Print this Page

World Music Legends

Gilberto Gil

By Don Heckman
Published October 9, 2005


Looking back on a career that began in the mid-’60s, Gilberto Gil is still very much at the top of his game. Born in 1942 in Salvador, in the northeastern state of Bahia, Gil was impacted early on by Luiz Gonzaga’s influential baião style and a bit later by João Gilberto’s gently revolutionary bossa nova (Gil’s first group was called the Desafinados, after the title of Gilberto’s classic 1958 hit). Although he studied business administration and briefly worked for a São Paulo corporation, Gil was a professional musician by the time he had his first hit via Elis Regina’s recording of his song, “Louvação,” in 1966. A year later, the same tune provided the title for Gil’s debut solo album.

Brazil was then in the midst of a cultural and political ferment similar to but more extreme than the one going on in the United States. Gil, along with Caetano Veloso and others, was one of the principal figures in the unfolding of Tropicália, a creative movement that embraced music, theater, film and poetry. Gil and Veloso added electric rock sounds to traditional folk tunes and blended Beatles songs with bossa nova, applying an experimentation aimed at expressing the many layers of Brazilian history and culture through popular music.

Tropicália peaked between 1967 and 1969, but Brazilian musicians continued to feel its impact in the following decades. Like rock music in the U.S., Tropicália also served as a soundtrack for the clashing ideological forces pulling at the seams of Brazilian society, its controversial aspects enhanced by the politically dangerous decision to refuse to serve as the voice for Brazil’s reactionary right or its radical left.

Both Gil and Veloso were briefly imprisoned for unspecified crimes before leaving Brazil to live in exile in England until 1972. When the government adopted a more tolerant attitude, Gil returned and began a period of expansive creativity. Songs such as “Expresso 2222,” “Ao Vivo,” “Revazenda,” “Refavlea,” “Toda Menina Baiana” and “Vamos Fugir” (recorded with the Wailers) reflected a growing musical maturity and an openness to music from around the world, especially Africa and Jamaica.

Gil’s affection for reggae is apparent on the two Bob Marley tracks he cut for his album Quanta Live, “Is This Love?” and “Stir It Up.” Said Gil about Marley, “It’s like magic; it’s like Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis. His music is seductive and seducing. He was so elegant, so proficient, so stimulating, so new and so fresh. In modern terms, he was one of the greatest icons that we have. Before him, we had João Gilberto and Tom Jobim giving us a different thing, a new kind of music. And after João Gilberto came Bob Marley, and he inaugurated a whole different style of music.”

Since the late ’80s, Gil has also been active politically, especially in his home city of Salvador, where he served as a minister of cultur

Recommended Recordings


Tropicália 2 [with Caetano Veloso] (Nonesuch)

Quanta Live (Atlantic)

Kaya N’Gan Daya (WEA International)