GILBERTO GIL / “Rebel Music”

When Kalamu told me that Gilberto Gil had recorded a tribute CD to Bob Marley, my initial reaction was similar to that of an reviewer who wrote:

It is Gilberto doing Marley without any Gilberto flairs. It's not a fusion of Brazilian music with Reggae, just an artist singing the old tunes with the old band…. Save your money and buy the old Marley records.

Of course, I hadn’t yet heard the CD, but the above is exactly what I thought. Why would I want to hear anyone—even as great a musician as Gilberto Gil—attempt to remake a bunch of Bob Marley songs?

Another reviewer answers that question well:

Gilberto Gil here does much more than duplicate Bob Marley, although the basic sound indeed is in the same spirit. The difference is subtle at first until you listen several times, and actually play the Marley original side by side with the Gil interpretation. … Gil shows the utmost respect to Marley by resisting any impulse to take over. But the difference is very definitely there when you tune in to the instrumentation, and it is the instrumentation which adds the Brazilian flavor.

The second reviewer gets it exactly right. The beauty of these covers is in the details. Gil does indeed stick closely to the originals—in the English language songs, he seems to be reading the lyrics from the sheet music, changing not even a single word in the process. For the average fan, Gil’s tribute may indeed sound more like a collection of copies rather than covers. But for hardcore Marley fans like myself, Gil’s new arrangements are wondrous. Gil and his band perform these familiar songs with Brazilian (instead of Jamaican) instrumentation and with subtle changes and accents that detract nothing while adding something new.

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Gil obviously reveres Marley’s music. He proves it by the way he approaches Marley’s songs with delicacy, professionalism and meticulousness. Every note is just so. “It’s like replanting a tree,” Gil told one interviewer. “You have to be careful.”* But this is no chamber music recital. This is black popular music. So Gil whoops and yells his way through “Three O’Clock Roadblock.” He anchors his version of “Waiting In Vain” with the optimistic twang of a (to my ears) slightly out-of-tune mandolin. He fills “Buffalo Soldier” with a gorgeous cacophony of Brazilian instruments the names of which I wouldn’t even attempt to pronounce.

If you’ve never heard these songs, maybe you should indeed go with the first reviewer’s suggestion and buy Natty Dread or Burnin’ or one of the many Marley collections of hits. But if you already know and love these songs, by all means, buy Kaya N’gan Daya—I promise that you won’t be disappointed. For me, listening to Gil’s album was like discovering something new about an old friend.

* Gil quote is from a review of a 2002 live performance of the Kaya N’Gan Daya album. For the full review, see:,11712,754240,00.html

          The minister of culture         

First, the good ol' USA don’t got no Minister of Culture. Second, if we did have one, who would it be? A Cheney appointee? When I first heard of Gilberto Gil, he was in exile. The military had run him out of Brazil. Over a decade or so later, when I jaunted to Bahia, Gilberto was an elected official at the municipal level. By the turn of the century, when a new government takes over, Gil is appointed to a government ministry. Not bad for a musician.

By all accounts he is doing a better job than the president, but right now, with his political life as a backdrop, I have to give Gil props as the best interpreter of Bob Marley music I have ever heard. Nobody else is even close.

If you want to fully appreciate what Gilberto Gil has done, you’ve got to get the DVD. He did a concert of the music in São Paulo, plus there are extras. Interviews and outtakes and a mini-documentary about Gil going to Jamaica.

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I especially appreciate how Gil pulled the I-Threes together to be on this album. As soon as I got my hands on it, I shared it with Mtume, who was equally enthusiastic about it. The way I tell if a piece of music is 'universally' hip is if both Mtume and I think it’s top shelf. Our tastes overlap a lot but when it comes to saying what’s excellent, we both tend to be stingy; collectively, we are very, very reluctant to elevate to classic level anything other than the absolute best. Mtume, who is a bigger fan of Bob Marley than I am, was ecstatic. Then I got the DVD—which musically has some stronger moments than the CD (especially the DVD version of “No Woman, No Cry”). Unfortunately, my DVD is in New Orleans, or I would have ripped the audio track and included a DVD selection in the jukebox.

I disagree that Gil was faithful to the Marley arrangements. I think Gil was faithful to the spirit of the songs, but the instrumentation is totally different, as is the phrasing, and especially the rhythmic emphasis. On the instrumentation tip, there is prominent usage of accordion, banjo and flute, none of which were featured in Marley originals. These are not Brazilian instruments, so it is not just the percussion that is different.

Gil sings in English, but he swings in Brazilian, so even though reggae is influential in Brazil, still Brazilian reggae has its own flavor, which is lighter and far less menacing than the undercurrents in Jamaican stylee.

No doubt though, the biggest change is the rhythm section. Based on a battery of a trap drummer and two percussionists, Gil’s interpretations, rhythm-wise, are in a world all their own.

For me, what is masterful about all of this is the subtlety of the music. At the risk of being misunderstood, I will use this analogy: whereas Bob’s music had a masculine swagger (even when it was seductive and sweet), Gilberto’s interpretations have a feminine grace (even when he is articulating anger).

If you get the DVD and watch how the band moves you will understand what I mean by “grace,” you will see that there is nothing aggressive about their forwardness, they smile instead of scowl—perhaps I am seeing something that is not there, or seeing only what I want to see, but I think not. I really believe that the English influence is one of aggression, whereas the African elements are paramount in what Gil does, so even the patois, the way they naturally (?) speak, there is none of that Tough Gong yard talk in the Bahian expressions—and, I know, I know, how violent Brazilian society is, but still, even with all of that there is a certain curve to Brazilian expressions that smooth out the angular thrusts that are a vital component of Jamaican reggae. (These words might not make much sense as just words, but if you get the DVD and compare it with any of Bob’s performances you will see what I mean.)

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Mind you now, I am not preferring one over the other. I am not saying that Gil soft is better than Tuff Gong, nor vice versa. Actually, I am saying we need them both. They are complementary and we do our music an injustice when we overemphasize one aspect or when we ignore the other aspect. Preserving the whole is my interest, and what Gil does is give us the soft center, the tender interiors that the hardness of external shell is suppose to protect—we can not fully live without both. We must protect our beauty but we must also be beautiful, without beauty our protectiveness is merely thuggery. Gilberto Gil reminds us: though the fist is necessary, particularly in these here a times, still the fist alone is not sufficient, we must have heart in order to be fully who we are. Heart and all that heart implies. We must have heart.

—Kalama ya Salaam

          agree whole heart-edly           

Your analogy is a stretch, but I agree with it wholeheartedly. More and more, I find myself seeking the beautiful rather than the powerful. I appreciate power, but I desire beauty. Maybe that's one reason why, despite my love for hip-hop, I rarely listen to it these days. (I have to laugh at myself because, even as I'm typing the words 'I rarely listen to it,' I'm listening to Jeru Tha Damaja ripping up a Premier beat: "I'm The Man" from Gang Starr's absolute, stone-cold classic Daily Operation. Gotta post some of that classic material one of these days.) Anyway, I think it's true that Brazilian's have something intrinsically 'soft' about their vibe, their music, their style. Actually, the word 'soft' isn't really the right word. Whatever the right word is, it probably doesn't exist in American English although I'd bet it does exist in Brazilian Portuguese.

Me and Kalamu have talked about this before. About how the best-known Brazilian male vocalists—Caetano, Jorge, Gilberto, João—all have a 'soft,' 'feminine' sound or style. (I know this isn't accurate; I'm doing the best I can with the only language I know.) In American R&B, we do have Al, Marvin, Prince, Smokey, D'Angelo and many, many others, but I think most of those artists are noted for their 'softness' being an exception to the rule. I don't know where I'm going with this, so I'll just stop now. I guess I was just agreeing. I especially like the second-to-last sentence. "We must protect our beauty but we must also be beautiful [because] without beauty, our protectiveness is merely thuggery." How true. How beautiful.

—Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Sunday, October 9th, 2005 at 12:03 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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