Musical ambassador Gilberto Gil takes the stage

The ‘voice of Brazil’ returns to Israel after a lifetime of contribution to revolution in politics and music.

Gilberto Gill 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gilberto Gill 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Fill in this algebraic equation: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and The Beatles are to the English-speaking world as ‘X’ is to the Portuguese- Brazilian population.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that the answer is Gilberto Gil, whose influence on his native Brazil has been equivalent to the King, the Jester and the Fab Four rolled into one scintillating package.
During a musical career spanning more than four decades, Gil has almost single-handedly modernized Brazilian popular music as a socially relevant singer, composer and guitar player, while releasing over 30 albums full of rhythmic versatility and rich in ideas both personal and political, that have cemented his legend around the world.
But it wasn’t without a struggle.
In the late 1960s, the young, developing musician butted heads with the authoritarian regime as one of the originators, along with his musical friend Caetano Veloso of Tropicalism, a musical and political movement deeply critical of the government.
First imprisoned and then exiled, Gil explained that the experience proved to be a watershed moment as he ended up in London and immersed himself in the explosive early 1970s musical scene there.
“It had a big impact on me. London was chosen when we had to leave Brazil due to its political dictatorship, and at first we thought of going to Portugal, but they also had a strong dictatorship, same goes to Spain.
France and Italy didn’t have such an attractive musical scene, so London was the place,” he said in an email interview last week.
Already adept with Brazilian forms of music like the baião, samba and bossanova he started listening to and playing with a diverse range of artists in England, especially the visiting reggae practitioners like Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, and Burning Spear, the avant jazz of Miles Davis and Sun Ra, but also rockers and folkies like Yes, Pink Floyd and The Incredible String Band.
The result was a music style that built upon his Brazilian base but incorporated rock, reggae and funk into the mix.
With the military regime overthrown in 1972, Gil returned to Brazil and began his career in earnest, releasing a series of seminal albums like Expresso 2222, Gil Jorge (with Jorge Ben Jor), Os Doces Bárbaros (with the baianos Caetano, Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia) and a conceptual trilogy Refavela (with rhythms from Jamaica, Nigeria, Rio and his home state of Bahia).
A 1978 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland introduced him to the world at large, and 52 albums and seven Grammy awards later, Gil is considered the voice of Brazil, and a musical ambassador, spreading his sounds and message around the world.
That includes Israel, where fans will have the privilege of seeing Gil in concert this year not once, but twice.
In April, on the same night that Justin Bieber was entertaining the pre-pubescent set at Hayarkon Park, Gil was across town at Hechal Hatarbut performing a special ‘String concert’ – acoustic versions of his best-known songs.
The show was so well-received that he’s coming back with his full sixpiece electric band for ‘Gilberto Gil for All,’ a crowd-pleasing career overview slated for July 24 at the Ra’aana Amphitheater.
”Israeli audiences always very cheerful,” said Gil explaining why he’s returning so soon.
“The ‘String Concert’ is a very different show from the ‘For All’ show I am presenting this summer,” he said.
”I’m always reinterpreting my songs in different styles, and in addition, I’m also going to be performing material by other Brazilian composers like Luiz Gonzaga and Jackson do Pandeiro.”
Gil observed that there are similarities between Brazilian music and the music he’s been hearing on his visits here, which he thinks contributes to the enthusiasm of the Israeli audience.
“Some of my songs definitely have Mediterranean roots, so maybe that’s why they have a familiar feel for the audience.” Simultaneous with his musical career, the one time political dissident also entered a career in politics, launched in 1987 when he chosen as the secretary of culture in Salvadore, in the state of Bahia. He eventually formed The Green Party in 1990. When President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office in January 2003, he chose Gil as Brazil’s new Minister of Culture, only the second black person to serve in the country’s cabinet, a position he served in until 2008.
“I am pleased with Brazil’s development over the years and my service was very worthwhile,” said Gil.
“I never thought of being involved in the government was ironic considering my past, but representative of the evolution of the country.”
Would the 69-year-old entertainer consider return to politics when he decides to slow down musically? “I never say never, but it is not in my plans for now.”
With all these visits to Israel, when would there be time?