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Artists such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails recently enjoyed huge publicity windfalls by distributing their music for free online, but they’ve got a way to go before catching up to Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil as digital visionaries.


Long before peer-to-peer file sharing turned the music world into a free-for-all, Gil was distributing his songs on the Internet.


He launched his Web site in 1996, began streaming his music for listeners and officially released the first song by a Brazilian artist through the new medium. It was a stage in a journey that has obsessed him for a half-century. In the 1960s he wrote the song “Electric Brain,” which presaged his Internet breakthrough three decades later, and his latest album is titled “Banda Larga” (Warner), or “The Broad Band,” in part a manifesto for a more democratic future driven by technology.


“It has been a dream of mine for a long time, this world we live in now,” Gil, who is in his 60s, says in an interview from his office in Brazil. “It is a natural outcome, a world in which technology allows universal access. It makes music and tools available to large parts of society that didn’t have that kind of access before.”


That “natural outcome” is still a few years off from reaching the poorest of the poor in Brazil, a vast country in which many citizens in the remote interior still do not have electricity, let alone computers.


Which is why Gil, in his latest role as his country’s minister of culture, is spearheading a project to ensure that each child in the country has a laptop within the next few years.


“The electronic culture is our future, and it needs to be open to everyone as quickly as possible,” he says. “I consider it my main goal as a politician.”


It’s not a role one would have predicted for Gil. In the ‘60s, he and fellow iconoclast Caetano Veloso were thrown out of Brazil by the dictatorial government for making music that openly questioned the status quo. Gil, Veloso and a handful of young artists led the subversive Tropicalia movement, which melded Brazilian sounds with rock and avant-garde music. Tropicalia embraced hybrids of seemingly incompatible styles, and tacitly celebrated the multiracial makeup of Brazil’s population. It was a time when music played a critical role in pushing a nation forward, at great personal risk.


“Gil himself, with his incredible ear and mastery of the guitar, his pulverizing sense of rhythm, was a constant promise that the limitations of our environment could be overcome,” Veloso wrote in his memoir, “Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil” (Knopf).


When they returned from exile in the ‘70s, Gil and Veloso were greeted as heroes, and their music has remained one of the country’s greatest cultural exports ever since.


“Tropicalia was about opening the social mentality to changing processes of values: moral values, social values,” Gil says. “Now this technological revolution is complementary to what we started then. Tropicalia helped the society to understand the miscegenated side of itself. It is a process that is ongoing, and in some ways we are still coming to grips with it.”


Indeed, “Banda Larga” is firmly in that polyglot tradition, a typically adventurous mix of samba, reggae, rock and electronic music, with programming from Gil’s son Ben. Because of its fluidity, its constant openness to “picking up fragments from the environment around me,” as Gil says, the singer’s music remains remarkably forward-looking and impossible to pin down.


Now Gil is leading another revolution, this time from his position inside the government.


“No, I couldn’t have imagined this happening to me,” he says with a chuckle. “At the same time, I was always attentive to the tides of life. I’m surfing a new wave right now, and I’m part of this institutional world that I once stood outside of. From outside as an artist, I was able to influence minds and hearts, as part of the cultural revolutionary process. But now as a minister, dealing with material things, I’ve been able to influence lives more directly. I see my role as getting the corporate side of society to understand their responsibilities and to influence the material lives of the people in a positive way. I was dealing with ideas and feelings, and now I’m dealing with projects.”


Not that he has stopped dealing with “ideas and feelings.” He still finds time to record and tour. As at all his shows, he will allow anyone to record or videotape the performance and upload the content for distribution on the Web.


In that respect, he is participating in public policy he helped set when he allied Brazil with the Creative Commons movement several years ago. It allows for individual artists to remove copyright restrictions from their work to make it as widely and freely available as they wish. Gil believes that artists should be paid for their work, but that they should also be allowed to be flexible in dealing with the new possibilities offered by the Internet.


“Free use is not a criminal thing,” Gil says. “It is wrong to criminalize the users. Artists can still be paid if we remodel the business. Who would pay? The big corporations. They are interested in having music associated with their marketing processes.”


Depending on corporations hardly sounds revolutionary, but Gil says that such adversarial thinking isn’t in anyone’s best interest.


“Making music got me in trouble with the government before, but not now,” he says. “In the past you’d talk about right and left in politics, but they are converging. Now I can use music to build consensus. We all can have a stake in this. We can build a revolution from within.”

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