There is no equivalent to Gilberto Gil in the English speaking world. If you could find someone who mixed the politics of Nelson Mandela, the poetry of Bob Dylan, and was as popular as the Beatles, you still wouldn’t be close. The Beatles only stuck around for 10 years or so; as Gil reminded us at one point, his first gig in London had been with Caetano Veloso on this very same stage 40 years ago.
In Brazil, the generation before Gil caught the world’s attention with bossa nova in the late 1950s. Tom Jobim, Luis Bonfa, Astrid and Joao Gilberto and many others had hits, wrote for other artists and exported a brand of Brazillian music that was rhythmic, jazzy and cool above all things.
Gil’s generation sought to push the boundaries still further, combining elements from American rock and funk and Caribbean reggae with traditional Brazilian rhythms and jazz harmonies to form a style known as Tropicalia. Politically, he was always outspoken, and at great personal risk criticised Brazil’s ruling military junta that came to power in 1964, leading to imprisonment and exile. He inspired an entire generation of political opposition, but things came full circle in 2005 when he was appointed Brazil’s Minister of Culture in President Da Silva’s government.
Tonight, Gil sat on a slightly raised platform in the centre of the orchestral-sized Royal Festival Hall stage. His son Bem Gil sat to his left playing guitar, to his right sat cellist Jaques Morelenbaum. This is Gil’s “String Concert” project, in which Gil himself plays guitar and sings, and unusually for Brazilian music there is no percussion, save that provided by the strumming and slapping of nylon string guitars. The atmosphere was intimate in spite of the large stage, and with each performer tastefully picked out by pencil beams of blue or gold light it was easy to feel drawn in.
Gil has an astounding voice; dark and creamy-textured in the lower register (and he goes very low), breathy and husky or rich and full, but also capable of astonishing falsetto leaps and wails. The sound was glorious – a sumptuous, warm acoustic – clearly the recent makeover of the Royal Festival Hall has worked wonders in sonic terms.
Much of tonight’s repertoire was chosen from among the most popular songs in Gil’s back catalogue of more than 50 albums. Most songs were introduced in English and Portuguese, and Gil’s comments in his native tongue often provoked laughter among the fluent or bilingual. He played for a marathon one hour and 45 minutes before leaving the stage to a standing ovation and then returning for several encores.
Gil sang the entire concert in Portuguese, and it is not easy to convey the genuine warmth of the audience reception, even though probably no more than 30% of them were Portuguese speaking. The interplay of the two guitars mixed with the sonorous cello created an engrossing backdrop for Gil’s vocal expression, and created something which transcended mere language; a truly memorable musical experience.