Gilberto Gil turned 80 a few days ago, on the same week that Paul McCartney reached the same milestone. The last half-century has seen both artists move from pop hit-makers to music’s elder statesmen and, finally, to cultural living legends. Despite the worldwide ubiquity of the Beatles—and the (sadly) relatively unknown state of Brazilian music outside the Portuguese-speaking world—the two are fascinatingly similar.
Both Gil and McCartney formed their reputations in famous collaborative efforts: McCartney’s celebrated partnership with John Lennon as the main songwriting force in the Beatles; Gil and Caetano Veloso, on the other hand, never played together in a real band—the closest they came was the 1977 Doces Bárbaros tour with Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa—but their musical and personal alliance bore fruit in many of their classic recordings and compositions from the late 60s and early 70s.
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Like McCartney, Gil was the one in the pair more apt to delight in flights of melodic or harmonic fancy, allowing the lyrics to be silly, nonsensical—or to toss away words completely and embrace a well-timed “la la la” in simple delight of the sound. As a consequence, both men have been assaulted by (unsurprisingly) lyrics-obsessed dorks who often make up much of professional music criticism.
Both also made raw, messy, and powerful records in the early 70s that pushed the boundary of radio-friendly pop music while also writing hummable, anthemic hits like “Aquele Abraço” or “Maybe I’m Amazed.” At the same time, both Gil and McCartney had a willingness to be weird or embrace the innovations of the musical avant-garde: the latter, most famously, with “Revolution 9” and McCartney II; the former in the out, free-jazz-inspired vocal gymnastics and guitar playing he brought to nearly every recording session, especially the 2LP “Ogum, Xangô,” the exceptionally weird jam session with a far more straight-laced Jorge Ben. (Gil’s entire presence on “Taj Mahal” is a masterpiece of wild, near abrasive abandon and musical genius blasting from the left speaker.)
Like so many others, both Gil and McCartney went down the unfortunate cul-de-sac into overproduced pop music in the 80s. But for both artists, each album contains at the very least one pure gem that could stand tall with any of their finest work.
That dynamic was what made me think of comparing them in the first place: on McCartney’s birthday, I tweeted a thread of links to one favorite, less widely known song on each of his solo albums. I figured I could do the same with Gil and create two interesting playlists in Spotify. Both are below.
McCartney’s music was very important to me in my formative years. Back at the Morristown, NJ, bootleg shop where I spent so many high school afternoons, the regular customers would be known by their primary musical interest. (This made things easier for Mal, who’d have to keep track of orders for the very limited run bootlegs.) I was “Beatles Dave”; my buddy was “Van Halen Mike.”
My interest in Brazilian music started innocently enough in college, and soon I was trying to figure out how to dive in. Back then, it was harder than you’d think to justify dropping $35 on a disc when you can’t make sense of the language and can only take a stab in the dark based on the artist and the year of release (sensible rule: you can’t go wrong with something from the early 70s). For about a decade, there were quick bursts of enthusiasm—like when a new record from Marisa Monte or Caetano Veloso would be released—but it faded within a short time.
This music became an obsession for me years later, when I got hooked on a few YouTube videos in 2012. There was the infamous clip of Gal Costa singing “Que Pena” with Jorge Ben in 1982—maybe the grooviest and sexiest improvised duet ever filmed. And then there was Gilberto Gil’s 2012 Concerto de Cordas & Máquinas de Ritmo, an immaculately-played concert film of many of Gil’s most celebrated compositions, arranged for strings and percussion. This, it turns out, is a minor entry in Gil’s discography, but for me it was the key that unlocked the next decade of enraptured listening.
Last week, Amazon Prime released five-episode “Em Casa com os Gil” (“At Home with the Gils”), a reality show focused on Gilberto Gil’s family, and preparations for a concert tour they will take this year. It’s one of the most wholesome and enjoyable things I’ve seen in a long time.
While watching it, I thought about how unlikely something like this would be in the America of 2022: an articulate and thoughtful rock star talking about the importance of family and tradition, surrounded by kids and adult children of every age—with no hint of trashiness whatsoever. It was refreshing to see.
The music is wonderful, too: each family member selects a song they’ll perform from Gil’s huge catalog, and describes why that song is meaningful for them. It’s great, even if you’re unfamiliar with the music.