Not many musicians can boast about having founded a genre of music, as well as being imprisoned for political activism before going on to serve in their country’s government. Yet, Brazil’s Gilberto Gil is one such icon. Having played an integral part in the 1960s Tropicália movement along with his collaborator Caetano Veloso, both artists were subsequently imprisoned in 1969 by the Brazilian military regime for their politically conscious songs. After nine months of arrest, Gil was exiled to London, where he lived for three years before returning to his home in Bahia and continuing to build his extensive discography of over 30 LPs. To mark his status as a leading figure of modern Brazilian music, in 2003 he was chosen as Brazil’s Minister of Culture, a role which he served until 2008.
Now at the age of 75 he is just as creatively productive and politically active as ever, performing a new body of work with the Bahian group Cortejo Afro at London’s Barbican.
Premiered at this year’s carnival, the show comprised re-workings of some of Gil’s best-known tracks, pushing the afro-centric influences of his Bahian heritage to the fore of his original blues-rock-samba compositions. Working through rhythmic renditions of Gil’s ‘80s samba hit 'Andar Com Fé', the folk whispers of 'Eu Vim Da Bahia', and the singalong crowd-pleasers 'Expresso 2222' and 'Domingo No Parque', the Cortejo Afro accompaniment proved the enduring relevance of Gil’s compositions and their versatility for adaptation.
Yet, the highlight of the performance was not just Gil’s own work, but the inclusion of the Nucleo de Opera da Bahia and Orquestra Nova Lisboa. This classical dimension underscored the genre-less scope of the show, mixing Gil’s Bahia with numbers taken from ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha opera. A new work was also performed, which centred around a retelling of the romance between Krishna and Radha in the Hindu religious text the Bhagavad Gita, entitled Negro Amor.
The interplay between Gil’s flawless falsetto and the rich vibrato of the operatic tenor and soprano singers of the Nucleo de Opera da Bahia extended his musicality far beyond the generalised perceptions of Brazilian music. With the soft woodwind and strings backing of the Orquestra Nova Lisboa, the performance moved seamlessly through chamber music, Jazz, opera, and samba.
Revisiting his 1970s place of exile, Gil’s performance was a homecoming, a welcome return to an artist who is far from retirement.
[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 02/11/17]