For the Brazilian musical idol Gilberto Gil, the cultural always is the political -- and vice versa.
It has been that way since the 1960s, when Gil and several artistic comrades were imprisoned and driven into London exile by Brazil’s ruling military junta. Ostensibly, Gil and his colleagues, including Caetano Veloso , were guilty of stirring up the populace with a genre-shattering, socially alert, Afro-rock hybrid called tropicalismo .
It was indeed a radical act in a country that takes music (and soccer) at least as seriously as politics.
In the decades that followed, Gil returned home to a conquering hero’s welcome and went on to combine a relentlessly daring and eclectic musical career with a highly visible activist’s role in environmentalism and other causes. His talent for infusing political movements with a funky populist beat was recognized by Brazil’s current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who appointed Gil culture minister in 2003.
The Grammy Award-winning artist used that bully pulpit to preach the gospel of developing-world empowerment through greater access to digital technology and other themes. Among his accomplishments was helping to launch hundreds of so-called hot spots across the vast nation, where targeted groups of disadvantaged Brazilians were supplied with free computers and other equipment and encouraged to pursue cultural projects reflecting their local traditions.
The idea, Gil explained by phone last week, was to help ordinary people “film their own [stories], record their own songs and perform their own lives.”
But now Gil is back to his primary vocation, embarked on a 10-city U.S. tour that will bring him to UCLA’s Royce Hall to perform Saturday. He’s pleased to be on the road once more, coaxing laid-back bossa nova rhythms as well as more uproarious samba and baião grooves from his guitar, mixed in with reggae, rock, witty wordplay and whatever else tickles his imagination.
“I got back to being a full-time player, an artist, and that gives me a lot of happiness and satisfaction because I was born to be a musician,” he said. “I’m very glad I accepted the job as a minister. But I’m back to being an artist. That’s my job for life.”
The UCLA show, dubbed “Gilberto Gil: The String Concert,” is being styled as a 40-year career retrospective, unplugged. Gil will perform titles from across his songbook in acoustic-only, percussion-less arrangements, accompanied by his son Bem Gil on guitar and cellist Jacques Morelenbaum.
Gil said the idea of the tour’s sonically rich but instrumentally minimalist aesthetic was “to explore the simple atmosphere that the acoustic promotes.”
“And it was an opportunity to join my son, who’s very interested in my guitar playing and my writing, and do new arrangements of old songs and be by my side, to be two musicians together.”
Gil’s tenure as a government minister coincided with a period of robust economic growth and cultural expansion for Brazil. Despite his decidedly left-of-center, progressive political leanings, he doesn’t regard capitalism or consumerism as dirty words. Rather, he’s focused on how to bring more capitalist prosperity to Latin America and other less privileged planetary regions.
A champion of the Internet’s potential to level the global playing field -- his current band’s pun-happy name is Banda Larga Cordel, which means “broadband” -- he also has advocated redefining intellectual property laws to balance powerful corporate interests with the realities of poorer countries trying to compete in a tough global market.
His country’s growing economic confidence, Gil believes, has boosted Brazilians’ belief in the significance of their music, cinema, plastic arts and other cultural forms, and the rest of the world is taking notice too, he said.
“Now it’s not just European culture or American culture that matters. Our culture matters.”