Brazil's Gilberto Gil on new online career retrospective and that ‘lost album’

The singer has teamed up with Google Arts and Culture for a digital exhibition of his works spanning six decades

Gilberto Gil performs a career-spanning set at the Jazzablanca Festival in Morocco. Photo: Sife Elamine
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Paul McCartney isn't the only 80-year-old to have headlined a festival this year.

His Brazilian peer Gilberto Gil put on an outstanding performance at Jazzablanca in Morocco.

Taking to the stage at Anfa Park last Saturday, he performed a six-decade-career-spanning set that helped introduce the world to Tropicalia, a 1960s Brazilian musical and cultural movement melding indigenous and African rhythms with British and American psychedelic rock and pop.

Backed by a 10-piece band, Gil was in great form as he conjured up the sunny funk stylings of Baba Alapala and, perhaps as a nod to McCartney's Glastonbury Festival achievement, a Brazilian cover of Get Back by The Beatles.

An interesting aspect of the show was that he didn’t play any tracks from his "new" album.

The lost album

As part of his 80th birthday celebrations, Gil has teamed up with Google Arts and Culture for The Rhythm of Gil, one of the largest online retrospective exhibitions dedicated to a living artist.

Launched last month, the wealth of material is truly expansive.

There are 900 digitised videos and tapes of performances and music-related content, and more than 140 stories and testimonies from Gil and his friends.

All the works together to tell an unlikely story of a marginalised black Brazilian, from growing up in a poor neighbourhood in the coastal city of Bahia to becoming the country's minister of culture for a five-year spell in 2003.

Amid all that preparations for the exhibition, an archivist found a series of tapes assumed lost for 40 years.

They are from a New York recording session in 1982, and feature contributions from soul singer Roberta Flack and revered bassist Marcus Miller.

Speaking to The National from Morocco, Gil says he is content "the lost album," which, according to the exhibition, was meant to be called Jump for Joy, is featured as one of the many treasure of the show.

"I don't know how it was found," he says.

"It was by somebody whose job in Brazil is to find exactly that sort of thing. He was digging through the archives and found this precious gem."

With the exception of the Portuguese track Estrela, rerecorded and released as part of 1997 album Quanta, all nine songs digitised from the New York recordings are in English.

It is also a product of its time, with the tracks exhibiting some of that compressed sonic sheen rendering many albums of that era as tinny-sounding.

That said, it is in the breezy percussion of When the Wind Blows and Jump for Joy, featuring Flack, that listeners can appreciate Gil's goal of blending Brazilian and Caribbean rhythms with the '80s RnB and funk sounds of the day.

Preparing for leadership

Gil doesn't view the album as a lost commercial opportunity, as he has formed his career in opposition to popular trends.

He sold bananas in shopping malls and composed jingles for television advertisements, before his career took off in Brazil in the late 1960s.

Since Gil was part of the Tropicalia movement, the former military government had kept a close eye on the artist owing to the group's pro-democracy stance.

Gil was eventually arrested and imprisoned for three months, which was followed by a further six-month home incarceration.

He describes some of his political missives, such as 1969's Cerebro Eletronico (which translates as Electronic brain and was written while Gil was in prison) and the 1985 anti-apartheid anthem Libertacao da Africa do Sul, as natural responses to the world around him.

However, he admits to having ambitions of becoming a civic leader from a young age.

"I didn't set out to be a political artist. That was not my starting position," he says.

"When you are young it is only natural to be concerned when it comes to the rapport between government and society. As a student I was being prepared to become some kind of chief and I felt to do that I had to be listening and watching the environment around me.

“That was my attitude and as a natural consequence it also came out in some of the music.”

Gil eventually fulfilled his potential and became one of Brazil's first black ministers as part of former president Lula da Silva’s government, a decision that would temporarily place his music career on the back burner.

However, it's his recent tours and working on The Rhythm of Gil exhibition that have allowed him to fully appreciate the unfiltered communication that only music can provide.

"I look at it as similar to the sounds of the birds," he says.

"They are universal, eternal and durable. We all have a natural impulse towards expressing our feelings and thoughts and music can do that.

“It's that rare thing that can be respected and absorbed by everybody."

The Rhythm of Gil can be viewed here.

Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from the Jazzablanca Festival 2022 in Morocco

Updated: July 04, 2022, 8:29 AM