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Gil comes full circle

This musical innovator once was exiled by Brazil's military rulers. Now he's the nation's minister of culture, and he has big plans.

September 30, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — A recent banquet here honoring a visiting Brazilian dignitary was typical of such affairs -- the big hotel ballroom, the well-heeled audience and especially the glowing introductory speeches. But when the honoree took the stage, it was obvious he was no ordinary government official.

The soft-spoken man seemed slightly uncomfortable with all the attention. He barely spoke more than a few thank-yous. Then he picked up a custom-made acoustic guitar and started strumming an infectious and delightful rhythm that filled the room with joy and washed away the cares of the world, at least for that evening.

This was Gilberto Gil, poet, songwriter, musical rebel, former political prisoner and now the swingingest minister of culture Brazil has ever seen. After more than three decades as one of his country's most important pop music figures, the 61-year-old guitarist and bandleader assumed the cabinet-level culture post Jan. 1, appointed by newly elected President Luiz Inacio Lula, of the leftist Workers' Party.

"Some might see him just as a great musician, but he's much more than that," says Sergio Mielniczenko, a radio host and cultural aide with the Brazilian consulate in Los Angeles. "Gilberto Gil is a renaissance man, so he's right for this post."

"There are people who don't think it's possible for an artist, especially one with popular roots who works with music from the streets, to take charge of cultural business," says Gil, sitting in a conference room at the hotel after the tribute earlier this month, at which he was named person of the year by the Latin Recording Academy. "That's because they have a bias that only 'cultured' people, in the sense of European education, should hold these positions.

"But that's exactly what we want to change now, that meaning of culture. We want to focus on culture as the totality of people's expressions, especially the common people, not as something belonging to elites."

The news that a major federal agency would now be headed by a man like Gil, an avant-garde Afro-Brazilian artist forced into exile in the late '60s by his country's former military rulers, met reactions ranging from enthusiasm to dismay in Brazil.

Playing dual roles

While critics worried about Gil's lack of administrative experience, among other things, supporters saw his appointment as a sign of hope for a country rich in culture but burdened with high levels of poverty and violence. There are equally high expectations that Gil and the new government can change a society that, for all its pride in its African roots, still struggles with racial divisions that have kept blacks from holding top jobs in government and industry.

Gil -- whose "Quanta Live" was honored as world music album of the year in 1999 in the traditional Grammy competition -- is not entirely new to politics. In 1988, he was elected to the city council in his hometown of Salvador in the northeastern state of Bahia, a powerhouse of Afro-Brazilian arts where he also served as secretary of culture.

Still, by the time he took his new cabinet job, he had already touched off a controversy by declaring he would continue performing on weekends because he couldn't afford to raise his family on a minister's salary of $2,500 per month. Newspapers challenged his dual role as bureaucrat and showman, raising the specter of conflict of interest if his concerts were sponsored by corporations.

At the time, Gil brushed off his critics, saying he's always faced rejection as an artist and now "it's just been transferred from the artistic to the public sphere."

Gil says he plans to stay focused on his goal of tapping the raw talent latent in Brazil's infamous favelas, or urban slums. Through a planned network of cultural centers, he seeks to bring the modern tools of creativity, such as digital TV and recording software, to young people who now have no access to it.

The role of government is to create the conditions for culture to flourish, he says, not to create culture. To fund his projects, Gil wants to launch a "culture lottery," and he also made a recent pitch for credit to the World Bank. He says Brazil's oil industry has committed money to launch the first 50 centers.

Expanding boundaries

Brazil is already a giant on the international arts scene, thanks to restless artists such as Gil, who started with the bossa nova and went on to expand musical boundaries in the '60s. Along with fellow songwriter and frequent collaborator Caetano Veloso, Gil became one of the creators of the counterculture movement called tropicalia, an early fusion of rock influences from Bob Dylan to the Beatles on a rhythmic Brazilian base.

The political right considered the movement subversive, which led to Gil's arrest in 1969 and eventual exile to London. He returned in 1972, but not before absorbing even more nontraditional styles, including jazz and reggae.

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