The typical politician's agenda: Meet with constituents? Check. Lobby your government for more funding? Check. Attend world conferences? Check. Play Carnegie Hall? Okay, so that last item isn't one found on most government officials' schedules — but, then again, Gilberto Gil is hardly just another politician.
At age 64, Gil has two professional identities. Fans both in his native Brazil and throughout the world know him as a musical icon, a reputation won over some four decades. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist started out as one of Brazil's greatest voices of aesthetic and political rebellion during the turbulent 1960s. For the last four years, however, he has also served as Brazil's Minister of Culture, and his work there is on track to becoming as groundbreaking and influential as his music has been.
In 2003, the then newly elected President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known around the globe as Lula) appointed Gil to his current post. One would be hard pressed to think of another figure who has so successfully divided his or her time between governmental offices and the world's greatest concert stages.
Gil's official tasks involve traditional governmental duties like funding local arts projects throughout his massive country and working to increase arts spending in Brazil's federal budget. But his core vision of cultural democratization has also made him an outspoken and articulate champion of a new revolution in copyright laws, which would ultimately allow artists and idea-makers to borrow more freely — and still legally — from one another's work; currently, Gil travels the world speaking out about the need for this open-sourcing of artistic ideas. "Once I was the stone-thrower," Gil is famously quoted as saying. "Now, I am the glass."
While Gil's journey from antiestablishment musician to cabinet-level government official is unusual, there is a common thread between these roles: the radical ideas behind Tropicália, a musical style that Gil himself co-created. In certain respects, Tropicália is itself a form of open-source culture. In the 1960s, Gil, along with a circle of friends and collaborators — that most prominently include his close friend and longtime colleague, fellow musician and composer Caetano Veloso — devoured not just Brazilian styles like samba, the traditional music of Bahia (their native state), and bossa nova, but also blues and rock. Gil, Veloso, and their crowd did not want simply to replicate any one of these styles. What they created from that stew instead was a singularly Brazilian and uniquely progressive sound.
Tropicália tore open outdated notions of musical style and enraged many listeners on both the right and the left of the Brazilian political spectrum. On the one hand, leftists accused the tropicalistas of succumbing to the lures of North American imperialistic pop culture; meanwhile, Brazil's hard-line military regime was enraged by the innumerable sly and oblique criticisms they heard in the songs' lyrics. Indeed, Gil and Veloso were arrested in December 1968 and sent to prison. From there, they went into a two-year exile in London. (This period is movingly recounted by Veloso in his autobiography, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, which is essential reading for anyone interested in the birth of Tropicália.)
In turn, it's hard to imagine Tropicália being created and nurtured by any other Brazilian artists but Gil and his friends from Bahia. Bahia's cultural cross-currents are an integral part of Tropicália. It is culturally Brazil's most "African" state: it was for many years a locus of the Brazilian slave trade. The Afro-Brazilian religious tradition called candomblé flourished in the region, as did numerous percussive musical styles whose complex rhythms echoed those of western Africa. Bahia has also nurtured many of Brazil's greatest musicians, including not just Gil and Veloso, but composers Dorival Caymmi, João Gilberto, and Tom Zé, as well as singers Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia (Veloso's sister).
From Tropicália to beyond, over the course of 50-plus albums, Gil has created a legacy that marks him as one of the most popular and influential artists in Brazilian pop. That treasure trove includes early classics like his brightly layered "Domingo no parque" (Sunday in the Park) — one of Tropicália's hallmark songs — to seminal releases like 1975's Gil & Jorge, a collaboration with fellow star Jorge Ben; 1981's Luar (A Gente Precisa Ver o Luar); and 1985's reggae-infused Raça Humana, recorded with Bob Marley's band, the Wailers. Over the years, Gil's work has traced the relationships between music of his native Bahia and that of western Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the African diaspora.
His most recent album, Gil Luminoso (which is being released in the United States in March to coincide with this tour), features Gil's honeyed voice and guitar alone, stripped bare of any further framing, in some of his most famous and engaging songs. And while listeners around the world are rallying around Gil's cry for culture to be accessible to all, it's that gentle voice, those reflective lyrics, and that sparkling guitar that the Carnegie Hall audience will come to hear on March 20.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a New York-based music critic who writes for Billboard, Gramophone, and Songlines magazines, as well as others.