Gilberto Gil brought the joyous, rhythmically fluid music of Brazil’s northeast regions to Nashville Monday night. He gave those in attendance at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center a combination concert and history lesson. Gil’s ongoing commentary provided a breakdown of his homeland’s musical/cultural diversity. Meanwhile, he and his superb band performed multiple samples of the various idioms that he’s combined into a vibrant, original style for decades. Gil and company never flagged during a robust 100-minute set that zipped by so fast even the 15-minute encore seemed quick. It was clear from their response the audience, though sadly not a full house, would have gladly enjoyed more.
Gil stands alongside Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben Jor and Caetano Veloso as singer/songwriters steeped in Brazil’s traditions. Their innovative approaches both expanded options for the nation’s performers while simultaneously championing their heritage. He began playing bossa nova and samba, sounds jazz musicians introduced to American audiences in the early ’60s. But Gil’s constantly evolving music is equally influenced by other, lesser-known styles within the Brazilian musical framework. These include baião and forró, both extremely popular in his home area, and xote, the merger of native Latin American rhythms and Scottish melodies brought to Brazil by Celtic transplants.
His songs also incorporate American music elements, among them Cajun/Zydeco, rock and pop, soul, blues, reels, polkas, even energetic covers of Bob Marley classics “No Woman No Cry” (done in both English and Portugese) and “Three Little Birds.” In addition, Gil has explored various African genres, particularly the furious pace and incendiary political fervor of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. During his five-year stint as Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003-2008, Gil was a tireless champion of its multiple populations and intriguing history to audiences around the world.
He remains a captivating vocalist and charismatic performer. At 70, Gil is in impressive shape. His onstage movements included variations on Michael Jackson’s moonwalk and Chuck Berry’s duck walk, plus his own dips and shifts. His nimble baritone voice can still hit impressive highs and lows, and he indulges in everything during numbers from scatting to imitating instruments with ease. Gil communicates smoothly in English, and he did song intros in that language while performing lyrics in Portuguese. While there weren’t as many folks dancing in the aisles for Monday’s show as some past Latin music concerts, there was plenty of interactive participation. Both sides in the front, plus many people in the loge sections were doing their own two-step movements, fueled by the dashing beats Gil and his outstanding six-member combo provided.
His band includes marvelous rhythm players drummer Jorge Gomes and percussionist Gustavo Di Dalva. Their array of textures and patterns kept the pieces fluid and enticing. Besides Gil’s bright, supple rhythm and lead guitar work, other frontline soloists include nimble violinist Nicolas Krassik, and multi-instrumentalist Sergio Chiavazzoli. Chiavazzoli’s mastery was in evidence on slide and electric guitars, and even one tune where he shifted to banjo. The band’s array of sonic textures was consistently varied, with both acoustic and electric settings. Gil and Chiavazzoli alternated between complementary exchanges and dueling solos. Accordionist Toninho Ferragutti brought even more tones and colors to the musical mix. Sometimes his accompaniment had a sensual tinge, other times he delivered fiery lines and phrases.
A major name Gil frequently invoked was famed composer Luiz Gonzaga, whom he credited with being a key figure and mentor. He covered several of his works, among them “Fe na Festa,” one of the night’s earliest pieces, and “A Dance da Moda.” Later in the show came “Asa Branca (White Wing),” a beloved work Gonzaga penned as a tribute to Brazil’s Sertão region. There were enough Brazilians on hand to occasionally fill in lyrics to songs when he paused. One particularly moving moment came during his encore, when Gil took the Brazilian flag held in front of him by admirers, held it high, waved, then continued swaying back to his spot center stage, beaming and smiling.
Gilberto Gil’s tunes represent Brazilian popular fare in the broadest sense. It embraces the present, honors the past, and beckons to the future. Monday’s show was another example of music’s universal appeal. Both fans fluent in his native language and those who wouldn’t know baiao from the tango enjoyed the group’s fervor and energy, as Gilberto Gil’s first Nashville appearance proved a memorable one.