wed 03/03/2021

Gilberto Gil, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Gilberto Gil, RFH

Gilberto Gil, RFH

Ex-Minister of Culture strips down to basics

The last time I saw Gilberto Gil play he was performing high-energy reggae with an electric band. Last night, though, it was an autumnal, acoustic trio full of saudade, that Brazilian word that is somewhere between nostalgia, melancholy and homesickness. It made for a reflective, downbeat evening, but as there have been many Gilberto Gils recorded over 50 albums, we should at least be grateful that the cheesy Eighties funk style was left at home.

Gil first became famous in the late Sixties as one of the architects of tropicalia, along with fellow musicians of the intelligentsia from Bahia in the north-east of Brazil such as Caetano Veloso and Tom Zé. The movement set out to “cannibalise" foreign cultural ideas while remaining distinctively Brazilian, becoming a link between the bossa nova wave of the early 1960s and international pop of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. He was inspired by hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" at the same time as a traditional forro band walked by and somehow mixed the two.

The group's radicalism fell foul of the authorities and Gil was thrown into jail in 1969, "for no real reason, for being bold and adventurous". He spent three years in exile in London, exploring Swinging London along with Caetano Veloso, so London has a particular resonance for him. When they returned they were both heroes and have retained their oppositional cachet, despite Gil having just completed a five-year stint as a Minister (of Culture) in President Lula’s government.

If many musicians are also symbols, Gil is an icon of freedom from the 1960s dictatorship, of the youthful idealism of the time (to paraphrase Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young and a Brazilian hippy was very heaven”), and as such the audience, the majority who were Brazilians weren’t there to be critical. They were there partly out of gratitude to Gil and others that Brazil is now a relatively stable democracy and moving up in the world. Forever it was said that Brazil was the country of the future, and now it looks like it might just be. Of course, they were primarily there to hear some of his songs from a massive back catalogue, many of which have been a soundtrack to their lives.

Gil was on guitar accompanied by his son Bem, also on guitar, and Jacques Morelenbaum on cello. Morelenbaum has become the go-to guy if you want strings for a Brazilian-style project – and he has delivered impressively for everyone from Riuchi Sakamoto, the Japanese composer and bossa nova freak, Mayra Andrade, the tremendous new Cape Verdean singer, and his old fellow London exile Caetano Veloso.

After a tentative start, Morelenbaum filled the gaps of the sonic spectrum with sinuous inventiveness, and his son enabled Gil to improvise, often anchoring the proceedings. The trio format exposed a lessening of power of Gil’s voice with age, although he didn't seem to care (and he has that reassuring happiness in his own skin that seems to be a Brazilian characteristic) - something he if anything drew attention to with his staccato scats and deep rumblings, improvised and experimental. "I may have been a Minister but I’m still pretty avant-garde" seemed to be one of the messages.

Gil has had plenty of duff albums, at his best he is an adventurous, sometimes surreal songwriter. A couple of highlights were "Anda Com Fé", whose first verse translates as

I'll walk with faith
Faith doesn't usually fail.
Faith is in a woman,
in the coral snake, in a piece of bread.
Faith is in the tide, in the dagger's blade,
In light, in darkness.”

Or “Panis et Circensis”, a cornerstone of the tropicalia movement, co-written with Caetano Veloso:

"I drew the flags high on the slip of the wind
I sent the lions to my neighbour's backyard
But all the people having dinner inside
Are very busy with their food
'Till they die”

Elusive and allusive, they sound better in his expressive and seductive Brazilian Portuguese. Other hits followed such as the rhymically sly and addictive "Expresso 2222", and a sweet song to his wife, “A Face e o Queijo”, whose first line translates as “You complain I never write you a song”. Another to a simple beatbox and a one-note guitar riff was about “Not being afraid of death, but being afraid of dying”.  Now 67, one trusts he has many years playing ahead, but in the stripped-down music there was a hint of a Brazilian King Lear unburdening, attempting to simplify everything, to focus on the core of his music. Approaching the Biblical final whistle of three score years and ten, let's hope he avoids the tempests and filial fall-outs (he has five daughters) and has a rich and fruitful extra-time.

For more contemporary music at the Barbican, book here.

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