Existential Samba

Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil marries pop and politics

Politically minded musicians often make public stands on specific issues, but rarely do they actually enter into the bureaucratic machinations of government. In this respect, Brazilian music icon Gilberto Gil stands out as an exception. A gifted songwriter who came to fame as a driving force behind the Tropicália movement, Gil has journeyed from jail and exile at the hands of the Brazilian military dictatorship to serving under current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the nation's Minister of Culture some 35 years later. Likely the only official who splits his time between departmental duties and the demands of international pop stardom, Gil now balances making technology more accessible with promoting brilliant albums like GiL Luminoso, his recently re-released acoustic retrospective (originally out in 1999) that brings him on a rare solo tour of the United States.

The CD strips Gil's songs down to the barest essence of voice and guitar, returning the songwriter to the bossa nova template he helped subvert with the advent of Tropicália in 1967. Mixing traditional Brazilian sounds with fuzzed-out psychedelic guitar, experimental musique concrete, oblique political criticism, and Dadaist humor, Gil, along with Tropicália co-founder Caetano Veloso, and fellow revolutionaries Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and Os Mutantes, rebelled against both bossa nova's rigid complacency and the heavy hand of the military regime. The self-described "cultural cannibalism" of the Tropicálistas would eventually become the foundation for popular music in Brazil while exerting influence on adventurous musicians the world over.

The joyous anarchy the music embodied did not sit well with Brazil's oppressive dictatorship in the '60s. In 1968, Gil and Veloso were jailed for several months before being exiled to London. Where the imprisonment almost shattered Veloso (as detailed in his compelling autobiography Tropical Truth), Gil turned the ordeal into a catalyst for positive self-transformation. Taking up yoga and a macrobiotic diet, the songwriter emerged a stronger, more enlightened artist. After returning to his native land in 1972, Gil mined both his African roots and regional Brazilian music to build a remarkable body of work that echoes the humanist politics and irresistible grooves of global kindred spirits Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and Nigerian firebrand Fela Kuti.

Though politics informed much of Gil's writing throughout his career, GiL Luminoso focuses more on the profound poetic vision and spiritual weight of his songs from the '70s. Whether describing man's existence as "A burning wound/ A beauty/ A decay" on "A Raca Humana" or exalting in the moment on "Aqui e Agora" ("The best place in the world is here and now/ Here, someplace undefined/ Now, which is almost when"), Gil reveals a gift for crafting deceptively simple yet dense lyrics that approach the enlightened insight of a Zen koan.

Local reissue maven Filippo Salvatore — whose efforts unearthing obscure Italian prog rock for Runt Distribution were documented in an earlier SF Weekly article ["The Italian Job," Aug. 16, 2006] — is also taking a look into the songwriter's past. Salvatore is resurrecting Gil's sole English-only album for its first U.S. release on his Water imprint March 27. Recorded during his London exile, Gilberto Gil 1971 finds the singer playing guitars and percussion with a bass accompaniment in a spare, psychedelic-folk mode. Some of the record celebrates his new surroundings (particularly "Crazy Pop Rock" and an upbeat remake of "Nega"), but the melancholy of exile comes through in "One O'Clock Last Morning" and an affecting version of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home."

"I think it's my favorite [Gil record]," enthuses Salvatore. "It's very contemporary-sounding. I hear similarities to a lot of newer people like Devendra Banhart. Hopefully, if this goes well, we'll reissue three or four more albums [from the same era] by the end of the year." So while Gil's government work may keep him out of the studio for the time being, at least fans will have a chance to revisit some of the best works by one of the world's most important troubadours.

 
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