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Gilberto Gil, among the most important of Brazilian musical figures for the last forty-some years (the singer/songwriter turned seventy this year, though you would never know it from the level of energy he radiated throughout a two-hour show), returned for the second time to grace the Carolina Performing Arts series at Memorial Hall. I couldn’t make it last time, in 2010, though my partner did), when his performance was more in the vein of simply voice and guitar. This year he brought a virtuoso band of Brazilian musicians to accompany him, with Sergio Chiavazzoli, guitars, Arthur Maia, electric bass, Jorge Gomes, zabumba (and occasional other percussion), Toninho Ferragutti, accordion, Gustavo di Dalva, percussion, and Nicholas Krassik, violin/rabeca.
Although all are younger than Gil, most have been fundamental to the musical scene in Rio for decades already. The show focused less on the songs from Gil’s own pen (he has contributed dozens of songs that have become standards over the years), with a considerable presence of songs by others from the genre known as “forró” (hence the title of the show – one theory being that the English arriving in Brazil to build the railways would have dances that would be “for all”, with the term being Brazilianized as “forró”). The most traditional renditions of this music (known as “pé-de-serra”, that is foothills – imagine the Blue Ridge) usually are accompanied by a simple trio of accordion (known as sanfona), zabumba (a tenor drum played on both heads), and a triangle, plus vocals. Gil’s group was thoroughly twenty-first century, with melodies played by Krassik (a French native who went native in Brazil in 2001), Ferragutti, and Chiavazzoli, and the combination of electric bass (not so common in Brazilian popular music) and two percussionists making up the “kitchen” or rhythm section. The hall was well-filled, but not SRO – Carolinians must be blasé about world-class figures coming to town for them.
Gil’s set of twenty songs drew considerably on his most recent touring show from 2010, Fé na Festa [Faith in the Festival], opening with the title track (written by Gil), and going on through a set of some of the most familiar tunes from the genre, including Óia eu aqui de novo (by Luiz Gonzaga), "Baião da Penha" (also Gonzaga), and some less familiar – "A Dança da Moda" (Gonzaga). Gil, resplendent in white and surprisingly thin, was a compelling showman, dancing for the crowd of students and Brazilians who turned the orchestra pit next to the stage into a “mosh pit,” and charming as he introduced and gave context to the numbers is his fluent English.
A long set moved from a reharmonized version of a familiar Gonzaga baião, "Qui nem jiló," through "Expresso 2222" (the forward-looking title tune of Gil’s album from 1972), when the year 2000 was still long in the future, to "Vem Morena" (also Gonzaga, but very well-known in the version by nordestino Alceu Valença), "Ela so quer" (Gonzaga, known to every Brazilian), and "Eu só quero um xodó" (Dominguinhos). A brief detour brought two songs in English by the late great Bob Marley – “Three Little Birds” and “No Woman No Cry” (Salvador, Gil’s hometown, is more influenced than most of Brazil by reggae). A highlight of the latter portion of the show was an extended instrumental, the "Casamento da Reposa" (The Fox’s Wedding), featuring the virtuoso playing of both Nicolas Krassik (violin/rebec) and Toninho Ferragutti (accordion). Clearly bringing the show to a rousing finale (with the entire audience on its feet and clapping) was "Asa Branca" and "Olho pro ceu." After a brief essay at a final bow, the band was back onstage, and turned the energy up even farther for two encores – "Ainda me lembro" and "Madalena."
The American press has been playing up the longevity of the Rolling Stones, now celebrating their 50th anniversary. To my mind, more impressive, and more important, is the impressive stamina of Gilberto Gil and his Brazilian contemporaries (Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque), who, more than the Stones, represent and shape what Brazil has become since the days of the military dictatorship of 1964 and later. Gil, and they, are still going strong, but the gap they will leave when they finally do depart the scene will be immense. If and when Gil should make another visit (let’s hope), be sure to be there.