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Gilberto Gil answering a question at the end of his performance.

Champaign-Urbana may be a fairly small urban area, but it has no dearth of cultural, musical, and educational events that enliven and enrich the community.

It’s not too frequently that a truly world-famous musician plays in Champaign-Urbana.  It happens, but not a lot.  It’s even rarer for there to be a talk given by a former minister of state of one of the most-populous countries in the world.  Yesterday, CU residents got a chance to see both at the same time.  And for free.  Sponsored by the Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies, the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the Center for Historical Interpretation, and the Department of History, Gil’s talk was part lecture and part musical performance with the goal of explaining the history of Brazilian music within its cultural context.  The songs were played solo, with only Gil’s voice and guitar, giving the performance a quiet, intimate, thoughtful feel.

Gilberto Gil is one of the biggest names in Brazilian music.  Along with Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, and others, Gil was one of the innovators of the Tropicália movement.  This musical movement took rock, experimental music, pop, and classical European music and interpreted aspects of these genres within Brazil’s musical landscape, combining them with bossa nova, samba, and other indigenous musical forms.  Gil, though, is more than just a musician and composer, having served as Brazil’s Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008.

Gil began with the arrival of the Portuguese to the coast of what is now Northeastern Brazil, the state of Bahia from which he hails.  He discussed the central role that music plays in Brazilian culture and how it can be a means by which we can better understand that culture.  His focus was on the development of Brazilian music through the influence of the three groups of people who would form what we now see as the Brazilian nation: Europeans (primarily Portuguese), Africans, and Native Americans.  In this respect, Brazil shares many similarities with the US.  Its population comes from all over the globe, many having suffered and still suffering the effects of slavery, subjugation, and colonization, and its music reflects this multicultural background.

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Gilberto Gil performing. (Apologies for the poor quality!)

For those interested in knowing his set list, I’ve put it below along with links to performances of the songs.  Where I was able to find a similar performance by Gil, I’ve linked to those.

  1. “Carinhoso” (Loving), music by Pixinguinha, lyrics by Braginha
  2. “Saudade da Bahia” (Longing of Bahia) by Dorival Caymmi
  3. “Asa branca” (White Wing) by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira
  4. “É Luxo só” (It’s Just a Luxury) by Ary Barroso
  5. “Domingo no Parque” (Sunday in the Park) by Gilberto Gil
  6. “Desafinado” (Out of Tune), music by Antônio Carlos Jobim, lyrics by Newton Mendonça

I was lucky enough to have studied Portuguese at UIUC for a few years during graduate school.  His performance felt to me like the capstone of the massive growth there’s been in the Portuguese Language and Brazilian Studies Program.  Not only has enrollment increased substantially in the past five or so years, if you keep an eye on their Facebook page, you’ll see that there are lots of events, activities, and presentations that aim to spread knowledge and understanding about Brazilian culture to the CU community. 

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