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Gilberto Gil Goes On Line

By Banning Eyre

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  There aren't many pop musicians you can compare with Brazil's Gilberto Gil. Thirty-two years after he began his recording career and became a founder of the so-called tropicalia cultural movement, he remains one of the most popular, inventive, and relevant musicians in his country -- no small achievement in the world's sixth-largest music market. Gil has just released his 32nd album, Quanta (Mesa), and it fairly overflows with samba, reggae, rock, bossa nova, country music, and artful balladry. It meditates on the big subjects: science and art, religious truth, and how technology is changing the world for both better and worse. Heady fare for a pop record, but Quanta, his first collection of new songs since 1991's Parabolica, hit the charts alongside work by Brazil's trendiest youth bands. At 55, Gil survives the way Dylan has, only his career has known no troughs. Instead, it's traced a steady trajectory toward pop perfection.

"Quantum is a minimum of action" writes a Brazilian physicist in a letter to Gil that's printed in Quanta's liner notes. That theme weaves through the disc on many levels. None of its 20 jewel-like songs runs more than four and a half minutes, but they create a sprawling, hungry embrace of everything from Gil's African roots to God and the cosmos, personal reflections, the wowing possibilities of the Internet, and of course all those musical styles.

Gil's bossa novas are as romantic and pensive as any. His accordion-driven forro number -- a celebration of the garlic pill -- pumps out the hook-laden, foot-stomping exuberance of the Brazilian northeast. "Ciência e arte" ("Science and art") is a rollicking country samba; "Dança de Shiva" ("Shiva's dance") caresses with a cool, urban take on that signature Brazilian pop rhythm. When Gil veers into reggae and rock territory, he sings with the cutting urgency of Bob Marley, recalling his own early days as a rabble rouser during Brazil's 1960's military dictatorship.

Yet he's a literary figure, too -- you can pore over the lyrics of Quanta's interconnected songs as you might a volume of poems by a favorite writer. The title track sets forth his cosmic subject matter for the entire song cycle: "I know that art is the sister of science, both daughters of a fleeting God who makes and in the same moment unmakes. This vague God behind the world, from behind the behind." "Opachorô" takes its images from the Afro-Brazilian candomblé religion: "All the enchantments/So many rare things/To dry up the weeping." Gil probes social injustice in "Chiquinho Azevedo," a true-life parable about rescuing a drowning "boy from Ipanema" who was then refused treatment by a doctor more concerned with being paid than with saving lives. He savors paradoxical transformations, as in the song where a lovers' fight begins as a "bomb that exploded in the lobby of our love" -- a bomb that turns out to be "but a firecracker."

"Pela Internet" ("By the Internet") is a rocking celebration of the computer network, complete with downbeat slam, bluesy harmonica, DJ scratching, and playful vocal ad-libs echoing Mick Jagger's endless quest for satisfaction with the line, sneered in English during the fade, "Got no connection!" Gil's image in this song isn't a superhighway but an "infosea," where the port of call receives not slave ships and merchandise but diskettes and far-flung missives. "I want to enter the Net," he sings, "to contact the homes in Nepal, the bars in Gabon, that the carioca chief of police warns on his mobile."

The concept of instant connection has special resonance in a place like Brazil, which has some of the world's most bustling modern cities and also some of its remotest hinterlands. One of the country's best new bands in recent years, Chico Science and Nacao Zumbi, used as their logo a parabolic dish rising out of a crab-filled mangrove swamp. Chico Science looked like Brazil's most likely torchbearer for Gil's ravenously inclusive artistic spirit before he was killed in a freak car accident this past February. Gil collaborated with Chico Science once; and he dedicates Quanta to his friend's memory. Although the album was probably already in production when the young singer died, Gil's "çtimo de pó" ("An instant of dust") makes a fitting memorial with its poignant reflection on the vastness and the brevity of life. Another cosmic paradox from one of the world's most intelligent and soulful pop musicians.

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