Gilberto Gil at Massey Hall

Gilberto Gil playing at Massey Hall November 2012

R. and I went to Gilberto Gil’s concert at Massey Hall 19 November. We didn’t know what to expect but after a couple of songs I said to R., “It’s a pop concert!” Initially I found that a bit off-putting but as the evening unfolded it dawned on me that the music that was being played had its basis in the rural folk music of Northeastern Brazil called Forró, and that the presentation of this rather obscure form of music in a pop context made it accessible to the average North American listener. R. observed that it sounded like a cross between Cajun and Klezmer music. I thought it sounded like the Arab music I heard one night long ago at the Empress Club in Berkeley Square which was a night club for wealthy Arab expats in London.

Gilberto Gil’s virtuosic band consisted of two electric guitars, one of which he played himself, accordion, violin, electric bass, electric banjo (!) drums, and percussion, including big drums and triangle.

To ears unused to the melodies and rhythms of the Baian dance music of North Eastern Brazil, the first half of the concert sounded like the same song played over and over.

In the middle of the concert Gilberto Gil changed the pace by singing a ballad. The second half of the concert consisted of two Bob Marley songs and concluded with more Forró music. The encore was three songs long.

Throughout the evening the audience was encouraged to participate by clapping and singing along to the music. At first a few people in the balcony started dancing but by the end of the evening just about everyone was dancing, upstairs and down. A good part of the audience knew the Brazilian words to the songs and they sang along.

Gilberto Gil speaks perfect, eloquent English. He spent a couple of years in England and later served as Brazilian Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008. Between the tunes he explained something of the origin of the music, which added a lot to the experience. He said that the many influences on Brazilian music constituted an entire family of national musical traditions. Arabs brought their music to Spain and from Spain it traveled to the Americas, notably Brazil and Mexico. When Napoleon conquered Portugal the Portuguese royalty emigrated to Brazil, the nicest of their colonies. They were directly responsible for introducing the the Mazurka and the Schottische, or Scottish music.

Forró’s standard-bearer in Brazil was the singer and accordionist Luiz Gonzaga (1912-89), who made Forró a nationwide phenomenon. Many of the songs in last night’s concert were written by Luiz Gonzaga but re-invented by Gilberto Gil for modern instruments.

We left thinking a trip to Bahia to listen to music wouldn’t be a half bad idea.

Here’s a link to a CBC interview with Gilberto Gil where you can also hear some of his music.

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