GILBERTO GIL / “Up From The Skies”
In 1968, at the behest of then-President and General Artur da Costa e Silva, both Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested and jailed. No one seems to know what they were accused of and to my knowledge they were never actually charged with a crime. In ’69, they were released, but shortly thereafter, the military government of Brazil ‘asked’ Gil and Veloso to leave the country. The two singers complied, of course. By 1969, Brazil no longer had either a congress or parliament. There was no independent judiciary. In other words, there was nothing to stop the military government from doing pretty much anything they saw fit. (Meaning, beatings, torture, secret executions, ‘disappearances,’ and the like.) In Brazil circa 1969, once the powers-that-be decided that you were a problem, exile was probably a best-case scenario.
Both Gil and Veloso went to London, where, by all accounts, Veloso sank into a depression while Gil fell under the spell of psychedelic pop and all that went along with it. In 1971, Gil released an untitled album of mostly acoustic and mostly English-language pop/rock that is, I think it’s fair to say, more interesting than good. (The 1971 release was Gil’s third untitled release since ’68…and no, I don’t know why he had such trouble coming up with album titles.) I was ten songs in and just about done with the odes to mushrooms and Volkswagens and all things mystical, when I suddenly heard the opening lyrics to one of my favorite Jimi Hendrix tunes.
“Up From The Skies” (from Axis: Bold As Love) is one of Jimi’s ‘alien’ songs. From time to time, Jimi liked to write songs from the point of view of extra-terrestrials. I think it gave him that sort of ‘removed’ perspective that allows for introspection…or, at least, irony. “Up From The Skies” begins with the alien narrator wanting (in the first person, of course) to know about the “different lives on this here people farm.” “I heard,” continues the alien, “some of you got your families living in cages tall and cold.” It’s a beautiful image—well, it’s a beautifully-put image, at least—although I don’t know exactly what it’s supposed to mean. Whenever I hear it, I think of tenement buildings. Hearing Gil sing the line, and knowing the circumstances under which he was singing it, it suddenly seemed less like a specific, identifiable image and more like a diffuse metaphor for all the cold things we do to one another. Meaning, ‘family’ could be the human family and ‘cages’ could be anything. Could be exile, even.
Gil’s tone is considerably more measured than Jimi’s is. In Gil’s version, there’s no irony to speak of. Gil performs the song so ‘straight’ that you’d think he missed the whole bit about the alien narrator. (Except for when he throws in an ad-libbed line about flying saucers…maybe just to let us know that he knows?) Jimi’s alien, on the other hand, seems slightly bemused by the human strangeness he observes. “I come back to find the stars misplaced,” he sings. Not that it’s all a joke. The rest of that line is “…and the smell of a world that’s burned.”
Musically too, Gil’s take on the tune—vocal crooning and acoustic guitar strumming—is much more subdued and introspective than the original. Jimi’s version is sort of a send-up of ‘30s-era club music, opening with some frantic brushwork by drummer Mitch Mitchell before settling into a finger-popping, almost-danceable swing groove. Whichever version you prefer, it’s a great—and relatively unknown—tune.
And as a bonus, check out Caetano Veloso’s “Terra,” a tune which discusses explicitly what Gil touches on only implicitly. Even if you don’t understand what Caetano is singing about, you can hear the anger, pain, and most of all, loneliness of someone who’s been forced out of their homeland…and at the time, it must have felt like it would be forever. We know now though, that Gil and Veloso were able to return home in ’72. They went on to become two of the most important performers of in the history of Brazilian music.
—Mtume ya Salaam
It must be the dna ;->)
Well, I’llllll beeee … I’ve been here before. By the seventies, I was stretching my wings, my imagination flying around the world. I knew for sure that the white folks running the status crow were not where it was at. Like Jimi, I wanted to “hear and see everything” and not be restricted to what the power structure was telling me was worthy of being looked at. (I’m listening to Gilberto softly insisting he wants to see and hear everything, “including flying saucers.”)
This is one of Jimi’s most political songs when you put it in the context of authoritarian societies, social orders that have punitively-enforced taboos. In short, in the context of the United States, which declares itself open but is closed tighter than, tighter than (supply your own simile)… but that tight. Jimi didn’t holler and scream, he mumbled and moaned, but his behavior was so defiant, so absolutely anti-establishment.
On another note: when I was busting loose and began traveling the world (both physically, as in moving around the globe and aesthetically, as in listening to a wide range of musics) Gilberto Gil was the first Brazilian I ran upon. I used to have a bunch of early Gil records. In fact, I remember the Volkswagen image without remembering the specific song.
We used to listen to Jimi Hendrix all the time. We’d get a gallon of wine and sit in the den drinking and joking. Jimi up loud and the television on with no sound. Giggling and male bonding about nothing in particular. “Up From The Skies” was one of our favorite songs. Who was “we”? We were the young men about to pick up guns and join the black liberation struggle. “I want to know about the new Mother Earth. I want to hear and see everything.”
So, Mtume, you keep coming up with these soundtracks from my life and claiming they are yours. Hah! I wonder if my daddy found anything relevant in Jimi? Hence that throwaway line at the end of the song that Jimi drops: “If my daddy could see me now.” I’m glad I’m around to see you, Mtume, digging this, digging Gilberto. I knew you already dug Jimi.
OK, let me add a couple of tracks to the mix. First, the one I would play when I was doing radio was the Tuck & Patti version from Learning How To Fly. It’s pretty. It’s also very interesting in that they are a duo, a female voice and a male acoustic guitarist. I like what Tuck does acoustically with a song so identified with “the” electric guitarist of all time.
Second, I have this bootleg, Sting with the Gil Evans band that I uh… acquired… I honestly don’t remember from where. (That’s part of my activist training. The improper authorities could torture me all they want and I still would not reveal the source because i intentionally did not want to remember—I had no need to remember. What was important is that I had the info and am passing it on.)
So, dig, two trivia notes. 1. Branford is sitting-in with Gil's band. This was recorded in July 1987 at the Umbria Jazz 87 Festival. This is after Branford left Wynton’s band to join Sting. 2. Jimi Hendrix’s influence is deeper, much deeper, stronger and wider-reaching than most people acknowledge. Gil Evans, in most people’s minds, is associated with lush arrangements for Miles Davis. Both Gil and Miles were moved by Jimi. Gil even recorded a whole album of Jimi Hendrix music.
As for the DNA reference. I don’t believe in biological determinism at a political level; ideas per se are not passed on genetically. However, I do believe that some personality types are predisposed to iconoclasm and that’s what I think are in your genes, Mtume. In other words, I don’t think you are genetically predisposed to like Jimi as a guitarist, but I do think you are predisposed personality-wise to “want to see and hear everything” and thus, an iconclastic musician like Jimi would be attractive to you. And me.
Fly on, brother, fly on.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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