A Gilberto Gil outdoor concert on a muggy, midsummer Mediterranean eve has all the pick-me-up and refreshing properties of an overstuffed ice cream cone. And this particular ice cream, silky and smooth, was a delicious mix of Brazilian, Bavarian, bluegrass and Jamaican flavors.
Gil, 71, the dean of Brazilian music who actually served as the country’s minister of culture from 2003 to 2008, sauntered onto the stage at Ashdod’s spacious new amphitheater Tuesday evening and kept the audience’s feet tapping, and hands clapping, throughout a more than two hour performance.
Gil was one of the leading lights of what was known as Brazil’s Tropocalia movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, a movement that fused various musical ingredients from Brazilian and African rhythms with psychedelic rock and roll. And the fusion continues.
Backed by a splendid septet – two drummers, two guitarists, a violinist and an accordionist – the set of songs he played carried influences from a plethora of musical styles: the dance music of Gil’s native northeastern Brazil, the smooth Bossa Nova sound so often identified with Brazilian music, the reggae of Bob Marley, the fiddling of a rural Louisiana barn dance and the accordion sounds that bring to mind yodeling in the Alps.
One of the highlights of the evening was when Gil slowed down the dynamic, rhythmic pace and introduced a song which he said was one of the “great accordion ballads.” Though at that moment that did not seem that enticing a buildup (a great accordion ballad?), the song – by his mentor Luiz Gonzaga – included a duel between accordion and fiddle that simply sizzled.
Gil, a political and environmental activist who was jailed briefly by the military dictatorship in 1969 and later exiled for some three years, developed an immediate rapport with his audience by saying in Hebrew after his first song “todah rabbah” (thank you very much.) He then welcomed the scores of Brazilians in the audience with some words in Portuguese.
That rapport was enhanced when, after telling a little story about how the Portuguese royal family fled from Napoleon to Brazil and introduced European sounds into the country, the band launched into a brief, Scottish-sounding “Jerusalem of Gold.”
Throughout the performance, Gil – dressed like Sunday morning in an easy and relaxed white and blue plaid shirt with light blue jeans – shimmied, jiggled and bopped across the stage like a man half his age. His moves were simple, natural, and always cool. A slide to this side here, a running in place there; a wiggle now, a shake then. Not overdone, part of the music, natural.
Though the concert, for the Portuguese speakers in the crowd, became a half sing-along, for those not learned in the language of Brazil it was a clap-along, or – at times – a wa-wa-wa-along.
Gil, Al Jarreau-like, has an amazing ability to throw his voice and make startling sounds. At one point he dueled vocally with the base guitar, matching its sound with his voice note-by note. At another time he played that same trick with the accordion. And in another instance he made the sounds, and then waited for the audience to respond in kind.
The only non-Portuguese songs in his 20-plus song set were two Bob Marley classics that he covered exceptionally well – “Three Little Birds” and “No Woman, No Cry” – changing the way he extended the words on the latter just a bit, thereby giving it his own distinctive flavor.
The classic reggae song became his entirely, however, when he sang parts of it in Portuguese – until he reached the words, “Everything’s gonna be alright,” which he bellowed in English. Watching this artist, listening to his pleasant sounds, you actually started believing him. And that was the transformative magic of his performance.