There’s a bright and irrepressible sparkle in the eye of Gilberto Gil. He may be approaching his seventieth birthday, it’s next June, but whether singing or speaking – and he did both with style at the New York Public Library last night – there is an infectious enthusiasm and warmth about him.
Last night he was being particularly tender with the songs of Joao Gilberto and Luíz Gonzaga, both singer-songwriters from the same region of Brazil as Gilberto himself, Bahia. Gil was being interviewed by Paul Holdengraeber at the first event of the Rolex Arts Weekend.
He also spoke fondly of his mother, who has just passed 98, and whom he still talks to regularly, still admires, and whom he credits with having given him the courage to pursue music, rather than to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had tended to be engossed in his medical career. “She was so happy I became a musician. When life brought surprises, she was careful to prepare me.”
What was a joy to see to hear at close quarters last night, was his sense of playful irony, his candour, his deep understanding of how to play the crowd. As he confirmed – with slight warines even weariness – a previous remark to the interviewer about Silicon Valley owing its existence to “psychedelic music,” he did it with a broad teasing grin. As he remembered his time in London with a cockney imitation of the sentence “if you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place,” he simply seemed to be relishing our estuary vowel sounds. The natural, easful, experienced performer is to the fore in Gilberto.
He talked of the completeness and the simplicity of singing songs, in the moment, how that act inspires a feeling of “totality.” There were anecdotes about Miles, Airto Moreira and Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight (what year anyone?).
He found and relished a nice rhyme in Portuguese to explain the need to be your age, to accommodate your way of life to it. Maybe it will find its way into a song.
Gil could not have struck a more optimistic note for this Veterans Day weekend here in New York.