Gilberto Gil Biography

Brazilian singer, guitarist, and songwriter
A famous artist of the MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) generation, Gil promotes the music and culture of Brazil. The components of compassion and social conscience in his music have made his work popular throughout the world.

June 29, 1942; Salvador, Brazil Principal recordings
albums: Vira mundo; Louvacao, 1967; Frevo rasgado, 1968; Cerebro eletronico, 1969; Nega, 1971; Expresso 2222, 1972; Gil e Jorge, 1975 (with Jorge Ben); Refazenda, 1975; Refavela, 1977; Refestanca, 1978; Nightingale, 1979; Realce, 1979; Brasil, 1981; Luar (A gente precisa ver o luar), 1981; Um banda um, 1981; Extra, 1983; Quilombo, 1984; Raca humana (Human Race), 1984; Dia dorim noite neon, 1985; Personalidade, 1987; Soy loco por ti America, 1987; Um trem para as estrelas, 1987; O eterno deus mu danca, 1989; Parabolic, 1991; Acoustic, 1994; Caetano y Gil: Tropicalia 2, 1994; Indigo Blue, 1997; Quanta, 1997; Copacabana mon amour, 1998; O sol de Oslo, 1998; Quanta Live, 1998; Me You Them, 2000; Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, 2001; Kaya n’gan daya, 2002; Z: 300 anos de Zumbi, 2002; Eletracustico, 2004; As cancoes de “Eu tu eles,” 2005; Gil luminoso, 2006; Rhythms of Bahia, 2006.

The Life
Gilberto Gil (zhihl-BEHR-toh zhihl) was born in Salvador, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, but he grew up in Ituacu, a small town in the interior of Bahia. His early musical influenceswere varied, including the folk music of the sertao (the remote, sparsely populated interior of northeastern Brazil), especially the accordion music of Luiz Gonzaga; European classical music; North American jazz; Afro-Cuban music; and the polkas and waltzes of Europe. Not surprisingly, his first instrument was the accordion, but he switched to guitar after he heard Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” (No More Blues) in 1958.

He received a degree in business administration from the federal university in Salvador, and he worked for a year for a Sao Paulo corporation before becoming a full-time musician. In 1965 he released his first single. The year after, Elis Regina’s recording of Gil’s “Louvacao” (Praise) became a hit, and the same year his song “Ensaio Geral” (General Rehearsal) was awarded a prize at an important MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) festival.

Musica Popular Brasileira is a formof urban popular music that combines traditional Brazilian music with contemporary influences. In 1967, along with Caetano Veloso (whom he had met at the university), he founded the radical musical movement Tropicalia.

Briefly imprisoned without charges by the ruling military junta in 1969, Gilmovedto England, returning to Brazil in 1972. Throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Gil continued to record and to perform, though at this time he became active in politics. He took time off from his musical career to serve as the secretary of culture for the city of Salvador and as a member of its city council.

Gil has performed all over the world, while releasing a steady stream of both popular and critically acclaimed recordings, including two that won Grammy Awards: Quanta Live and Eletracustico.

Brazilian President Lula da Silva named Gil Minister of Culture in 2003, and Gil served in that post for five years.

The Music
Gil’s earliest recordings exhibit the social awareness that has typified his writing throughout his career. His first release contained the protest songs “Roda” (Circle) and “Procissao” (Procession).

Louvacao contained his version of the song made famous by Regina. These early songs shared the theme of the redemption of the common man from oppression.

The Tropicalia movement—freely absorbing and transforming any and all musical influences— was effectively launched by Gil and Veloso with their entries in the 1967 TV Record Festival.

Gil’s entry, “Domingo no Parque” (Sunday in the park), was emblematic of the Tropicalia aesthetic: It mixed a wide and disparate array of musical and cultural elements in a modern and cinematic way. The song, arranged by avant-garde composer-conductor Rogerio Duprat, was heavily influenced by the production techniques of the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life,” mixing folk rhythms and instruments, electric guitars, and sound effects.

While the Tropicalia movement was effectively over by the early 1970’s, Gil’s music continued to display the eclecticism made possible by the movement’s suspension of musical boundaries.

When he returned from England in 1972, Gil was firmly committed to his own spiritual and artistic cultivation. The ideas of rebirth, revival, and growth are common themes in his lyrics.

“Oriente,” which he wrote that year, contains a subtle wordplay on the idea of the individual orienting himself or herself spiritually in the world and an obvious reference to Eastern philosophy implicit in the song’s title. A number of tunes from the same period, such as “Entao Vale a Pena” (then it’s worth it) and “A Morte” (a death), are meditations on death and the perspective it offers on the nature and value of life.

Gil was deeply affected by his experiences performing in Africa in 1976, and much of his music since then is concerned with exploring his African roots. His 1980 collaboration with Jimmy Cliff, which included the cover of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” brought reggae to Brazil.

Reaching the Mainstream.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Gil performed extensively in the United States and Europe. During this period, he released two recordings in the United States, Nightingale and Human Race. At the same time, he consciously shifted his musical focus from the poetic and artistic concerns of the song to the accessibility of the rhythm. His exploration of the dance rhythms of afoxe, reggae, funk, soul, and rock was a deliberate attempt to make his music more popular and to reach a wider audience. His concern with black culture, personal spiritual growth, and social justice remained, however. He saw the mass-audience appeal of dance music as a vehicle to reach out to a wide international audience.

The 1997 album Quanta, containing twenty powerful songs, is an example of Gil at his most prolific. Stylistically diverse and with unusually high production values, the album represents Gil at the peak of his abilities. The live version of the materials from the album won a Grammy Award in 1998.

Musical Legacy
Gil’s musical career represents the successful resolution of a paradox. At once sacred and profane, his work has mass appeal without sacrificing honesty and integrity. Like the seeming opposites of Gil himself—politician and pop star—his music reconciles the sensuality of dance music with the spirituality of personal and societal salvation.

Gil’s powerful message of hope and redemption, aligned with the celebration of his African heritage, is an inspiration to the people of the African diaspora.

Nevertheless, his appeal and his message are not exclusive to any one group, no matter what their race, and they embrace all who share the human experience. ¶