Gilberto Gil: Live From the NYPL 10 November 2011

Gilberto Gil used more than seven words to describe himself. Among them were singer, songwriter, musician, politician, environmentalist, and promoter of digital culture.

In his opening remarks Paul Holdengräber mentioned a line from a favorite African poet: “When an old man or an old woman dies, a library dies with them.” It’s great that the New York Public Library records these conversations so that these stories remain with us. Some of them are up on YouTube. Before the interview we watched a video of Flash Rosenberg’s drawings of the conversation with Keith Richards.

First thing I noticed was that there were a lot fewer seats set up than usual in the auditorium. And that’s a shame because Gil not only talked but he sang.


Holdengräber said he was sorry to follow that with conversation and Gil’s response was, “Music is conversation.” They started off talking about the influence of bands like the Rolling Stones on Gil’s music. Gil loved the look of the pretty young boys, that the music was minimalized, that rock and roll is an extreme level of simplicity with an abrasive rush of sound. He said that they are pleasing us with that [here Gil imitated the sound of crushing metal] and everyone recognizes something of his or herself in the music. Holdengräber asked Gil if he also liked the bad-mannered attitude and Gil answered yes. Holdengräber added, “You like the attitude of getting in trouble? I see you smiling.” Gil kept smiling and responded, “Yes. Trouble. Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, jazz, blues – you don’t hear them specifically in my music. You hear it in the attitude.”

Gil talked about his beginnings, how his mother sent him to music school because that was what he wanted. His friendship with Caetano Veloso and the tropicália movement and their update of Brazilian music. In order to establish something new you have to de-stablize the old and they got into trouble because of their attitude, the way they dressed, their long hair, and the distortion on the guitar. When the military took over in Brazil, Gil and Veloso were thrown in jail and then exiled. They ended up in London and decided the future was to live in the present and to go back to bossa nova and bring it up to rock and roll. Gil sang a song that was from the start of his time in exile – he had written a song to say goodbye.

In London Gil discovered reggae (and just missed meeting Bob Marley). The Rasta culture fascinated him and it made him think about the African influence on Brazilian culture. Veloso had said, “We were never conscious of our blackness before Bob Marley.” They also talked about Harry Belafonte and the bridge from calypso to reggae. We saw a clip of Chris Blackwell talking about first meeting Bob Marley. He said that Marley was the real character that Jimi Hendrix played. Gil then played a beautiful version of “No Woman, No Cry” where he switched back and forth from English and Portuguese.

Gil has written articles on music – the difference between music of the world and world music. Like saying bossa nova is Latin jazz to make it more palatable.

Gil is very interested in the internet and all its possibilities. He served as Brazil’s Minister of Culture (he returned in 1972 after being jailed and then exiled in 1969) in 2003 to 2008 and developed a Digital Department to increase dialogue between the state and the corporations. He believes we should celebrate how we can share – before we dealt with scarcity and now, in the digital world, we deal with abundance. If you have access to the internet you have access to the world – it’s transformative.

Gil ended with talk about drug use, the positive effects of marijuana and psychedelics, and how he is now interested in his inner life. “I’m an older man and I’m trying to live accordingly.” He told us a proverb that rhymes in Portuguese: Conformity in age.

Gil also ended with a song and he had us sing the la la las. The feel was intimate – not only because there were fewer people but because of Gil’s warmth and love.

By Carene Lydia Lopez