Brazilian Icon Gilberto Gil Infuses his Music with Life

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A much older Gilberto Gil faced the audience at Zellerbach Hall dressed in all-white apparel, suggesting some type of divine being gracing us with his presence.

The sight of a packed venue in Berkeley was nothing new for the Brazilian pop legend, but there were definite signs of age: graying hair, wrinkles and a receding hairline. On this most recent tour Gil traded in his electric instruments for an acoustic unplugged set put on by Cal Performances. At the age of 67, doubts lingered as to whether he too might exchange his radical spirit for one of softer sentimentality. He turned around to pick up his guitar and the remnants of a thinning pony-tail bounced to and fro-ah, so he did still have it in him.

What the Beatles were to the UK is what Gil is to Brazil-not simply a musical icon but a cultural purveyor of aesthetics. In the '60s, Gil spearheaded the musical aspect of what is known as the Tropicalia movement, a re-arrangement of Brazilian mores that challenged the austere practices of a strict militaristic government. A resulting floodgate of ideas and influences poured into the artistic realm, as Gil blended hippe-culture psychedelia with traditional Brazilian folk songs.

Gil offered the audience a survey course of his past works, including the Os Mutantes collaboration "Panis et Circencis," that stripped the thick sonic layering of his studio albums in exchange for a rawer, more intimate sound. Accompanied by his son Bem Gil on acoustic guitar and Jaques Morelenbaum on cello, the Brazilian legend nurtured a musical space of improvisation and harmonic counterpoint that lent itself more to the idea of a jazz concert.

In an interview backstage, Morelenbaum, who is primarily an arranger, related his excitement at being able to roam freely in his playing without limiting himself to sheet music. "Music is supposed to be a surprise," Morelenbaum said after taking a drag of his cigarillo. He likens his playing with Gil as similar to watching a movie for the second time, picking up on nuances, ripping apart existing structures and finding new musical spaces to fill. Bem praised Jacques' ability to open up "new informations and new melodies that brought us to new places in music."

Gil's approach to playing his songs may have changed during this tour, but there was one element he left untouched: his voice. In listening to his voice now and comparing it to how it was 35 years ago, you would be hard-fought to detect a noticeable difference. His range included piercing yelps, warm, velvety lilts and whistling that rivals Andrew Bird's. Something about the quality of his voice, possibly the beauty of Portugese or the percussive cadence of his phrasing, makes one feel as though there were a healing power encoded into it, some type of genetic wiring that produces a universal feeling of spiritual enchantment. It's the same feeling one gets when hearing Morgan Freeman speak, a strange familiarity, comfort and easiness-you want to believe everything he says, and Gil makes it easy with his singing voice.

Bem said that playing acoustically felt "like being at home," and it's this certain naturalness that gives the music a regenerative force, an ability to elicit sighs of release from the audience.

Backstage Gil could be overheard talking about music's connection to tribalism and ceremony. "It's ritualizing life all the time with music," he said affectionately. What the audience felt wasn't simply manufactured, his performance wasn't just a show-the man lives his music.

Do a samba with Justin at [email protected]

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