Brazilian Pop Star Gil Tours U.S.

The Associated Press
Friday, March 16, 2007; 2:17 PM

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Gilberto Gil, one of Brazil's leading luminaries, is a founding father of the Tropicalism movement, whose everything-plus-the-kitchen sink ethos is largely responsible for the harmonic and rhythmic complexity of Brazilian music.

But today, he's carrying just an acoustic guitar along on his first North America tour in eight years. At 64, the musical alchemist, now Brazil's minister of culture, is looking to keep it simple.

"As a minister, I have very little time to dedicate to music, so I have made choices marked by minimalism and taken a certain care in not to bet on adventures," said the rail-thin Gil, who looks something like a rebel investment banker with his graying dreadlocks topping button-down shirts and black slacks.

The mix of traditional bossa nova, rock 'n' roll and reggae Gil created with his occasional collaborator Caetano Veloso was revolutionary for Brazilian music, and Gil has sold millions of albums over his 45-year career. But he's less known in the United States _ in fact, many Americans confuse him with bossa nova legend Joao Gilberto.

"People are always coming up to me abroad and telling me 'I love your records, I'm your fan for many years,' but they're talking about Joao," Gil laughed during an interview with The Associated Press.

Gil, who won a Grammy in 1998 for best world music album, is on a three-week North American tour; his U.S. appearances will include New York City's Carnegie Hall. He is promoting "Gil Luminoso," a career retrospective of 15 songs reworked for solo guitar and voice, originally recorded in 1999 but only just released.

"The album was conceived and produced by a friend of mine who wanted to focus on the most mystical and spiritually oriented songs of my repertoire, so that album goes in that direction," Gil said.

He calls the album "very religious," then concedes that his spirituality has taken an agnostic turn.

"I began as Christian, then I got interested in the Eastern religions, then I moved to the elemental African religions, then I got interested in theosophy and now I feel I just want to be outside all that," he said.

Gil has made a career of exploring the connections between conflicting concepts.

With Veloso, he helped found the Tropicalism movement, which arose in the 1960s in response to deep musical divisions between Brazil's bossa nova traditionalists and its emerging rock groups.

Instead of taking sides, the Tropicalists declared all musical influences valid, merging bossa with rock while throwing in strains of traditional Brazilian rhythms like forro, baiao and maracatu.

Tropicalism's rich tapestry has since attracted such prominent fans as David Byrne, Paul Simon and Beck, but its early political content offended the nation's 1964-1985 military dictatorship. Both Gil and Veloso were jailed in 1968 after angering the right-wing regime with their music.

They went into exile in London in 1969, and stayed there until 1972. Upon their return home, the two were more famous than ever, a kind of Brazilian John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

"Lennon and McCartney were different in that they composed a lot together but Caetano and Gil were definitely the leading duo of the Tropicalism world," said Christopher Dunn, a professor of Brazilian literature and culture at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Gil later traveled to Nigeria and recorded one of his most important albums, "Refavela," which fused Brazilian music with Afro-funk, and became a major figure in Brazil's nascent black consciousness movement.

After the dictatorship ended, Gil's musical rebelliousness mellowed.

"In the beginning, my work as a composer, you can see at least 60 percent to 70 percent of my songs were devoted to revolution, the capacity to transform society, denounce human exploitation and inequities," he said. "Over the years, you can seen more presence of other more existential, trans-religious themes. Let's say I've moved from the political to the philosophical."

But Gil has only gotten deeper into politics _ he was culture secretary and then city councilor in his hometown of Salvador in northeastern Brazil, promoted environmental protection of Brazil's rivers as chairman of the Blue Wave group, and became a prominent member of the nation's Green Party.

The Greens later allied with the Workers' Party of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and Gil agreed to become Brazil's culture minister, as long as he could still perform.

As Brazil's second black Cabinet minister _ after soccer star Pele's run as the sports minister in the 1990s _ Gil oversees the funding of arts endowments, works to preserve historical monuments and generally promotes Brazilian culture. Criticism that his music would get in the way quickly evaporated as Gil boosted the ministry's budget 50 percent.

Gil also has become a leader in the digital rights movement, advocating free open source software and less rigid copyright protections for intellectual property.

"His importance is huge, it's immense," said John Perry Barlow, the former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation who has become a close friend.

Gil, who is married to his fourth wife, Flora, has four surviving children (one died in a 1990 car accident) and acknowledges that his musical creativity has suffered with all the extracurricular activity. His last major album with all new music was "Quanta" in 1998.

So this tour comes as a relief, even a vacation, from his life in Brazil.

"As minister I'm not allowed to exercise my career as a full-time musician, so it's kind of like going on a holiday from the job," Gil says.

© 2007 The Associated Press