Tropical Heatby Dave Durbach / 24.05.2011
By the time the military seized control of Brazil in a 1964 coup, the likes of Joao and Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and American saxman Stan Getz had already put Bossa Nova on the map. Later that decade, the Tropicalia movement emerged as Brazil’s answer to the Woodstock generation – relevant, experimental and determined to rock the boat.
In 1968, the movement’s musical torchbearers, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, were arrested, imprisoned and later sent into exile in London. There they came into contact with exiled South Africans such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. By the mid-70s, as “world music” took root, Gil had followed a host of Western musicians (including Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Ginger Baker) to jam with Fela Kuti in Lagos. The journey cemented the African influence on his work, most notably on 1977’s Refavela. Two years earlier, Gil had teamed up with another Tropicalista, Jorge Ben, to put out Gil e Jorge (one highlight of which – the 15 minute “Taj Mahal”, would later be disco-fied by Rod Stewart on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”). Similarly yet uniquely talented, Ben also found inspiration in African music, in 1976 releasing Africa Brasil. Miriam Makeba would return the compliment a few years later, covering Ben’s “Xica da Silva” from that album.
Tropicalia’s ongoing appeal has been spurred on by the likes of David Byrne, Beck, Thievery Corporation and contemporary revivalist Seu Jorge, as well as the excellent documentary Beyond Ipanema, screened at last year’s Tricontinental Film Fest. Between 2003 and 2008, Gilberto Gil won praise for his job as Lula da Silva’s Minister of Culture, while continuing to moonlight on stage. Since leaving government, Gil has returned to perform full time. He was recently in Joburg, playing for the first time in this country – part of a collaboration between Swiss film company Dreampixies and local NGO MIAGI (Music Is A Great Investment). They are putting together an ambitious documentary called Connecting South, an attempt to unite indigenous music from Brazil, South Africa and Australia – with Gil the missing link.
And so it was that Gil took to the stage at the Market Theatre for two nights only last week. As is often the case with left-field collaborations, there was a sense of unpreparedness in the collision of some very different sounds, and occasional flickers of joy in some unexpected commonalities.
Gil’s local collaborators begin with the acclaimed Xhosa songstress Madosini, she of the umrhubhe (mouth bow), uhadi (berimbau) and isitolotolo (Jew’s harp). No stranger to collaborations, Madosini has in the past worked with The Buckfever Underground, Thandiswa Mazwai and Derek Gripper. Her intriguing stage presence and throat singing skills have the audience enthralled, while Gil can do little but pluck a few notes as quietly as possible and wait for the song to finish.
Later, young Brazilian percussionist Gustavo Leite unleashes a berimbau solo that underlines the musical connection between the two countries. Madosini departs and Gil plays some songs he has dedicated to Africa over the years – one he wrote for South Africa in the 80s, another for a recent festival in Senegal, and another for Xangu, the Brazilian god of thunder that slaves brought with them from Africa.
Gil is joined by Vusi Mahlasela, who takes the lead on hits like “Ubuhle Bomhlaba” and “When You Come Back”. Gil strums away and provides his signature percussive yelps. The audience, predominantly middle aged and white, some Portuguese speaking, seem to be enjoying the Market’s cultured, urbane atmosphere. Yet despite being in the presence of a legend, it’s all a little tame. The focus of the night remains firmly on collaboration and reworking established hits one by one, rather than musical virtuosity or improvisation. Now 68 years old, Gil, his trademark dreadlocks recently shorn, dressed in snazzy grey jersey, charcoal skinny jeans and white takkies, still brings a youthful energy to the stage – due in part, no doubt, to his love for yoga, vegetarianism and ganja. However, when music becomes more concerned with a broader concept than its actual delivery or context, it risks losing its potency.
In the space of his 40-plus year career, Gil commands the same respect as national icons like Mulatu Astatke and Sado Watanabe, Fela and Hugh – but has he become more loved for his charm and political accomplishments than his actual songs, the Johnny Depp of world music?
MIAGI’s website paraphrases UNESCO in claiming that: “Sustainable development and the flourishing of culture are interdependent”. Some may beg to differ. The arts have always thrived during times of political upheaval – funk, rock ‘n roll, reggae, hip-hop and the majority of South Africa’s most innovative music emerged when institutionalised oppression peaked. Musicians have always been liberators. As with numerous local musicians, however, now that Gil’s struggle has been won, his music has arguably lost some of its sting, particularly in a decidedly high-brow setting where the songs play second fiddle to documenting the act of collaboration.