazil. This category in which I belong creates a notion of belonging in the world with the eyes lost in the horizon.
When suspiciousness of national hegemonies spread out through the world, like a good man from the seaside, I was prepared. And in my condition of man, I recognized my other half woman; in my condition of heterosexual, I contemplated my homosexual sensibility; in my condition of black, I praised my soul of all colors; in my condition of believer, I embraced the belief in all gods. As a politician, I saw in environmentalism the possibility of overcoming our immediate pettiness and to providing a cosmic dimension to our actions in society.(…) As an artist and as a citizen of the world, I see in culture the space for the countries to share faiths, races, sexualities, values, in the cacophony of its differences, in the antagonism of its incompatibilities, in the generosity a common place, something that has never existed, but has always been dreamed of by those who let their gaze be lost in the horizon.
The vocation of the boy of Salvador of All Saints, navel tied to the mother land and the vagabond soul of a sailor, follows me to all the ports I find harbor, to talk in the international language of music about a certain people, that inhabits somewhere, and about this common place, where we are all equal in our immeasurable differences.”