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Review: Gilberto Gil turns Disney Hall into Brazilian dance hall

Brazilian singer-composer Gilberto Gil commandingly schools an appreciative crowd at Walt Disney Hall to the exuberant, rough-edged music of the northeast.

October 24, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Gilberto Gil performs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Gilberto Gil performs at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. (Patrick T. Fallon / For The…)

From 2003 to '08 Gilberto Gil served as Brazil's culture minister, helping underprivileged kids gain access to technology and forging global aesthetic links with a missionary's zeal.

On Tuesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gil was back in that role, paying tribute to mentors such as the great Brazilian singer-composer-accordionist Luiz Gonzaga and quietly schooling his audience in the complex ties between the accordion-based baiĆ£o music of his native northeast Brazil and geographically (but not sonically) distant relatives like Scottish reels, German polkas and Cajun zydeco.

Not that the crowd needed any instruction in rhythmic appreciation. By the time Gil and his six-man ensemble started to wrap up their two-hour set with Gonzaga's classic "Asa Branca" (White Wing), a jaunty-melancholy ode to Brazil's parched, unforgiving sertão region, Frank Gehry's iconic symphonic enclosure had been transformed into a pop-up forró dance hall.

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Bodies swayed in the balconies, following Gil's own joyful two-step shuffle as he waved his arms like a Candomblé priest. Brazilian Portuguese resounded. The coffee-colored world ruled, at least momentarily.

But when the numerous Brazilians in the audience began calling out for samba tunes, Gil gently reminded them that the evening's focus was on the rough-edged, exuberant music of Brazil's northeast, not the jazzy, urbane samba and bossa nova of cosmopolitan Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

This is what it means to be Gil, now 70, still trim and spry in a white hoodie and jeans. A musical ambassador without portfolio, he roams the planet absorbing sounds and imparting his left-progressive ideas and encyclopedic knowledge to culturally starved nations that think the best way to discover new musical visionaries — sorry, I meant "idols" — is by staging TV show talent contests.

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Half a lifetime ago, Gil and Caetano Veloso transformed Brazilian popular music by folding African juju and psychedelia, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Ravi Shankar into samba and bossa nova. But Gil's internal compass eventually always points back to the baião music he grew up hearing, along with other hybrid styles such as xote, the Brazilian transliteration of "Scottish" music transported by Celtic migrants into the seaports and hot coastal plains of South America.

At Disney Hall, Gil turned early and often to Gonzaga (1912-89), the Pernambuco native with the wild cowboy attire and blast-furnace voice, forever yearning for his drought-stricken homeland and its salty, peerless females. After setting a party mood with "Fé na Festa," the title tune from his 2010 album, Gil went straight to Gonzaga's "A Dança da Moda"; later he covered another Gonzaga essential, "O xote da Meninas."

Elsewhere in the evening, he gestured toward the Caribbean with covers of "No Woman No Cry" and "Three Little Birds," so genially relaxed that they could make Bob Marley sound like Joe Strummer.

As a guitar-playing bandleader, Gil happily yields solos to his uniformly excellent sextet: drummer Jorge Gomes, percussionist Gustavo Di Dalva; bassist Arthur Maia; violin player Nicholas Krassik; Sérgio Chiavazzoli, a brilliant slide guitarist and multi-string player who can make a banjo impersonate a sitar; and accordionist Toninho Ferragutti, whose extraordinarily facile keyboard scale-climbing must've left his fingers gasping for oxygen.

"Viva Brasil!" someone yelled near the concert's end, and you could almost hear several hundred voices adding, "Amen."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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