Gilberto Gil: The man who put the samba into reggae

Bob Marley sung in Portuguese? This former exile is used to breaking rules, says Garth Cartwright

Sunday 30 June 2002 00:00
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Acerbic, innovative and unwilling to play by the rules, Gilberto Gil is often described as Brazil's Bob Dylan. If only Dylan was half as creative these days as Gil. After almost 40 years as a professional musician, Gil, 60, is collecting Latin Grammies (Best Brazilian Roots Album and Best Brazilian Song at last year's awards) and outperforming his contemporaries. The awards relate to the soundtrack Gil provided for the Brazilian film Eu Tu Eles (Me You Them), released in the UK last year. Now he's back with an album, Kaya N'Gan Daya, a tribute to Bob Marley, and he's performing in London this week.

"Recording the songs of Bob Marley was a project I'd been dreaming of for years," says Gil. "I'd first visited Jamaica in 1984 and recorded some songs with Bob's band The Wailers, so I'd always had this dream of cutting an album of Marley songs."

Gil's tribute finds him singing several of Marley's songs in Portuguese and using Brazilian instruments.

"I hope I enhanced the material. In Brazil, Bob Marley and the whole reggae thing has had a huge influence. Musicians use Jamaican sounds. In places like Bahia [Gil's impoverished home state] where there's a large black community, reggae has become a cultural reference point. There's even samba reggae!"

Gil never met Marley – "I went backstage after a concert of his in LA but he'd already left and the one time he visited Brazil I wasn't around" – but he notes that Brazilian music, like Jamaican, is shaped by the African diaspora: wherever slaves were taken music sprang up. For a long time Brazil discriminated against its black citizens, something Gil was unafraid to sing about. Now, however, he believes Brazil is becoming more equal.

"Brazil's improving. We still have some historical problems of inclusion – large parts of our populace need to be given access to health, education – but we have a very strong cultural identity, the nation is modernising, and with 200 million people we're the world's 10th-largest economy." Still, extremes in wealth and poverty abound. Perhaps that's why Bob Marley's songs hold such appeal.

In 1969 Gil was a world away from Bahia – exiled by the ruling military junta, he and fellow musician Caetano Veloso fled to London.

"I met great people and managed to overcome the bad feelings of exile. I had three good years. We arrived the week The Beatles released Abbey Road, saw the Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse, jammed with Weather Report, heard reggae. A great experience. The fact you could walk up to a policeman and ask directions – in Brazil that just doesn't happen. London remains my second home."

Gil and Veloso fell foul of the junta for their leadership of tropicalismo – a Brazilian flower-powered protest pop movement. "We saw tropicalismo as a universal sound, one that brought together music from all around the world, broke down conventions. What offended the generals was our refusal to make music that could be used to support their nationalistic policies."

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Gil rewrote the rules of how Brazilian music could sound and the issues it could address. Of late, Gil's star has shone very brightly – contemporary US and UK performers such as Beck and Stereolab have cited tropicalismo as a major influence. Appropriate, I suggest to Gil, that his reputation should be at its highest as he nears 60.

"I've never chased international success, but it's nice to know people are making sense of my old records." Surely the new CDs too? "Sure," says Gil. "Ears open everyone."

'Kaya N'Gan Daya' (Warner Jazz) is released on Monday; Gilberto Gil plays the Barbican, London EC2 (020-7638 8891) on Friday

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