Gilberto Gil is one of those names that every Brazilian national knows, and most foreigners, with a little interest in world music, will have heard of. He was cultural minister for Brazil between 2003 and 2008 under President Lula (a favoured candidate for this October’s general elections), and helped pioneer the tropicália movement, which promoted the merging of traditional African and Brazilian rhythms with American and British pop and rock culture, during the 1960s under the Brazilian dictatorship. It revolutionised the country artistically and politically, but the military regime considered it to be so subversive that Gil and co-star Caetano Veloso were sent into exile, and came to settle around Portobello Road, in London. Returning fifty years later at the end of a month-long European tour in honour of his 80th birthday, and accompanied by four generations of family, his performance at the Barbican was at once a representation of Brazil’s rich musical legacy, a symbol of resistance in the face of oppression, and above all a celebration of families. In any case, it was something I certainly couldn’t have missed – so much so that I traveled nearly 6000 miles from São Paulo across the Atlantic for it.
I was met with enthusiasm and understanding nods when I excitedly told anyone who would listen that I was going to be returning to England, after six months in Brazil, to see Gilberto Gil. And a little perplexity. “You’re leaving Brazil to see Gil?” – I wondered if it would be like going to Peru to see Paul McCartney. Only three hours off the plane and I was sitting on the edge of the Barbican’s green ponds, reeds dancing in the British summer breeze, a cocktail can in hand, and a cacophony of excited Portuguese all around me. I was still accidentally saying olá and obrigada to people, and to my delight was met with olás and de nadas back. Add to the mix the Barbican’s Brutalist architecture, which in many ways resembles São Paulo’s city centre, where I had been wandering with Gil in my ears the day before, and I felt nestled between the two worlds I love, which until that moment had been kept separate.
Gilberto Gil is a Bowie-like figure in Brazil, and the buzz emanating from the awaiting Brazilian and English crowd was tangible – the eighty year old man was met with an instant standing ovation before even reaching his mic. Opening with upbeat ‘Barato Total’ (also the theme tune to the recent docu-reality series ‘Em Casa com os Gil’) it was as though the room was pulsing with personal and collective memories, as people sang along to the “Lá, lalalalalalalá” at the top of their lungs.
Three songs in, Gil stopped to introduce his sprawling family, culminating with his thirteen year old granddaughter and stage partner, Flor Gil. He spoke about his ancestry, noting that, when we consider the history of Brazil, which has everything to do with lineage, it was fitting to be on stage with so many of his descendants at the end of his career. Appropriately, the next song to be played was ‘Baba Abalapá’, whose soulful lyrics cite Candomblé deities and follow a conversation between a father and son about their African origins. Gil made clear his intention to honour the heritage that has moulded Brazilian identity since the beginning, and to pass it down to present and future generations.
“Familía lindaaaaa!” (“Beautiful family!”) someone shouts from the back of the crowd, as Gil goes on to do a captivating duet rendition of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ with Flor. For such an iconic and originally sultry song to be covered so purely by grandfather and granddaughter reinforced that idea of cultural inheritance and renewal. It felt as if the Gil family were glowing with pride for the Brazil they had been showcasing across Europe over the past month.
As the run-up to the Brazilian general elections is currently coming to a head, and with many desperately hoping October will see a change in government, this concert also felt like a celebration of all that Jair Bolsonaro, the current president of Brazil, is not. At one point the performance was interrupted by the crowd’s spontaneous rendition of the political chant “Olê, olê, olê Lula” – in support of the former president Lula. The family took a moment’s pause to dance along, and allowed the spotlight to be shone on the crowd, as they planted their fingers into L shapes on their foreheads. When the chant died down, Gil leant into his microphone and commented “hopefully we can be free of this nightmare” before offering centre stage to his barefooted granddaughter, who sang an enchanting version of Era Nova (New Era) to the old man. The lyrics “Falam tanto numa nova era” (“There is so much talk of a new era”), written under the dictatorship in 1977, offered a stirring example of history repeating itself, and the hope for relief and renewal that perseverance brings.
Though families and history were a prominent theme throughout the show, the tone at other points was certainly less serious. Classics such as ‘Vamos Fugir’, ‘Palco’, and Preta Gil’s original ‘Vá-se Bencer’, were met with delighted recognition by the singing crowd, while two of Gil’s grown up sons bounced up and down like an excited pendulum at the back of the stage. ‘Variás Queixas’ (an original by Gilsons, a spinoff group) was met with a constellation of mobile phone lights, and a far-more-complex-than-average clap along, which left me fumbling to keep up and once again reflecting on the inherent sense of rhythm Brazilians seem to hold within them. The ever-popular ‘Toda Menina Baina’, whose crescendo to chorus evokes festivities across Brazil – and which never fails to feel like the climax of the party – had 1170 pairs of hands clapping above their heads in perfect synchrony as the show came to an electric close.
The concert was interspersed with the patriarch’s presentations, such as “minha filha mais velha” (“my eldest daughter”), and “Bela Gil, a conzinheira” (“Bela Gil, the chef”). It really felt that the Gil family stood there representing families across Brazil and the world, embodying their country’s complexity, beauty, and diversity. More importantly, they also seemed there to have fun and celebrate the artist that Gilberto Gil is and has always been. After seeing a show of his in Salvador in 2020, at the birthplace of his career and tropicália more broadly, I was worried about how one in England might compare. But who was I to doubt? Gilberto Gil truly knows no bounds. What he does is spellbinding and, as with all good performers, he can hold his audience in a trance, no matter the country or continent. This tour of his at 80 offers the coming together of a dazzling career and life, and is an extraordinary demonstration of vitality, and to a certain extent, immortality. During ‘Aquele abraço’, the penultimate song of a roaring encore, Gil sings with particular emphasis the line “não me esquecer” (“don’t forget me”) into the adoring crowd. It was clear they definitely wouldn’t.
Words: Justine Farrant