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SOUL OF BRAZIL

Forró is Brazil’s second most popular dance music, after samba, and Tropicália icon and former minister of culture (2003-08) Gilberto Gil has been celebrating its funky rhythmic persuasions for the past couple of years with tours focusing on Fá ne Festa (Faith in the Party), a sprightly album focusing on the northeast region’s rhythmic persuasions. Gil’s six-piece group–featuring dazzling players Sergio Chiavazzoli (guitar) and Nicolas Krassik (violin)–reflects the electrification of forró’s original instrumentation: accordion, triangle, and zabumba drum. Gil may be eschewing his numerous hits this time around, with only a couple of forró-retooled exceptions such as “Express 2222,” but expect strident requests to emanate from Stern Auditorium’s peanut galleries nevertheless. What you really want to hear is Gil’s take on forró’s pioneering accordionist-composer, Luiz Gonzaga.

Thu., Nov. 8, 8 p.m., 2012

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DZI Croquettes

There’s a wonderful moment in the documentary DZI Croquettes in which footage of half-nude androgynous men dancing up a storm onstage—faces slathered in makeup—is superimposed over grim-faced soldiers marching down the street, serving as muscle for the dictatorship then running Brazil. Merged, the images underscore the fact that both the performance and the march happened in the same window of time, and that Brazil’s hardline political repression during the late ‘60s had ironically spawned the dazzling, hugely influential gender-fuck collective Dzi Croquettes. A coincidental sister group to San Francisco’s Cockettes, formed in the same era but having a much shorter lifespan, Dzi Croquettes were created by Brazilian-born actor Wagner Ribeiro and American-born dancer and choreographer Lennie Dale, who really found his artistic voice after leaving the States and settling in Brazil. Blending cabaret, Carnival, funk, and Old Hollywood musicals while both foreshadowing and then cribbing from ‘70s Glam, the troupe conquered Paris after becoming legends at home (thanks to numerous run-ins with censors). They counted as fans everyone from Liza Minnelli (who appears in the film) and Josephine Baker, to Catherine Deneuve and Gilberto Gil. Anecdotes and analysis from people who knew them, worked with them, or actually were Croquettes is illuminating, funny, and deeply moving, but it’s the mind-blowing performance footage (and there’s lots of it) that makes this a must-see film. Co-directed by Raphael Alvarez and Tatiana Issa, DZI Croquettes is framed by Issa’s memories of a childhood spent briefly amongst the collective, whose motto was: “We are not men. We are not women. We put it together and became one thing: people.”

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Gilberto Gil Bleats Like a Seal

Gilberto Gil is many things to many people, which explains why his Nokia Theater audience scanned like a New York City census smeared across a single room: bohemian matrons saddled with large baubles there for the culturally relevant Gil, Brazilian expats there for the patriotic Gil, dog-eared teenagers struggling against heavy lids for the freaky, avant-garde Gil. Unnervingly well-toned men ground against their girlfriends’ hips during reggae-lite moments; seniors became dewy-eyed during the samba covers. I observed joy in children and bemusement on the faces of scented men in Oxfords.

But “bringing people together”—and all the happy incongruities that old-fashioned ideal implies—has been Gil’s tack for over 35 years. As a founding member of Tropicália—an omnivorous style of ’60s Brazilian music that encompassed pop art, rock ‘n’ roll, samba, funk, tape collage, psychedelia, and noises that resemble both water and farts—Gil was seen as a clown by Brazil’s hardcore leftists (for liking Coke and going on TV) and as a threat by the government (for cracking wise on the military but refusing to give up Coke and TV appearances, like other hardcore leftists). His mysterious, undefined audience turned out to be a little bit of everyone.

Tuesday’s set fixated on themes of communication and interrelation. To start, his band built a spidery funk song from a ringtone (rather than the other way around), a gesture that encapsulated both his ruminative bent and his cheeky sensibility. (Though it sometimes makes him sound overly eager to be relevant—when he introduced his backing musicians as the Broadband, I heard a canned-comedy trombone sliding downward in the offstage of my mind.) His occasional corniness, though, makes him a more believably humanistic David Byrne: someone thrilled enough by the way people come together to join in, rather than organize a grant-funded multimedia installation about it.

Later, he interpolated “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” changing the chorus to “I can’t get no connection,” probably because he cares more about one than the other. He offered capsule histories of Brazilian music in both English and Portuguese—ever the diplomat—though speakers of the latter laughed louder, which made me feel like I was missing something. Attendees of all tongues were aided in the seemingly impossible task of clapping on rhythm without speeding up.

All the good cheer distracted me, at least for a while, from thinking about just how weird Gil is. Half-bald and dreadlocked, he looks a little like the Predator; he jiggled around onstage in the sexless, ungainly way someone might while alone in his or her own living room; he punctuated half his verses with vocal exclamations more common to seals, porpoises, and small children on playground swings. Admittedly, I groaned when he turned Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” into a samba and followed it with “The Girl From Ipanema” as reggae. He likely thought he was giving the people what they wanted. He was right—but he was also regressing toward the mean. So when he followed with the words “Now, also in a reggae beat, a Beatles song” and crept into “Something,” I closed my eyes slowly in shame. But it was actually pretty good. That scenario—a black Brazilian singing the Beatles in a Jamaican style—is the kind of chancy catchall Gil has built a career on. And while his efforts have strayed toward the more facile side of multicultural unity in the past few years, his commitment to the ideal stays firm. Halfway through, he even let loose a seal yelp to prove it.

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Worry About the Government

When Britain’s hep world-music emporium Soul Jazz last investigated Brazil in 2006, the cover of their Tropicália set depicted cops wielding batons. And for good reason, as that ’60s art-film-theater-poetry-music movement—beautiful while it briefly bloomed between the Summer of Love and May of ’68—soon found itself crushed under the military dictatorship’s boot. The police locked up singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in an undisclosed secret prison, then deported them to London. Who wouldn’t distance themselves from tropicália after that?

But just as the notion of “amor” was subterfuge to the empire of “Roma,” a bronzed couple nuzzle on the cover of Brazil 70. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the set opens with “Amor,” by clear Kiss precedents Secos e Molhados, rocking feather boas and silver-faced androgyny. Throughout, the compilation depicts just how MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) navigated the void left by tropicália and the omniscience of the government’s stringent board of censors. The exchange was a tricky one. This strain of pop, evergreen and agog, was rendered mostly by long-haired, free-loving desbundos (dropouts) at the periphery of society. Popular among Brazilian youth, the music insinuated freedoms that neither the artists nor their audience quite possessed. Trickier still was that the military dictatorship twisted MPB to its own nefarious ends (a similar fate befell Pelé and the Brazil ’70 fútbol team), making it serve as a cultural export showing that all was just peachy down south.

Drawing from such a fertile musical culture for the compilation, Soul Jazz would be hard-pressed to muck it up (though they have in the past with their lackluster U.K., NYC, and Brazilian punk comps). While it’s tough to call “essential” any overview of MPB that wholly excludes Milton Nascimento’s indelible Clube de Esquina, this breezy, exhilarating, succinct set is damned close to perfect. The old guard of tropicália (Gal Costa, Rita Lee, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Tom Zé) all make appearances, eschewing the psychedelic-era Beatles influence that coursed through that music movement, and instead amalgamating funk, hard rock, and hand-drum-heavy Brazilian folk. The real surprises, though, are heretofore unknown (to me, at least) acts like Ednardo e o Pessoal do Ceara, Raul Seixas, and Jards Macale. And how better to be introduced to the pleasures of Novos Baianos? This collective jammed indigenous samba, frevo, choro, and prog-rock while simultaneously maintaining a communal farming co-op and their own fútbol team, making North American “collectives” seem rather pale in comparison.

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Jorge Ben Girls Vs. Gilberto Gil Girls: Who Will Win?

I’d already committed myself to falling in love with two other records by savvy young Brazilian women this year: Virginia Rodrigues’s Mares Profundos and Cibelle’s self-titled record. But right when the former is doing a great neo-Veloso “all music is classical” and the latter a fine sexy-mystic-futurist Gilberto Gil, Daúde shows up channeling Jorge Ben: Fuck art, let’s technosamba!

Producer Will Mowat sculpts some really beautiful tracks on Neguinha Te Amo (two-step, axé, samba, electropop, Afrobeat, bossa-ballad), and Daúde’s voice is boyish and sexy—all shiny efficient fun. Like Rio homeslice Ben, she’s not opposed to slipping in a message; Carnival songs like “Ilê Ayê (Que Bloco É Esse?)” and “Naja” are always about race, and turning them into blippy club bangers might reach some kids in the favelas. But the biggest lesson is taught by Jorge Ben himself, who schools Daúde on how to lay back in the groove when they duet on his classic “Crioula.” She’s still worried about being perfect, hitting the notes dead-on, when he saunters in, bleary-eyed and fashionably late, and aces it like a Brazilian Dean Martin before busting up some Portuguese rap.

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Essence of Tropicália

I was not my first choice for this piece. I was hoping a Portuguese speaker or, even better, someone who actually witnessed Tropicália’s birth would step up to wave the flag for the Gilberto Gil reissues. But these CDs have been sitting in the racks for months and nobody’s dancing in the streets, so you’re stuck with a fan who means to convince you that they’re not just this year’s nice old sounds. Their story goes something like this.

In 1967, Gilberto Gil and his fellow freedom fighters (Tom Zé, Caetano Veloso, and Gal Costa, among others) launched the Tropicália movement by hugging the music of the world. Caetano Veloso described the time in a mid-1990s interview: “We listened to Jimi Hendrix and were fascinated by his creativity; we heard James Brown and loved his energy; we heard the Beatles with their happiness and lightness and we were happy that all this existed.” They caused a riot at São Paulo’s televised 1968 International Music Festival while wearing plastic clothes and silenced hometown xenophobes by making pop records that sounded all the more Brazilian for their admixture and theft. They made some delicious pop music, oh golly. See the excellent Tropicália Essentials (Hip-O), which shares half its tracks with the collective’s less varied but equally excellent self-compiled 1968 manifesto Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis, for supporting documents of the time.

Tropicália’s recent resurgence has been bolstered by the ageless Veloso’s theater shows (documented on his new, shiny, and very Broadway Prenda Minha [Verve]) and hipsters discovering reissues of Os Mutantes, who leaned heavily on Gil and Veloso for their first and best album. The current trickle-down versions being attributed to folks like Beck and Cibo Matto are more misfiled bossa nova than new-school Tropicália. First time around, Tropicália was a hairy, gorgeous mess, and nobody embodied the mess more than Gil, the huggiest of them all. He is as big today as he was then on ’60s-associated attributes like fellow feeling, community concern, and “Let’s jam!” enthusiasm. Unlike Caetano, though, Gil hasn’t made many records I’ve wanted to hear since he traded in John Lennon for Bob Marley (though Grammy voters obviously dig his world reggae inna drum clinic style), so I’m not surprised other folks haven’t been digging in his crates.

This is sad for all involved. Even when his records haven’t served them, Gil’s songs are vigorous things, stretched between the athletic chug of forró and the sexy suspension of samba but never snapping. His quick-stepping rhythms and long-legged melodies vault right over “Ipanema” stereotypes. And Gil is easily the most rocking of the Tropicálistas: His solo acoustic shows sweat, hard. Witnesses from Rio’s 1999 carnival say Gilberto Gil doing off-the-rack reggae was still a pretty electrifying Gil. His sins of overstatement (see Quanta Live) lead him far enough away from the sangfroid and muted syncopation of bossa that you understand why indie rockers, already chary of “cheesy” emotions and expressions, have been more interested in quiet buddies like Caetano and founding stoner João Gilberto, whose new João Voz e Violão (Verve) is beautiful and mumbly enough to pull the bowlies. Bossa’s restraint is sorely missed in Gil’s music now, but you can’t blame him for getting the balance wrong. His early records worked hard to dispel the notion that Brazilian pop is a long, cool drink of water with lyrics in a funny language. Gilberto Gil’s ferocious syncretism has little use for understatement. He whoops and hollers his way through the harmonies and rhythms jammed into the corners. Gil is Tropicália’s rude essence.

Last June, Polygram Brazil released Ensaio Geral, a big, shiny, expensive box ($170 on dustygroove.com right now) that collected the six albums Gil released commercially for Polygram between 1966 and 1977 as well as six CDs of outtakes and live material. These titles have now been released individually and are available for around $13.99 each (try dustygroove.com or othermusic.com). Five of the six solo records of the box—Louvação, three albums titled Gilberto Gil, and Expresso 2222—are pretty much sure bets for anyone who likes a tune and a beat. Though Gil had been writing and recording since 1965 (“Louvação” had already been a hit for Elis Regina by the time Gil’s version was released), 1967’s Louvação is Gil’s first album under his own name. Gil makes bossa celebratory, giving it his all but never giving the crowd what they already know. He sounds feather-light on “Beira-Mar” but on “Louvação” and “Roda” he establishes career tropes: fast pacing, fluid fingerpicking, and ambitious melodies. He starts coloring outside the lines, slashing at his acoustic like he’s on loan from the Feelies, sending his voice way past the written tune with ecstatic slides. Gil wants to take the music higher, and you can tell bossa won’t hold him long.

After temporarily relocating from Salvador, the capital of Bahia, to São Paulo, Gil & Co. met Os Mutantes and composer Rogerio Duprat. The collective often worked, implausibly, on São Paulo TV, appearing in national song contests and hosting variety shows, even when in political disfavor. Arranged and “directed” by Duprat and played, in part, by Os Mutantes, Gil’s 1968 self-titled album is one of the collective’s finest moments. A grainy color Xerox of English go-go rock and Bahia folk, it sounds like 1968 AM radio played over soccer stadium speakers. The opener, “Frevo Rasgado,” is a lost game-show theme that prepares no one for “Coragem Pra Suportar,” a Pavement tune 20 years early, full of scraping sounds, goofy flutes, and the “Taxman” bassline. (“Eleanor Rigby” and “Hang On Sloopy” pop up later.) In “Marginália II,” boozy horns and strings battle it out at simultaneous weddings while Gil sends his voice up like a kite in a tornado, untroubled by the hubbub.

Hardliner General Costa e Silva put an end to all this fun with the Fifth Institutional Act of December 13, 1968, which sent Gil and Veloso to jail. After their release, they were allowed to work under house arrest in early 1969 for approximately four months, each recording an album’s worth of songs with acoustic guitar and voice and sending the tapes off to Duprat, who fleshed them out (to put it mildly). Soon both hit the racks with yet another self-titled album. For a guy under the government’s thumb, Gil sounds unusually perky. Drummer Wilson Das Neves does an elastic take on Clyde Stubblefield while Lanny Gordin, a major presence on these albums, gets a lot of mileage out of one electric guitar. Hipsters will gravitate toward his free jazz codas, stereo field abuse, and other “nonmusical” signals, but the noisy bits aren’t what made these albums contemporary then and they’re not what make them current now. Without the band kicking and Duprat channeling as much pop as Stockhausen, they wouldn’t have equaled the English pop the Tropicálistas loved.

In 1972, after two years’ exile in London, Gil returned to Brazil and recorded Expresso 2222, a significant break point that coincides with Gil’s participation in the Afro-Brazilian consciousness movement, which continued through the ’70s. Gone are the soigné turns of bossa and major-to-minor pop moves; in their place is a supple Afro-Brazilian funk that Gil would favor for the next 20 years. “O Canto da Ema” is Gil bouillon, a fast-moving, long melody cycling over a Fela ostinato guitar while drummer Tutty Moreno, as major a discovery as Gordin, stutters perfectly. The album closes with two solo voice-and-guitar songs, “O Sonho Acabou” and “Oriente.” Gil’s more-is-more playing and singing style provides enough rhythm and sound to cover the lack of bass and drums. If anyone can show up with a guitar and a microphone and make a big sound, it’s Gil.

Which is what he does on O Viramundo, a live album recorded mostly in 1972. Expresso 2222 done live, it’s a keeper from the opening duet with Veloso, “Cada Macaco no Seu Galho,” to the juicy 16-minute band workout “Brand New Dream.” The band is on a par with James Brown’s best, especially on the multilayered “O Bom Jogador.” Moreno is a treat no matter how many times he channels Lenny White, and Gordin spits fire. Cidade do Salvador, a previously unreleased 1974 double album, is a calmer, more fusion-prone elaboration on Expresso 2222. The rhythms are still the people’s; Fela is very much present on the delicious “Umeboshi,” and the drums get pleasantly papery on “Essa É Pra Tocar no Rádio.” The lead track, “Meio de Campo,” and “Eu Só Quero um Xodô” made a perfect 45 when they were released together in 1974.

Even Gil’s failures can set you free: a little great artist shtick, a jam gone over the cliff, too much hope for his fellow citizen. Couldn’t the last album you bought use a little of that kind of reach? In the midst of all the humming, smiling Powerbooks, Gil’s generous, forceful abraço spills over the edges, embarrasses and suffocates you a bit. Hug it back and live large for once.