Brazilian Minister of (Counter) Culture: Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil has a quietly intense energy. The elegant pioneer of Brazilian song and gentle politician pulls his hair back in a ponytail, keeping the vestige of `60s rebellion discreetly maintained. His long, tapered fingers strum the air as he speaks. The Brazilian minister of culture would seem to be a model of diplomacy. But beneath the Zen surface lies a postcolonial lion.

“What’s at stake is the sharing, not the gaining, not the what I take from you; it’s what we both take from life that matters,” says Gil. He’s sitting in a hotel room on the eve of his first tour in the United States since taking office in `03 and several days after President George W. Bush’s visit to Brazil, about which he’s pontificating.

“This is the new cultural ingredient, this is the novelty, this is what I categorize as a soft power, the power that’s not conquering anything. It’s not there to conquer it, it’s there to share. This is the new concept of power. This is hippie.”

Gil should know. Forty years ago he was one of the founders of Tropicalia, the most important countercultural movement in Latin America and, given its continuing impact on cross-hemispheric politics and recent enshrinement in a globe-traveling museum exhibition, a peer to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury heyday and the Parisian student uprising. Tropicalia fused nationalistic interest in native cultural forms with the heady changes of international pop culture — it mixed samba and rock. As Gil said in a presentation at the South By Southwest conference here, it was “the last modernist movement and the first postmodernist one.”

For his innovations, Gil was imprisoned by Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1969 and then exiled.

As Gil has said, “Once I was the stone-thrower, now I am the glass.” But this glass reaches out to the stone. The appointee of Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is using his political power to make the sort of changes he might have envisioned as a young radical: funding community cultural centers that, among other things, are training grounds for Brazil’s politically charged rappers; creating a cultural dialogue with Africa; and reimagining intellectual property rights in the digital age.

“We were projecting on the future screen then. Some of the ideals and expectations and what we were trying to produce are getting results now. The fruit is ripe. Environmentalism, the peace movement, the intercultural processes — It’s the talk of the town now.” And then he quotes the title of a book that few government bureaucrats would know but is classic for an old hippie: Timothy Leary’s The Politics of Ecstasy.

Gilberto Gil’s life story embodies the changes in the region from a culturally rich but economically strapped entity that struggled, sometimes violently, to assert itself in a sphere still shrugging off European control to an increasingly self-empowered voice.

It’s a global leadership role that Gil says he has always found antithetical to his humble disposition, and which he wields with enviable aplomb.

Gil was born in 1942 in Bahia, the province where Brazil’s connection to Africa is most pronounced and some of the greatest music in the world has been made. He says he was a reflective and introverted youth, which made his transition into generational spokesman and agent provocateur difficult.

“One of the things that really bothered me was the sense of bothering others,” he says. “This really is uncomfortable for me, even if it’s true, if I’m right, even if I’m doing good. I was born to be agreeable, to please.”

Gil and his friends and collaborators, including Caetano Veloso, Os Mutantes and Jorge Ben, were making a scene in Sao Paulo. When they started playing psychedelic pop on a national TV show, they outraged the left as well as the right. It was the South American equivalent of Bob Dylan playing electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. Except Dylan never was jailed, interrogated, and thrown out of the country.

Tropicalia has become a widely romanticized movement, embraced worldwide by hipsters and intellectuals. It was the subject of a London art exhibit last year that then moved to Berlin, New York and Chicago. But for Gil, it was a painful, confusing time, marked by tumult, self-doubt, and brutal punishment. “It was agony,” he says.

In jail, Gil turned to meditation. He recalls thinking, “Now I’m here, what do I do with my life? What do I do with my time? What do I do with my boredom? What do I do with being lost in this dirty spot? And you have to look for the light, in physical and spiritual and substantial terms. Where is the light substance, how can I grasp it?”

The study of Eastern philosophies he began then has shaped his music since. It was the focus of a `99 book on Gil by artist Bene Fonteles that was accompanied by a CD. That CD, Gil Luminoso, was recently released commercially. Gil sings 15 songs from his past accompanied only by himself on guitar. It’s a spare, beautiful, reflective album full of poetic musings, such as on `75’s Retiros Espirituais (Spiritual Retreats): “How having problems can be the same as resolving not to have them/Resolve to have them is to resolve to have to ignore them.”

Gil has brought his experiences as a creator of culture to bear on his post as a policymaker. He’s used his unique position to become a world leader on the issue of intellectual property rights, a point of friction between developed and developing nations. He advocates a flexible approach to copyright in which some works of art may be universally owned, while others are still individually controlled. Gil has offered a handful of his songs up to anyone who wants them. At SXSW, Gil said it’s a philosophy that dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that the intellectual domain is the least adjustable to the concept of property.

Gil is a big-picture kind of guy. He’s a wide-ranging, well-read thinker who turns discussions into philosophical points, albeit sometimes with the elliptical vagaries of a Leary-quoter (compounded by the strange translations of a Latin language into a Germanic one).

“It’s very important that philosophy inform action. Despite the pragmatic demands of life, it’s this philosophical mapping that really gives you the possibility of being sufficiently humble to accept life and difference and the other, the non-you. I’ve been dedicating my life to this kind of research.”

In jail, Gil learned to accept that, as the Vedic scriptures put it, “all life is suffering.” That gave him a serenity that he now calls “the soft power,” and a psychologist might call passive aggression. If he has learned to have grace in the face of that he cannot change, beneath lies a well of courage to change what he can.

“This is the challenge of the future, how to create a new form of totalizing. The visit of President Bush to Lula is one of those things. It’s more than the summing of each side’s interests. The outsiders are gaining from their gain.”

It’s strange to see an icon of antiestablishmentarianism celebrating the visit of an unpopular American president. Gil has his critics, including old friends who think he’s sold out. But he sees his new role as a triumph and a vindication of his old views.

“Are you still a hippie?” someone asked him at the end of the SXSW press conference. “Definitely,” Gil smiled.

“Now it’s not just preaching in the desert, as it was then,” the minister of culture — or is that counterculture? — told The Miami Herald later, at the hotel. “Now it’s politicizing, it’s the citizen saying it, not me. It’s street talk, not the private agony of a crazy boy at home. Now it’s easy.”