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July 01, 2008

Brazil's Minister of Culture Rocks

Gilberto Gil
Go Brazil with Gilberto Gil
AP Photo

by John Oseid

Last week in Times Square, I had a riveting meeting with an important Brazilian cabinet official. Well, me and hundreds of other people jumping up and down to the guitar licks of a legendary singer/songwriter who just happens to moonlight as the Minister of Culture.

With a couple of capoeira-like swings of the leg, lean and dread-locked Gilberto Gil flew around the Nokia Theater stage like no sixty-six year old you've ever seen. A few samba hip shimmies were enough to bring the Brazilian-packed crowd to a frenzy. From falsetto scatting to a bit of Pink Floyd-era rock and a reggae version of the "Girl from Ipanema," he ranged freely throughout the music map. The bilingual bureaucrat bracketed his songs with messages on the need for global change and new perspectives.

Gil's legacy is framed in a fine BBC documentary on Tropicalia, the late-sixties multifarious cultural movement he led with fellow-Bahian Caetano Veloso and others. Street demonstrators and musicians, Tropicalistas mixed rock, folk and bossa nova. Too avant-garde for the military government of the day, though, they were arrested as subversives and sent into exile.

In his 2003 memoir Tropical Truth, Caetano Veloso tells the story of their Beatles-era London exile in great detail. The movement's signature album Tropicália: ou Panis et Circenses was reissued earlier this year. (My personal favorite is the joyous sitar-inflected song "Batmacumba.")

If he made his fame almost forty years ago, one of Gil's loveliest albums is his 1997 Quanta, the live version of which won him a Grammy. The Brazilian language doesn't get any more lush than in his song "Dança de Shiva." The album's exploration of science and the arts foreshadows his deep involvement with bringing Brazil into the digital age.

Gil is now touring in support of his new album Banda Larga, which means broadband and is, not surprisingly, all about connecting. He has a few U.S. dates remaining this week (San Francisco, Boulder, and Miami), or, if you want to find him touring Europe this summer, go to his website.

Insider's tip: Brazilian Portuguese comes in many varieties and Gil's name isn't pronounced like you might think. Call him roughly Jeeoo-bayr-too Jeeoo, and you'll bring a smile to a Brazilian.

Further reading:
* For a discussion of the Minister of Culture's current role in the democratization of intellectual property, see Wired magazine.
* Check out Conde Nast Traveler's May 2008 story on Northeast Brazil.


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