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Gilberto Gil Biography

Immersed in Rich Cultural Heritage, Jailed Arrested and Sent into Exile, Entered Politics with Green Party



Brazilian legend Gilberto Gil is sometimes described as his country's version of Sting or Bono. Like the British musical stars who have become active in environmental and social-reform causes, Gil has long been a crusader for protection of the Brazilian environment and for help for those who live in the overcrowded urban slums known as favelas that ring cities like Rio de Janeiro. Many of Brazil's poorest are of African heritage, like Gil himself. Gil is a celebrated and respected figure in the South American country solely for the achievements of his musical career alone, but his activism has made him a hero to many.

Gil's rise as an artist began in the 1960s, and within a decade he was an important pioneer in Afro-Brazilian musical styles. He has spent much of his subsequent career promoting the links between African musical styles and the new genres they created when transplanted to the Western Hemisphere. His albums blend the two worlds to create a new, distinctive voice and sound respected around the world by a long list of outstanding musicians. In Brazil, his concerts are usually sold out—unless they are staged for free, which he regularly does for the poor. A Grammy recipient and winner of the prestigious Polar Music Prize in 2005, Gil was hailed by Billboard writer Gerald Seligman for his "exemplary and extraordinary career. Imprisoned by one government, he came to be appointed minister by another. It is a sign of how far Brazil has come, certainly, but also of the integrity, consistency and accomplishment of one remarkable citizen."

Immersed in Rich Cultural Heritage

Gil was born on June 29, 1942, in Salvador, Brazil, the capital of the state of Bahia in northeast Brazil. In previous centuries, Bahia served as one vast sugar plantation, and over a third of the Africans brought to Brazil as slaves settled there. Unlike slavemasters in North America, however, the Portuguese colonists generally did not separate slave families, and even those brought over from same tribe generally stayed in same area. Because of this, African culture took root more firmly in Brazil than elsewhere in the New World, and especially in Bahia. There, the local cuisine is heavily influenced by African styles, while a religion known as Candomblé is an amalgam of Roman Catholic and Yoruba practices. Furthermore, new musical styles flourished in Bahia that drew upon African rhythms, the songs of the indigenous Indian tribes, and European influences and instruments.

Gil was a product of this rich Afro-Brazilian heritage in Bahia. His father was a physician and his mother a teacher, and he has described his background as one that was middle class, but tenuously so. Fascinated by music at an early age, he was playing the drums at the age of three; by the time he turned seven, he was teaching himself the trumpet by playing along with the radio. In his teen years, he took up the accordion. By then his family had moved to Salvador, and it was there he joined his first musical group, Os Desfinados (The Out-of-Tunes). He played the accordion and vibraphone, but soon switched to guitar after he heard another musical talent from Bahia, Joāo Gilberto, and the new style called bossa nova for which Gilberto was gaining fame in the late 1950s.

Bossa nova soon replaced samba as the dominant popular music in Brazil. Gil with his guitar teamed with Caetano Veloso, whom he first met while a student at the University of Bahia in 1963. Introduced by Veloso's sister and fellow musician, Maria Bethania, they two musical collaborators would go on to a long career together, first in bossa nova and then as they created their own sound. Within a few years they had pioneered a new musical form called Tropicalismo, which drew upon Western rock 'n' roll and became the soundtrack for the counterculture protest movement in Brazil in the late 1960s.

Jailed Arrested and Sent into Exile

Gil himself had dropped out of his own middle-class life after finishing his business degree from the University of Bahia in 1965. He had taken a job as a management trainee with Gessy-Lever, a consumer-products conglomerate, in Sāo Paulo, but quit in 1966 to concentrate on his music career. He had a hit as a songwriter that same year in "Louvaçáo," recorded by Ellis Regina, and a music-festival entry done with Veloso, "Domingo no Parque," was another early hit. Louvaçáo was also the title of his first full-length LP, released in 1967 on the Philips label.

Despite his growing popularity, Gil and the other Tropicalismo pioneers soon ran afoul of government authorities. Brazil had been under a military dictatorship since 1964, and a new crackdown on free speech and the arts came in 1968 with Institutional Act V. The harsh new laws meant tough censorship guidelines for musical recordings and live performances, and when Gil and Veloso appeared on a television program and appeared to poke fun at the government, they were arrested and charged with degrading the national flag and Brazil's anthem. Their heads were shaved and they were jailed in a solitary confinement wing, where they could hear the screams of other prisoners being tortured. After two months, both were released, but Gil was placed under house arrest for several months before he and Veloso were strongly encouraged to leave the country.

At a Glance …

Born Gilberto Gil Moreira on June 29, 1942, in Salvador, Brazil; son of a physician and a teacher; married three times; seven children. Education: Studied business at the University of Bahia, early 1960s; studied music with Antonio Carlos "Tom" Jobim at the Goethe Institute. Politics: Green Party (Partido Verde) of Brazil. Religion: Candomblé.

Career: Guitar player, percussionist, singer, songwriter, and record producer; joined group Os Desfinados as a teenager; worked briefly for Gessy-Lever, a consumer-products conglomerate in Sāo Paulo, Brazil, c. 1965-66; began collaborating with Caetano Veloso, late 1960s; pioneered a new musical style called Tropicalismo; spent 1969 to 1972 as a political exile in Britain; Salvador, Bahia, elected to city council, 1988; named Bahia's minister for culture; Government of Brazil, Minister of Culture, 2003-.

Awards: Grammy Award for Best World Music Album, for Quanta Live, 1998; Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS), Person of the Year, 2003; Polar Music Prize, Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 2005.

Addresses: Office—c/o Blue Jackel Entertainment, P.O. Box 87, Huntington, NY 11743. Web—www.gilbertogil.com.br.

Gil settled in London, England, for the next three years. It was not an altogether terrible time, he recalled in an interview with the Independent Sunday's Garth Cart-wright. "We arrived the week The Beatles released Abbey Road, saw the Rolling Stones at the Round-house, jammed with Weather Report, heard reggae. A great experience. The fact you could walk up to a policeman and ask directions—in Brazil that just doesn't happen." Gil became particularly intrigued by reggae, the indigenous Jamaican musical form. As he explained in a Nation interview with Gene Santoro, he quickly grasped the political message in this kind of music. "The whole Rasta cultural thing, the hair and the colors and the communal life, the message and the fight for freedom, the need for ending problems of decolo-nization in Africa—it was quite something, the way that it followed up on the '60s black power movement in the United States," he told Santoro. "I made the links between Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis and Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley: people speaking out, being proud of being black, understanding the difficulties of getting black culture into Western civilization."

To witness that black culture himself from its source, Gil began visiting Africa in the 1970s. He spent time in the Ivory Coast and in Senegal, and went to Nigeria in 1977, where he met American singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, Nigerian musical superstar Fela Kuti—a pioneer of Afropop—and King Sunny Ade, another Nigerian musician and one who helped popularize African juju music, based on traditional Yoruba percussion styles. "That trip really gave me the push toward blackness, toward really trying to understand the roots and spirit of the culture," Gil recalled to Santoro. "Being able to spot the original sources of things we cultivate in Bahia shook me; it was a really emotional experience…. So when I got back to Brazil, I started doing music in a more black-oriented vein."

Gil returned to Brazil in 1972, after a less repressive political regime came to power, and his music began to incorporate Yoruba words and juju forms. He also continued to collaborate musically with Veloso. Together they pioneered another new musical style in the 1970s, which became known as Música Popular Brasileria, or Brazilian Popular Music, and known by its acronym, MPB. Their work began to attract the attention of respected musicians elsewhere, foremost among them David Byrne, founder of the seminal punk-new wave outfit the Talking Heads. In the 1980s and 1990s, Gil would release records on Byrne's Luaka Bop label.

Entered Politics with Green Party

Gil was also drawn into politics. In 1988, he ran for a seat on Salvador's city council on the Green Party (Partido Verde) ticket, and won by a record number of votes. He was sworn into office at a time when it was still relatively rare for a black to be elected to public office in Brazil. He went on to hold a seat on the executive committee of the Green Party in Brazil, and was made Bahia's minister of culture. He was increasingly active in environmental issues as well and founded an organization called Onda Azul (Blue Wave), which worked to protect Brazil's Atlantic shoreline and coastal waters from pollution. He used his high profile to draw attention to rainforest conservation. As always, he also focused his attention on Brazil's poor and the dispossessed, particularly those who lived in the ramshackle favelas, the shanty towns originally established by freed slaves.

In 2003, a newly elected Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio da Silva of the leftist Workers' Party, made Gil the country's newest Minister of Culture. Along with another cabinet appointee, Benedita da Silva, Gil was the first black to be appointed to a cabinet post in Brazil since the appointment of Pelé, the internationally famous soccer star. The appointment was somewhat controversial, for some of the more Marxist-centered members of Brazil's left had long been suspicious of Gil for using what were viewed as "decadent" Western musical influences like the electric guitar in his music. Cultural mavens, on the other hand, argued that Gil was perhaps not the best qualified candidate for the job of Culture Minister. But New York Times correspondent Larry Rohter framed the debate in another light, writing that because the musical legend was "a native of the state of Bahia and a black man, Mr. Gil may also be the victim of a regional prejudice with a certain racial subtext. Other Brazilians tend to regard people from that northeastern state as disorganized and indolent, to the point that one slang term for a midafternoon siesta is 'bahiano.'"

Gil became perhaps the first cabinet minister of one of the world's leading economic powers to sport dread-locks. He took an office in the modernist federal capital of Brasilia, and went to work championing Brazilian culture at home and abroad. His new job was not that different from his previous career as a musician, he said in an Americas interview with Marcia Cunha and Mark Holston. "Politics is an art form," he declared. "I came here to practice the art of politics in a ministry dedicated to art. This is a change of place, not of substance." He was also determined to promote all forms of Brazilian culture, not just more popular forms that translated well on the international stage. "Brazil's image abroad is associated with popular culture: samba, the way we play football," he told Newsweek International writer Mac Margolis. "But what we need to do is break the prejudice that popular culture is a lesser product. Blacks and Afro-Indians are the soul of the country. Brazil needs to come to terms with itself, different from the Brazilian elite, who want to be a copy of Europe or the United States."

Gil is a major celebrity in Brazil. Once, his car was stolen in Salvador, and the crime story appeared on the local news outlets; the next day, his car was returned with a note of apology. Married three times, he has seven children and runs a recording studio and impressive musical mini-empire. In 2005 he was a co-recipient of the Polar Music Prize, a generous award bestowed by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music from an endowment given by Stig Anderson, who earned a fortune as manager of the Swedish pop group Abba in the 1970s. But it is his political career that he hopes will have a more lasting impact on Brazilians, he told Seligman in the Billboard interview. "My goal is to help my country and to help my planet establish a more civilized and acceptable process of social change and understanding. I'm looking for a better human society."

Selected discography

Louvaçáo, Philips, 1967.

Gilberto Gil, Philips, 1968.

(With Caetano Veloso) Barra 69 (live), Philips, 1972.

Gilberto Gil Ao Vivo (live), Philips, 1974.

(With Jorge Ben) Gil e Jorge, Verve, 1975.

Refavela, Warner Music Brazil, 1977.

Nightingale, Elektra, 1979.

Brasil, Polydor, 1981.

Luar (A Gente Precisa Ver o Luar), WEA Latina, 1981.

Quilombo (Trilha Sonora), WEA, 1984.

Gilberto Gil em Concerto, Westwind, 1987.

O Eterno Deus Mu Dança, WEA Latina, 1989.

Parabolic, WEA Latina, 1991.

(With Caetano Veloso) Caetano y Gil: Tropicalia 2, Nonesuch, 1994.

Quanta Live, Atlanta/Mesa, 1998.

O Sol de Oslo, Blue Jackel, 1998.

Kaya N'Gan Daya, WEA International, 2002.

Eletrácustico (Unplugged), WEA International, 2004.

As Cancoes de Eu Tu Eles, WEA International, 2005.



Contemporary Musicians, Vol. 26, Gale Group, 1999.


America's Intelligence Wire, October 25, 2004.

Americas, September-October 1993, p. 14; November-December 2003, p. 14.

Billboard, August 23, 2003, p. LM3.

Daily Telegraph (London), July 1, 2003.

Independent Sunday (London), June 10, 2002, p. 7.

Investor's Business Daily, October 7, 2003, p. A4.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 12, 1993.

Latin Trade, December 2003, p. 19.

Nation, May 20, 1991, p. 676.

Newsweek International, February 3, 2003, p. 54.

New York Times, December 31, 2002, p. E1.

Time International, January 27, 2003, p. 67.

—Carol Brennan

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