From music to politics, Gilberto Gil mixes it upby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Grammy Award-winner Gilberto Gil has been at the center of Brazilian music since the late 1960s. He blends traditional Brazilian sounds with rock and politics.
Gil's career has been a remarkable rollercoaster. Once exiled by the Brazilian government, he later became his country's minister of culture, championing digital media for people living in poverty. Gil performs at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Gil's music is infectious. He draws from the sambas and bossa novas of his homeland, mixing them with the music of the world -- rock, reggae, juju, anything that makes for a good sound. It's joyful and complex, and there's something else -- a little charisma, according to Gil himself.
Gil is in Austin, Texas, on a rest day on his tour around the U.S. As he chats, it's easy to forget that this man with the gentle voice was a national symbol in 1960s Brazil.
It was at that time that Gil and his friend, Caetano Veloso, founded the Tropicalismo movement. Brazil was ruled by a military government which seized power in a coup in 1964.
Tropicalismo songs, which often protested the situation, became so popular Gil and Veloso were seen as a threat. The government arrested and imprisoned them for months. Then they were told to leave the country. Gil says exile was painful.
"Especially because I was afraid of not having the possibility to be back in Brazil," he said.
It was 1969, he and Veloso were in London, and they took advantage of their situation.
"That was the time of the Beatles and the Stones, and what they used to call 'Swinging London,'" he recalled.
There was also Bob Marley and Miles Davis. Gil soaked it all up like a sponge, and incorporated it into his music. When he was able to return to Brazil, Gilberto Gil was even more popular.
In the years since he has travelled the world, gathering more influences. He's released dozens of albums, and won two Grammies for world music.
He also got involved in politics, first on a local level in Bahia where he grew up. Then in 2003, President Lula da Silva appointed him Brazil's minister of culture.
Gil used the job as a platform to campaign for digital inclusion. He argues that at the very least, impoverished communities should not be left behind by the digital revolution. His ministry provided computers and other digital equipment to "cultural hotspots" around Brazil.
"More than 3,000 now, all over the country," he said. "Giving simple communities the opportunity to film themselves, to record themselves, to connect themselves through the Internet to different communities -- within Brazil and without -- internationally."
Gil says it's making a difference. He served as minister of culture for five years, stepping down in 2008 to return to performing.
Now, Gil is getting back to basics. In his show Saturday at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, he'll play guitar with his son -- and a cello player will complete the trio.
"What I call chamber music dimension," he said. "It's a kind of chamber/pop music performance."
Gilberto Gil began performing as a boy. He's now in his late 60s. When asked what is different for him now, after a half century performing before audiences, he says he feels more comfortable.
"The confidence that I have today is larger," he said. "The other thing that I can stress is that the pleasure of performing, it's something that has increased, it has augmented."