Gilberto Gil's sprightly schooling on Brazilian music

Gilberto Gil elicted mass sing-alongs in his Abu Dhabi Festival performance.

Gilberto Gil at his sold out show at Emirates Palace. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival
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The Abu Dhabi Festival experienced its brightest musical moment on Saturday courtesy of Gilberto Gil.

The 70-year-old performed a crowd-pleasing set featuring a selection of hits and covers pulled from a five-decade career.

After nearly two weeks of lush orchestral sounds, it took a while for the audience to take in the skeletal arrangement of Gil’s three-piece, which included his son Bem Gil on the guitar and Gustavo di Dalva on percussions.

But the Brazilian’s sound, featuring a unique and complex blend of samba, African and reggae rhythms, kept the audience’s attention at all times.

The former government minister became a musical ambassador on stage with his nearly two-hour set list detailing the evolution of Brazilian music.

He introduced Chiclete com Banana as a form of "samba rock" before the band launched into the jaunty tune; the upbeat lyrics about the fruit were undercut by off-kilter rhythms and di Dalva's vivid percussion.

Gil's covers of Bob Marley's Three Little Birds and John Lennon's Imagine were warmly received. The latter, normally a minefield of trite covers for artists, was performed acoustically, with Gil's raspy voice and history of political exile giving the performance a powerful resonance.

Ultimately, however, it was the fun experience of witnessing a loose set by a legendary performer that stuck with the crowd. This was encapsulated when Gil rolled into the bluesy Alapala. A musical fable about an African child discovering his family tree, the chant-like chorus elicited the first mass-singalong of the festival. It was a moment of joyous release.

After weeks of watching powerful performances by maestros in awed silence, Gil invited the audience to be involved with the magic on stage. A standing ovation proved everyone was grateful.

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