Brazilian rhapsody

Tropicalist singer Gal Costa is guaranteed to take Brazilian ex- pats home faster than a flight to Rio. James Woodall caught up with her in Portugal

The Portuguese are a reserved lot. For the race responsible for the world's most colourful country, Brazil, that might seem implausible; but put Brazil's biggest female vocalist, Gal Costa, in front of a Portuguese audience as happened near the old university city of Coimbra recently and they listen, well, devotedly but politely.

When Gal Costa sings at the Royal Festival Hall next Tuesday, things will be different. Following an established pattern of summer Brazil bonanzas in London since Caetano Veloso's visit in 1993, Gal (as she is known in her own country) will be received with rapture by Brazilian ex-pats who come out in force for this sort of event, sing along, and crowd in an adoring mass at the foot of the stage. Stars like Gal take Brazilians home faster than a Varig flight to Rio.

Gal sang for the first time in London last year with Caetano Veloso, and two other contemporaries from Salvador da Bahia (in north-east Brazil), Gilberto Gil and Maria Bethania. It was their first reunion in 20 years, and poignant for Gal because of the presence of Caetano and Gil. The two men had spent three years in London, in exile from Brazil's military regime, between 1969 and 1972, high on tropicalism - a wacky hybrid of Brazilian styles and western rock.

"While they were in exile," she says, unexpectedly soft-toned for a woman with such a big voice, "I sang their songs a lot in Brazil. I also visited them three or four times. I was determined to keep alive what they stood for. I was a tropicalista in spirit."

Gal had not been back to London since that period. Today, touching 50, she is still a passionate exponent of Caetano's music; he in turn has composed many songs for her.

"Caetano is the one Brazilian composer who knows how I sing - we have a very strong musical identification."

She is equally close to Chico Buarque, the other major name in Brazilian singer / songwriting of the last 30 years. The concert she's currently touring Europe with features Caetano's and Buarque's songs exclusively. It's an intoxicating mix: the sexy stage presence of Brazil's premier female voice belting out numbers by arguably the two most melodically inventive pop-songwriters since Lennon and McCartney.

Gal has no obvious musical pedigree, other than coming from Salvador da Bahia. Her parents were already separated when she was born - her father, a hit-and-miss businessman, remarried and had seven more children. He died when Gal was 14 and already determined to become a singer. Her mother brought her up alone.

In the early 1960s, Gal went to Rio, home of the bossa nova. But Gal found it hard to make headway at first: "When you start as a singer in Brazil, you realise there are far more male singers than female," she says. Still, she had some impressive role models - Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald - and made her professional debut aged 19.

By the end of the 1960s, she was on the map. Her ticket to fame was a startling voice, smouldering good looks and, above all, the songs of Caetano - his name in Brazil rang with the status of legend. Gal became a full- blown tropicalista.

Never politically engaged, unlike Buarque and others, Gal was not averse to causing a stir or two: a 1974 album cover depicting her topless had to be sold wrapped in black plastic. "My only brush with the authorities," she recalls, smiling.

Ten years later, with 15 albums to her credit, Gal was nominated by Time magazine as one of the grand "divas' of pop, alongside Whitney Houston and Kate Bush. This followed her album Profana. Does she enjoy being being ranked alongside international stars? "I've always striven just to be natural and innovative," she says.

What about her being female in so male-dominated a business? "I'm not a feminist, but I think a woman can bring more expression into the world. It's difficult, because we do live in a macho world - but being a woman is just fine."

n 7.30pm Tues, RFH (0171-928 8800)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before