Gil means enjoyment in any language

Brazilian singer-guitarist Gilberto Gil brings his energy and enthusiasm to Ashdod.

Gilberto Gil (photo credit: Marcus Hermes)
Gilberto Gil
(photo credit: Marcus Hermes)
Gilberto Gil appears to have done it all, just about. The 71-year-old Brazilian singer, guitarist and songwriter has been delighting audiences across the globe for more than half a century and shows no signs of slowing down. His irrepressible bonhomie, boundless energy and alluring musicianship will be on display on Tuesday at his concert in Ashdod.
Born in Salvador in the Bahia region of northeast Brazil, it was apparent that Gil was going to make music his life, practically from the word go.
“I think I was three years old when I told my mother that I wanted to be a musician,” Gil recalls.
Actually, the toddler had a Plan B career lined up too, informing his mother that running for president was also on the cards. Gil admits that the latter option was a bit out of the ordinary.
“Being a musician in Brazil was probably the dream of many kids, but not the president of Brazil,” he laughs.
Gil grew up listening to the forró music of Bahia and developed an interest in the street performers of Salvador. He soon started playing the drums and trumpet. He received a parental push when his mother bought him an accordion and, when he was 10, she sent him to a music school. He soon fell under the spell of iconic accordionist singer Luiz Gonzaga, and Gil’s early work was heavily influenced by his style.
While Gil today is known primarily for his singing and guitar playing, he is equally adept at the accordion, drums and trumpet. The artist says being able to play several instruments can have a positive knock-on effect.
“The instruments I play are group of sounds that enrich one another,” he says, adding that feeding off multiple stylistic and textural sources and energies is engrained into his social and cultural background.
“The mixture of races and cultures is very visible in Bahia, and the consequences of that in music are very rich in rhythms, sounds, dances… everything.”
But Gil also searched for inspiration beyond the boundaries of Bahia and even outside Brazil. While Gonzaga, singer and guitarist Joao Gilberto and singer, songwriter, actor and painter Dorival Caymmi were all early influences, Gil also lapped up the work of Jamaican reggae megastar Bob Marley, as well as The Beatles, Elvis Presley and many Western rock bands. The music of iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis also informs what Gil does today.
By the time he was 20, Gil began to imbibe the heady rhythms of bossa nova, and that move was enhanced when Gil met guitarist and singer Caetano Veloso at the Federal University of Bahia in 1963. The two immediately found a common musical mindset and began performing together, releasing a single and an EP .
Gil’s public profile rose a few more notches when he and Veloso teamed up with the latter’s sister, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa and Tom Zé and played a concert at the Vila Velha Theatre in Salvador in 1964. The repertoire was based on bossa nova and traditional Brazilian songs.
But Gil’s career really took off when, in 1968, the same lineup recorded the landmark Tropicália: ou Panis et Circenses album. The record was influenced by The Beatles’ seminal 1967 release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the Gil, Veloso et al album sparked the birth of the tropicalia music movement that took the world by storm.
Gil says he was surprised by the success of the new sounds.
“I never expected tropicalia to go beyond the Brazilian borders, although it was very important for us,” says Gil. “I am glad people outside Brazil became interested in it.”
While the young Gil may have expressed an interest in running for president, politics soon caught up with him, and in the worst possible way. The dictatorship-based regime of the late 1960s took exception to Gil and Veloso’s singular musical take on the national anthem, which they performed on a TV program in December 1968. The two were arrested, without formal charges being laid against them, spent several months in prison and were subsequently exiled from Brazil.
While being banished from your homeland can’t be a pleasant experience, Gil made the most of the imposition in musical terms. He and Veloso relocated to London, where Gil took part in organizing the 1971 Glastonbury festival and became involved in the British rock and alternative music scene, performing with the likes of Yes, Pink Floyd and The Incredible String Band.
“It was tough and intriguing,” says Gil about having to deal with the strictures of the Brazilian regime of the time, “but I finally took advantage of exile to got in touch with new music.”
He returned to Brazil in 1972 and resumed his musical career where he left off, adding some politicaloriented activities, particularly environmental advocacy. His 1972 release Expresso 2222 sold well, and he began furthering his international profile and enjoyed a highly successful tour of the United States.
There has been no stopping Gil on the musical front ever since. He has released more than 50 albums, garnering three Grammys in the process. He also ventured into the political arena for a while and, after becoming involved in various environmental ventures, he served as minister of culture from 2003 to 2008 under president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He was the second black Brazilian to serve in the national cabinet.
While not a political animal by nature, Gil says there is an area that needs to be addressed.
“There is a political element in life in general, and music is part of life,” he observes, adding that he does not regret his time in office, although he was happy to get back to being a full-time musician.
“I enjoyed the novelty of being a public servant and the political experience, although I don’t intend to go back to it. I enjoy making music more.”
He says he also enjoys coming to this part of the world.
“I’ve been to Israel many times. I love the country, and they seem to like my music because they keep inviting me!”
For Gil, who will be backed by a six-piece band in Ashdod, it is all about the joy of living.
“This tour is called ‘Fé Na Festa,’ which could be translated as ‘faith in the feast, the party.’ So the message is: Enjoy yourselves and enjoy life,” he says.
Gilberto Gil will perform on Tuesday at 9 p.m. at the Ashdod Amphitheater.