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Brazil’s African Heritage

I admit – to simplify the entirety of Brazilian history to the life and career of Gilberto Gil would be quite a reductive gesture. Even if he is doubtlessly, one of the most accomplished artists of his generation, his artistic and political path must be seen as a mirror to the that of the beautiful country of Brazil, which he has helped to construct and by which he has been constructed. He can be seen as a figure in Brazilian history and music either as a hybridized prodigy or an explosive cocktail, who gave new energy and culture to the musical scene.

But first, a bit of patience! Before we continue onto the life of Gilberto Gil, some historical light must be shed onto the nature of his inspiration, which is in fact our primary subject here. Let us lose ourselves in the history of Brazil, the backdrop to our story, and the spatial and temporal context that surrounded Gil in a cultural, artistic, and political sense. In order to speak of Brazil, I had to look into my own history, searching for the elements which would allow me to relate to the history, people, and culture of this country.

Brazil’s African heritage was the historical and cultural bridge that I took, as a way ofunderstanding his identity, as well as of identifying the struggles, dreams, and hopes so well evoked by Gilberto Gil the artist, and defended by Gilberto Gil the political activist. Gil was born in northern Brazil in the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia, where the greatest number of African slaves had been deported to work in sugar plantations. At this time, the Portuguese colony still prospered from slavery – the dark past of its upset social balance, which also gave rise to the culture Gil came out of. Indeed, the rhythms of the Afro- Brazilian tradition reveal a very African musicality. We shall add, as a detour, that the genres of bossanova and samba came out of this same tradition…

Brazil is a “mestizo,” or mixed society, which has always been particularly heterogenous. Ethnic diversity has been key to the development of its culture and history, rich with various influences: from its African roots, to its Portuguese assumption, through to its Indian integration. It was in this musical context of distinct postures and styles that Gilberto Gil was able to reach his greatest artistic potential in the form of the Tropicalia movement, or “Tropicalismo.” Gil and his collaborator, Caetano Veloso, were the precursors and visionaries of an entire cultural revolution in Brazil, which aimed to establish a sense of universality through music. This approach allowed Gil and Veloso also to integrate a more Western, or “rock n roll” sound to their musical style. Suddenly, Gil was truly able to flourish as an artist, pushing both his own limits and his Afro-Brazilian determinism to new horizons. However, this change did not come about without difficulties. As his work was precipitated by the political riots which ravaged Brazil throughout the 1960’s, Veloso and Gil were persecuted by the military government for their ideas and forced into exile. It was only then, one might say however, that the Tropicalia movement was truly put into practice. In the context of the global moral revolutions of the time, it increasingly took on a hippie association, and reggae-like tonality. London, a center of reggae, gave Gil the opportunity to collaborate with the various Jamaican influences resonating through the English capital. From his African roots in a Portuguese colony, Gil was able to develop his style and compositional skills by enriching them with the different global musical styles of his time.

Another part of the legacy of Gil’s career which has profoundly resonated with me is his carnal attachment to his native country and his culture, despite his receptivity to outside influences throughout his musical evolution. To understand the strength of his tie to Brazil, I shall invoke for a moment here my own city, Montpellier, where I myself have spent my best years, and to which I pay tribute …

Ordem e Progreso

Let us then take a small flashback (or, should I say, a huge leap backwards) to the city of Montpellier in the south of France in 1798. In this year, Isidore Marie Auguste Francois Xavier Comte was born, and would die later in 1857. But what is the relevance of this Montpellerian to this artist we hold in such great admiration, Gilberto Gil? Auguste Comte, as he came to be known, was an illustrious mathematician and philosopher of his time, who developed and structured a philosophy that we now refer to as Positivism. To truly explain Positivism, however, would require more time and a certain spiritual disposition in order to reflect on the relationship between the self, the world, and the universe, each of which radically alters the social condition of man. “Auguste Comte, scientific reformer, aims to reconcile the ancient and the modern in an attempt to construct a peaceful world which is organic and truly rational, founded on the new social order of “positive sociology” – otherwise known as sociocracy, whose formula is as follows: “Know in order to foresee, and foresee in order to act.” I invite you, dear readers, to continue in your own reflection of the heart and spirit, especially in relation to the three mental states defined by Comte: the theological, philosophical, and theoretic. These constitute for him the logical evolution of the human condition, and the ways it relates to history.

What further draws our attention is his way of theorizing society, of which he said, “Society is formed essentially of families, which outweighs in the individual all which does not belong to the family. The truth of society therefore, is not be found in the individual – the truth of individual is to be found in society.” Sociology, as a natural human science, is what informs us of the social order of a certain place at a certain time, showing that “the only absolute is that there are no absolutes.” Sociology also teaches us that no social order and exist or continue without consensus. The first consensus is the family, the second propriety (therefore, work) and the third, patrimony.” – Auguste Comte

This precept of order is fundamental to the understanding of Brazilian society and its citizens,including Gilberto Gil, for it was on this philosophical ground that Brazil was founded. The Brazilian flag is decorated with the proclamation of the Brazilian Republic in 1889 – “Ordem e Progresso.” This is the very motto of positivism, coined by the philosopher from Montpellier: Auguste Comte.

“People act on their emotions, and not on reason. Still, the human being possesses inherent altruistic tendencies which can be developed through religious practice. This very idae can be described by the motto of positivism: Love as a principle, order as the basis, and progress as the goal.” Auguste Comte.

Returning to the topic of Gilberto Gil, and setting up this Brazilian decor as the cultural background to our understanding, we can better recognize the political influences which have led this artist to become much more than the voice of Brazilian music, but even the political voice of Brazilian culture, when he was appointed Minster of Culture in the cabinet of “Lula” – President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva from 2003 to 2008.

Gilberto Gil – a man, a voice, a culture, a heritage – my conclusion is complete, and culture continues to sing and dance…

Sanza Bulaya

Translation – Ritz Wu