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Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira was born on 26 June 1942, in the city of Salvador, Bahia, and at only three weeks of age, went to live in the city of Ituaçu, in the interior of the State. He would spend his childhood there with his family. Fascinated by the local accordionists, singers and violinists, at the age of three the boy had his musical vocation awakened and at the age of ten he went to study in Salvador, also learning to play the accordion and concertina.
Rhythms and musical styles had a strong influence on the young Gilberto Gil. Through his head ran the chords of the fife bands from Caruaru, the sounds of João Gilberto’s guitar, Luiz Gonzaga’s accordion, the songs of the Beatles and others. All these elements contributed to the emergence of the Tropicalist Movement, led by Gil and Caetano Velloso in the 1960s, with the songs Domingo no parque [Sunday in the Park] and Alegria, alegria [Joy, Joy]. That same year, the composer decided to take the Business Administration course at the Federal University of Bahia.
In 1963, inspired by João Gilberto – one of the most respected performers and guitarists of Brazilian music in the 1950s – he composed the bossa nova samba Felicidade vem depois [Happiness Comes Later], and also became a guitar player. In June of the following year, with Tom Zé, Gal Costa and Maria Bethânia, he would participate in anthological shows in Salvador, one of them inaugurating the Vila Velha Theatre. This represented a very important milestone for Gil, because in addition to singing and presenting his own compositions, he was the show’s musical director.
When he had moved to the city of São Paulo in 1965, he composed the songs Procession [Procession] and Roda [Circle], and in 1966 the song Louvação [Praise], which gave his first album its name. That same year, several important achievements occurred in the life of the then Salvador customs officer: he performed his first solo show (directed by Caetano), graduated university, married, moved to São Paulo, and was employed by Gessy Lever. At the time, also began to star on television, with the program O fino da bossa [The Best of Bossa Nova], hosted by Elis Regina. So great was his success that he resigned from the company where he worked and the composer from Bahia decided to make a living from music alone.
In 1967, Gil composed the song Bom dia [Good Morning], in partnership with Nana Caymmi, to present at the 3rd Festival of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB). The following year, he recorded the album Tropicália, in partnership with Caetano.
At the end of 1968, during the Medici Government, two weeks after the signing of Institutional Act No. 5, which strengthened the military dictatorship and escalated political persecution, the composer was arrested in São Paulo on charges of disrespecting the flag and the Brazilian national anthem, and was taken to the Marshal Deodoro army barracks. Caetano would also be imprisoned with him.
Released from incarceration in February 1969, Gil was forbidden from performing or making any public statement. In Bahia five months later, he still participated in a farewell show at the Castro Alves Theatre, along with Caetano, which gave rise to the album Barra 69, and he composed the song Aquele abraço [That Embrace]. However, given the numerous prohibitions and persecutions suffered, he decided to leave for England, exiling himself with his wife (Sandra Gadelha) in the Chelsea neighbourhood in London. Coincidentally, Caetano would also live in the same district of London at that time with his wife Dedé Gadelha (Gil’s sister-in-law). Meanwhile, the Brazilian Tropicalist Movement was buried by the Military Dictatorship.
Gilberto Gil lived in exile from 1969 to 1972. In that year, back in the country, he released the album Expresso 2222, and four years later, he recorded Doces bárbaros [Sweet Barbarians] with Caetano, Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa.
The composer entered politics in 1988, having been elected councilman for Salvador with the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB). During his mandate, the Onda Azul [Blue Wave] Foundation was created, which focused on the development of environmental preservation initiatives. At the end of his term, however, he did not want to stand for re-election. That year, Gil won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album, and he shook the dust off his accordion in 2000 to record the soundtrack for the movie Me, You, Them, whose song Esperando na Janela [Waiting in the Window] became a big success.
Over the years, the composer has been actively involved in social and ecological projects, becoming the spokesman for the conscience movement of the black race that was organised in the country. For his tireless work, the French Government honoured him with the rank of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. He was the first Bahia artist awarded the title UNESCO Artist for Peace, a recognition of this entity to the personalities who stand out most in promoting culture in favour of peace. In addition, in December 2002, the newly elected president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva would appoint him as Brazil’s Minister of Culture.
Some of the most well-known compositions of Gilberto Gil are: Procissão; Expresso 2222; Estrela [Star]; Louvação; Se eu quiser falar com Deus [If I Want to Talk to God]; Eu vim da Bahia [I Come from Bahia]; Sítio do Pica-pau-amarelo [Yellow Woodpecker’s Farm]; Back in Bahia; Oriente [Orient]; Pai e mãe [Father and Mother]; Tradição [Tradition]; Soy loco por ti, América [I’m Crazy about You, America]; O sonho acabou [The Dream Is Over]; Meu amigo, meu herói [My Friend, My Hero]; Rebento; Sarará miolo; Refavela; Logun Edé; Realce [Highlight]; Filhos de Gandhi [Sons of Gandhi]; Domingo no parque [Sunday in the Park]; Feiticeira [Sorceress]; Aquele abraço [That Embrace]; Iansã; Geléia geral; Pra ver o sol nascer [To See the Sun Rise]; Eu preciso aprender a ser só [I Need to Learn to Be Alone]; Ela [Her]; Super Homem [Superman]; Refazenda; Drão; Lugar comum [Common Place]; Mar de Copacabana [Copacabana Sea]; A linha e o linho [The thread and the linen]; Mancada; Lunik 9; As pegadas do amor [The Tricks of Love]; Pessoa nefasta [Nefarious person]; Com que roupa [With What Clothes]; Cálice [Chalice]; Frevo rasgado; Sandra; Chicletes com banana [Banana Gum]; Dinamarca [Denmark]; Viramundo; Lamento sertanejo [Country Lament] and Trovoada [Thunderstorm].
For decades of researching, composing and singing his songs in a unique and Brazilian way, valuing black culture, mysticism and nature, Gilberto Gil is considered to be one of the greatest exponents of MPB.
Below is a transcript of the song Procissão, one of his first hits:
Olha, lá vai passando a procissão,
Se arrastando que nem cobra pelo chão,
As pessoas que nela vão passando,
Acreditam nas coisas lá do céu,
As mulheres cantando tiram versos,
Os homens escutando tiram o chapéu,
Eles vivem penando aqui na Terra,
Esperando o que Jesus prometeu.
E Jesus prometeu coisa melhor
Pra quem vive nesse mundo sem amor,
Só depois de entregar o corpo ao chão,
Só depois de morrer neste sertão,
Eu também tô do lado de Jesus,
Só que acho que ele se esqueceu,
De dizer que na Terra a gente tem,
De arranjar um jeitinho pra viver.
Muita gente se arvora a ser Deus,
E promete tanta coisa pro sertão,
Que vai dar um vestido pra Maria,
E promete um roçado pro João;
Entra ano, sai ano, e nada vem,
Meu sertão continua ao Deus-dará,
Mas se existe Jesus no firmamento,
Cá na Terra isso tem que se acabar.
Look, there goes the procession,
Dragging along like a snake on the ground,
The people in it,
Believe in the things of heaven,
The singing women draw verses,
The men listening take off their hats,
They live here on earth,
Waiting for what Jesus promised.
And Jesus promised better
For those who live in this world without love,
Only after surrendering their body to the ground,
Only after dying in this hinterland,
I too am on Jesus’ side,
Only I think he forgot,
To say that on Earth we have,
To find a way to live.
A lot of people crave to be God,
And promise so much to the hinterland,
That they’ll give Maria a dress,
And promise a ranch to John;
Year in, year out, and nothing comes,
My hinterland continues abandoned,
But if there is Jesus in the firmament,
Here on Earth this has to end.
Translated by Peter Leamy, November 2016.
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