School for cool

“He’s very warm. An amazing artist. He makes you ... get everything out.”

The 24-year-old Egyptian singer-songwriter Dina El Wedidi is talking about her first encounter with the great Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil, and with quite some excitement. She has just been announced as the musical protégé of the bossa nova king in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé programme, and is about to embark on a year-long association that is likely to prove stretching as well as exhilarating.

Not only a near-legendary performer and songwriter, whose honeyed voice has inspired two generations, Gil has been activist, rebel, politician, social campaigner and – for more than 50 years – tireless musical innovator. The notion of mentorship, he told me when we met in New York last year, chimes not only with his Brazilian musical tradition but with his beliefs.

“It’s one of the goals of an artist – besides using his creative possibilities, he also has this kind of, well, kind of work to do: passing on the tradition to young ones.”

These days, Gil’s musical range is broad, incorporating rock and roll, reggae and African music as well as the panorama of Brazilian styles. The past couple of years have seen him branch out even further, touring and recording with a French violinist and a Jewish cellist, constantly “part of the reinventing process”, as he puts it.

Starting with bossa nova as a teenager in the 1950s, he quickly moved into writing and playing songs that were more socially and politically aware, and was a founding figure of the Tropicalia movement of the 1960s. This political commitment will be a point of contact with his new protégé, herself passionately involved with Egypt’s revolution. As El Wedidi told me, her work includes not only performances with her own band but also “monologues” and political satire, finding ways to meld the “old ways of singing, the folkloric Egyptian tradition” with contemporary western styles. But always fuelled, she explains, by the passion to see a better future for Egypt, and a deep “trust in my generation”. The evidence of both lives, of the older musician and the younger, attests to a belief in the power of music to effect change.

Singer-songwriter Dina El Wedidi

Let’s hope El Wedidi’s activism doesn’t take her quite as far, though, as Gil’s took him, in the 1960s. The Brazilian regime that came to power in 1964 took fright at the growing popularity of the country’s new musical scene, and imprisoned both Gil and his close collaborator Caetano Veloso for several months before expelling them from the country in 1969.

By 1972 Gil was back in Brazil, however, his enthusiasm undiminished. As he talks, the 69-year-old has a vibrant energy, an appetite for ideas, that must have stood him in good stead during the time when his political ideals were put to the test: from 2003 to 2008 he served as Brazil’s minister of culture under president Lula da Silva, travelling the country and the world, setting up new cultural programmes, shouldering ministerial duties.

“It was six years of intense work,” he says, “prospecting reality, in dialogue with media, communities, international institutions. Designing specific programmes. Many things that were worth doing.”

Amazingly, during this time Gil also kept on touring and performing. “Every year I took an agreed period of leave, a month, to go on tour – and every weekend I would do concerts, around the country. A year before the end I wrote some songs and recorded an album [Broadband Pamphlet, 2008] about the whole new digital cultural thing, working with the internet and the committee for internet freedom.”

Awareness of a lack of creative as well as social opportunities for many Brazilians drove his ideal of a “creative commons”; one of Gil’s lasting achievements is the creation of Culture Points, cultural “hotspots” that offer access to creative education in digital form. “There are more than 4,000 now all over Brazil,” he says, “everywhere – in favelas, poor areas, universities, middle-class areas, villages.”

Since he left government, life has “changed drastically, in terms of physical and psychological comfort. For six years I had no sleep – it all even came into my dreams – it was too demanding. I don’t regret it at all, though, and I am grateful for what we could achieve, for Brazil.

“When I got the job I knew we would be a long way from what we idealistically planned. That’s what always happens. Goals and plans – the reality is always a little different. I was cool – let’s do what we can do, let’s be intense in terms of the energy we put into the work, let’s be intelligent about it, let’s get the best people. But I was cool.”

His coolness persisted through an epic battle with Microsoft, to ensure the open-source communications he felt essential to Brazil. And through the inevitable realities of practical politics. “Am I a socialist? I would like to be. In my heart, I am. I am pro-distribution, pro-equality. But, you know, in life, sometimes you have to compromise, it’s impossible to be pure in that.”

Whether Gil’s own music suffered during the ministerial years is a question he has often been asked. Almost as soon as Broadband Pamphlet was released in 2008 he followed up with a live album, Bandadois, in 2009, and in 2010 another, Fé Na Festa.

His touring schedule is “intense” (with “cool”, Gil’s favourite word). This summer will see him in London, as part of the London 2012 Festival – in the Back2Black programme, exploring cultural links between Brazil and Africa and, by contrast, on stage with the London Symphony.

There seems to be no diminution in his energy, or in his musical inventiveness. Rap is powerful in Brazil but, although he had involvement as a minister with rap communities, “It’s a very different approach to the idea of a song. They work with words in stato bruto, in the raw. The music is there, the rhythm – but not the melodies. They don’t work with music the way we do.”

Recent years have seen him immersed in the music of his native north-east, including forró. Is that, I ask, an old musical form? Oh no, he laughs. “In that region there were US air bases, you know, second world war, and they had parties with music for the soldiers, sometimes for all. ‘For all’. Do you see – forró. That’s where the word comes from.

“Umbrella-style. Open-source music.”

Back2Black begins on June 29,

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