Gilberto Gil at Azad Maidan, 2004

 Gilberto Gil greeted the news that he’d been appointed Brazil’s country’s culture minister in 2003 with a line that could have come from one of his densely allusive songs. The superstar told one interviewer: “I've gone from being the stone thrower to [being] the glass.”

 A year into the job, Gil – who in the late 1960s among the founders of a school of protest music known as Tropicalismo – hasn’t let the heady vapours of power fog up his moral mirror. Anyone who swayed through his searing 30-minute set at the conclusion of the World Social Forum in Mumbai's Azad Maidan in January 2004 will testify that dreadlocked minister of cool hasn’t stopped trying to shatter the status quo. Backed only by a guitar and the strength of his convictions, Gil held 30,000 alter-globalisation activists spellbound as he urged them to imagine all the people living life in peace.

Of course, he couldn’t have had a more perfect audience. After all, the WSF’s dream that Another World Is Possible is one that Gil shares passionately. “As a musician, I’ve been an instrument of translating reality into fantasy and fantasy into reality,” he explained, his grey eyes glowing with the fire of a lifetime in the trenches of agitprop.  “Reaching over those breaches is an important element for life.”

In a career that’s attempted to bridge art and activism, poetry and protest, the 61-year-old Gil has thrown himself into the hurly-burly of politics to carve himself an important role for himself in Brazil’s public arena. “As a militant, I’ve been dedicated to bringing light to the discussion on how to manage resources and how to manage government,” Gil said. “It’s an obligation of citizenship to be involved with that. I’m an artist on one side and I’m a citizen on the other.”

These two facets of Gil’s personality came to be fused in Tropicalismo, the Dadaist musical movement he pioneered with the brooding Caetano Veloso.  The two had met as students at the University of Bahia. They started off playing the laidback bossa nova music that was popular in Brazil in the ’50s, but had an epiphany at a concert by David Tudor, an American pianist who played pieces by Pierre Boulez, John Cage and Stockhausen.

“That's when I came into contact with music that wasn't music, a music that deeply included sound, noise and silence,” Gil told one interviewer. “At that moment I, and all of us of my generation, were open to all that was new, to all that meant a break with rigid conventional codes, not in music only but in anything… ... It was a moment in that this sense of modernity, of the break with conventionality, the non-music music, the anti-music or trans-music came into my life.”

Tropicalismo mixed up the Afro-Brazilian legacy of Gil’s native Bahia state with psychedelic rock. Riding above the raucous rhythms were oblique lyrics that criticised Brazil’s military dictatorship. But not everyone could withstand the shock of the new. “Caetano and Gil were booed off stage and violently attacked in the press at first, accused of being unpatriotic for turning to foreign rock for instruments and for using electric instruments, ” the Rough Guide to World Music noted. “However, the young, thoroughly alienated, … loved Tropicalismo’s iconoclasm and rejection of convention.” The sound set off a renaissance in Brazilian cinema and poetry too.

  Gil’s face still lights up when he reminisces about the era. “Tropicalismo became a polemic; it became an issue; it became a front-page discussion for the press; it became a talk point for society and it became history,” he said. 

  Brazil’s rulers were not pleased. “We were talking about liberty and freedom and challenging conservatism,” Gil said. “At the moment they wanted our society to be quiet, we were out speaking and making a noise. That was a little disturbing for them.” Gil and Veloso were jailed, then sent into exile in 1969. Before leaving the country, though, the duo was allowed to give a concert in Salvador, the capital of their beloved Bahia state. As a farewell, Gil sang the haunting Aquele Abraço, which remains among his most beautiful creations.

Gil spent two years in London, jamming with Jimi Hendrix, Yes and Pink Floyd, besides soaking up the new reggae sounds being cooked up by Bob Marley. (In 2003, Gil – who was declared Man of the Year at the Latin Grammys – was in the running for his third Grammy for his 41st album, Kaya N'Gan Daya, a collection of songs written by Marley.)  In London, Gil perfected his guitar technique and recorded his first album in English. The minister, who is given to wearing hip black suits offstage, remembers his years away from home fondly. “It was nice,” Gil said. “I was in London for three days on my way to Bombay and caught up with Jim Capaldi, the drummer of Traffic, and we spent time talking about swinging London.”

 When he returned to Brazil in 1972, he recorded Expresso 2222, a tribute to his samba roots. Gil’s music continued to be characterised by restless innovation and became more complex, even as it remained popularly accessible. A string of successes followed. But by the end of the ’80s, Gil decided to devote more time to politics. He moved back to Salvador from Rio and became president of the Fundaçao Gregorio de Matos, an institution devoted to the preservation of the city’s historical landmarks. In 1988, he became a member of the Council of the City Hall of Salvador, a position he retained until 1992.

 In 1989, Gil joined the Green Party and serves on its National Executive Commission.  He also founded a non-governmental organisation called Onda Azul (Blue Wave) to fight for water rights. He’s refused to be a mere figurehead. Gil has participated in complex international discussions on environmental issues, arguing persuasively for the preservation of the Amazon.

  Gil – who is fluent in English, Spanish and French, in addition to Portuguese – is perhaps the most eloquent pop musician on the planet today. Consider his thoughts on creating a new model of globalisation: “It’s a contemporary paradox: a Heideggerian world, where we are all victims and perpetrators, the controlled and controllers. We work inadvertently for planetary unity and, vice versa, for the growth and proliferation of local diversity that affirms itself in plural mini-realities spread like dust across the globe. The intention of my last album, Parabolic, is none other than to express this function of industrial art, in general, and popular music, in particular: at once unifying and diversifying.”

 The minister is especially reflective when he’s discussing how to merge ideas with action. “Social change is a compound of many, many different dispositions of life,” he said. “As Gandhi used to say, make within yourself the changes you’d like to make in society. Change is a personal struggle to start with and then it spreads. Whenever you act, whenever you participate, you effect change. It’s a combination of everything you do.”

Gandhi has long been an icon for Gil. Since he was a boy, he’s been associated with the Filhos de Gandhy (the Sons of Gandhi), a quirky troupe that dances in the city’s riotous Carnival.

 The Gandhys were founded in Salvador in 1949 by a group of stevedores sitting under a mango tree on the Rua do Julião, a street of family residences, commercial houses, and bordellos, as an act of defiance against the ruling junta. “They created the group to both have a carnival manifestation as usual and at the same time to add a political meaning to it, celebrating a great warrior,” Gil explained. “For more than five decades, they’ve been joining carnival and history.”

In 1974, Gil released his classic collaboration with Jorge Ben, exploring his African roots on a 13-minute track titled Filhos de Gandhy, which links together non-violent struggles around the world. It’s the tune with which he opened his Bombay performance.

But his visit to the World Social Forum wasn’t Gil’s first time in India. Six years before, Gil, who has long been interested in Vedanta and yoga, came to the subcontinent to make a documentary with the Gandhys. “We went to Delhi and Udaipur and other places and were received very well,” Gil said. “We brought some costumes and gave them to Indian people and had a parade in Udaipur with camels and elephants. It was very nice.”

   Gil’s ability to flit around the world at short notice has now been curtailed by the burdens of office. But he’s revelling in his new role. He said: “I’m residually keeping my artistic career. I’m mostly dedicated to government now. But it’s worth doing it. I still can have a sense in making a contribution. It’s okay.”

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