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
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?