Gilberto Gil – Divine and Marvellous

REPORTER: Bentley Dean

It’s little wonder that Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s Minister of Culture, has been dubbed its minister of cool.

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For more than 40 years Gil has been one of Brazil’s most famous musicians. Tonight he’s going to perform in the carnival parade in his home town of Salvador.

GILBERTO GIL, BRAZILIAN MINISTER OF CULTURE (Translation): You all look so much alike. It’s hard to tell who’s who. You’ve all got little faces like this, little pointy noses, all the same.

DANCING GIRL (Translation): For us it’s very exciting to meet someone who’s so important in Brazil’s musical history. He’s been a legend for a long time. He’s changed so many things for the better.

Because Gilberto Gil fused samba, salsa and bossa nova with rock and folk, he’s revered today as one of the pioneers of Brazilian music.

INTRODUCER (Translation): Guys, here he is… our Minister! Come on, people! This is our show.

But to millions of Brazilians, Gil is much more than a just fabulous musician. A lifelong social activist, he’s always stood up to those in power and through years of dictatorship, his courageous stand has earned him enormous respect and affection.

GILBERTO GIL: I’m a black man, a well succeeded black man in a country where black people fight hard to succeed. This is one point. I’m an artist, you know, traditionally considered non-usable, you know, official and serious purposes, you know.

Gil might be an unconventional choice for Minister but he was handpicked by Brazil’s new President. Late last year, Brazilians voted in their first left-wing government for more than four decades. President Lula da Silva is a former trade unionist and represents for millions the possibility of a more egalitarian Brazil.

PRESIDENT LULA DA SILVA: The Minister for Culture, Mr Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira.

Lula is a big fan of Gil’s and began his first day in office with a serenade from his new minister. Gil is only the second black minister in Brazil’s history the first was footballer Pele. His appointment was a sign of Lula’s determination to shake up Brazil’s establishment.

GILBERTO GIL (Translation): Long live this land of ours, and samba and music! Long live the popular art of this country!

Gil wasn’t a complete political novice. He was secretary for culture in Salvador in 1987 and spent four years on the city council after that. He says Lula chose him precisely because of his activism.

GILBERTO GIL: We had a good conversation and he told me “I think that you could be a good minister for our purposes. We have good expectation about you being minister. I think that if you go there and you do as positively and as committed as you do in your musical job, we’re going to be pleased.”

This morning Gil is inspecting renovations at the Museum of History in Rio. Gil is responsible for all aspects of culture in Brazil but his real goal is to expand the idea of what culture is and to make it more accessible to the millions who would never visit a museum.

GILBERTO GIL: There is one priority – to convince government and society that culture is more and more a strategic tool for progress, for development, for power.

As a black man in a country with endemic racism, Gil is uniquely placed to redefine Brazil’s cultural heritage. This afternoon he’s recording with Mario Luis from Cape Verde, the former Portuguese colony from which African slaves were collected and sent to Brazil.

MARIO LUIS (Translation): Lula and Gil in Brazil had quite an effect in Cabo Verde. People started talking about it a lot. They’re saying that utopia can be achieved. We’re such a small, poor country. Our heroes were always up there in the sky, untouchable, unreachable. That’s how it used to be. Our relationship with the Portuguese was very complex.

GILBERTO GIL (Translation): Yeah, there’s nothing easier than thinking about Brazil. It’s nicer, more real. That’s why everyone wants to come over.

Managing a ministry and a musical career, the expectations of Gil are enormous. It’s a huge task for the 61-year-old.

GILBERTO GIL (Translation): All the time. Travel, meetings, interviews…

MAN (Translation): if you do something wrong, the opposition jumps on you. They’re always waiting, ready to pounce.

WOMAN (Translation): A show for you now must be like an orgasm.

GILBERTO GIL (Translation): Yes, it feels good.

WOMAN (Translation): Even better now… yes, because it’s rare.

Gil was born into a middle-class family near the city of Salvador in north-eastern Brazil in 1942. Taking up the accordion as a child, he developed an extraordinary talent that soon got him noticed. After hearing legendary singer and guitarist Joao Gilberto on the radio, he abandoned his university studies and bought a guitar. Gil’s initial success on radio and television coincided with a military coup in 1964. The new dictatorship dismantled Brazil’s democratic institutions and tightly controlled the press. Meanwhile, Gil was starting to turn music on its head. In 1968, Gil, along with Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania and Gal Costa, shocked Brazil by creating a radial new musical movement – Tropicalia. The Tropicalistas were the first to open up traditional Brazilian folk music to the influences of pop and rock, philosophy and politics.

GILBERTO GIL: We were directly or indirectly supporting rebellion of the youth against the traditional family values, against the traditional political values and those – that sort of thing. I mean, we represented the youth movement in Brazil at that time and I was already dangerous for a dictatorial regime.

The Tropicalistas laced their sweet pop tunes with oblique but potent lyrics. Under an increasingly repressive dictatorship, it was the only way left to communicate.

‘DIVINE, MARVELLOUS’ WRITTEN BY GILBERTO GIL AND CAETANO VELOSO (Translation): Watch out, everything’s dangerous everything’s divine, marvellous Watch out for the refrain You have to be strong and watch out There’s no time to be afraid to die

GILBERTO GIL: And we were sort of asking attention, you know, asking people, especially the young, to pay attention to violence, to state violence, and to suppression of freedom, suppression of liberty of speech.

‘DIVINE, MARVELLOUS’(Translation): Watch out for the windows up above Watch out when you cross the street, there’s mud Watch out for the blood on the ground.

In December 1968, Gil and Veloso were arrested by the military regime. After two months without charge and four months under house arrest, forbidden to publicly perform, they were told to leave Brazil. They were lucky. Many of their colleagues were tortured or disappeared forever. Remarkably a sympathetic army officer allowed Gil and Veloso to perform a concert to raise money for their families. This final gig was the first performance of what would become one of Gil’s most beloved sambas ‘Aquele Abraco’.

‘AQUELE ABRACO’ (Translation): Hello, girl from the favela. A special hug to you. Everybody from Portela. A special hug to you. The whole month of February Full of dance steps Hello, Ipanema band. A special hug to you.

GILBERTO GIL: I sung that song and the response was incredible. It was a farewell song. I was saying goodbye, I’m leaving, I don’t know for how long. At that time, I mean, we had to consider even the possibility of going away forever.

‘AQUELE ABRACO’ (Translation): A special hug And you, the one who’s forgotten me A special hug to you Hello Rio de Janeiro A special hug to you And you, Brazilian people A special hug to you…

Such were the restrictions on the press, many Brazilians were never quite sure of where two of their most popular performers had suddenly disappeared to. Gil and Veloso spent two years exiled in London, jamming with Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, and Jimi Hendrix, as well as experimenting with drugs.

GILBERTO GIL: Those were the times of LSD and state of mind changes, you know. And that was cool for a while, you know, it was OK, it was zeitgeist of the time, you know. And then the dream was over, as Lennon put it very well.

REPORTER: How is it that you came back from exile? Why did they allow you to come back?

GILBERTO GIL: Why they did?

REPORTER: Yep.

GILBERTO GIL: They said OK, it’s OK for you to be back and it’s quite enough and we have controlled everything. Even they start feeling it was time to initiate a little opening process, you know.

After returning to Brazil, Gil became a prominent spokesperson for the country’s black consciousness movement. He also recorded more than 50 albums and constantly toured the world, building up an impressive fan club along the way.

GILBERTO GIL: Secretary-General Kofi Annan, where are you? Come on stage, please.

Late last year, Gil was invited to perform a special concert at the United Nations to honour the 24 victims of the Baghdad attack on the UN, including fellow Brazilian Sergio De Mello. The memorial concert summed up Gil – using music to celebrate rather than mourn, with a little bit of mischief thrown in for good measure.

GILBERTO GIL: Secretary-General Kofi Annan on congas.

Now Gil is on his way to officially open carnival in Salvador, part of the world’s biggest party.

GILBERTO GIL: And the police, where is the police? He’s asking the police to come and join the party. Very interesting. To serve and to protect. To serve and to protect. And to enjoy and party also.

This is the one time of year that all Brazilians come together. Perhaps the only other symbol of such unity is Gil himself.

WOMAN (Translation): He’s a wonderful person. He’s now a minister and I’m his devoted fan. He’s even greater now. He’s a wonderful person, very noble. He’s rich because of his purity. That’s why I love him. I truly love him. That’s why when I see him, I hug him.

Gil has come full circle, once agitating from the fringe, he’s now helping to run the establishment, but he doesn’t see any contradiction.

GILBERTO GIL: I’ve been always part of the establishment. There’s nothing but the establishment. It’s a dialogue it’s constant dialogue between things that are supposedly out of the system and the system itself.

Some Brazilians are worried about what happens when activists assume power. Although the new left-wing government has only been in office for six months, there are already concerns that the President’s Workers Party is forgetting its roots. But it would appear that Gil’s popularity is undented.