Shawn Blore
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Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

The Globe and Mail , Tuesday, October 19, 2004 - Page A17


By Shawn Blore |

No stranger to political controversy, singer relishes role of artist as outsider.

RRIO DE JANEIRO -- Gilberto Gil emerges with guitar in hand stage right, pirouettes twice on the way to the microphone and begins a bossa nova version of John Lennon's Imagine. At 62 years of age and sporting slightly shaggy dreadlocks, the Brazilian musical superstar is simultaneously touring in support of a new album and directing policy as his country's Minister of Culture.

Handpicked in 2002 by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Mr. Gil's appointment was controversial from the start, as he had not been elected. His only formal political experience was a single term as a city councillor in his home town of Salvador. He said that his life experience as a singer and songwriter was training enough.

"In an artist's life, you also have enemies, you also have adversity, you also have disagreements about your conduct. It's also politics," he argued in an interview at his office in Rio de Janeiro after a performance.

Mr. Gil is a towering figure in the Brazilian music scene, one of a small group of artists who in the early 1960s gave Brazilian music new direction, a new definition, and even a new name: Tropicalismo.

The genre's political content proved too much for the ruling military junta, and Mr. Gil spent years in exile before returning. His on-stage persona remains surrounded by political controversy.

Government ministers with careers in entertainment are not unheard of, especially in Latin America. In Panama, singer-actor Ruben Blades serves as tourism minister. Retired soccer superstar Pele served as Brazil's minister of sport in the 1990s.

"There are others," Mr. Gil said. "The Minister of Culture of South Korea is a filmmaker. In Chile, we had a painter as minister of culture."

The uproar over Mr. Gil's appointment deepened when he announced that he planned to continue recording and performing while in office.

The salary he received, the equivalent of $48,000, was not enough for him to support his family, Mr. Gil said.After some criticism, he agreed to restrict his tours to weekends and holidays, which has affected his musical style.

His latest CD, Eletracustica, features Mr. Gil with a four-piece band, cut down from his usual double-digit complement of backup musicians. The stripped-down sound makes it easier to record, rehearse and set up for concerts.

Just as the controversy over Mr. Gil's schedule started to die down, new criticism swelled over a bill intended to strengthen Brazil's domestic film and television industry.The bill proposes slapping tariffs on advertising and foreign films in order to fund domestic television and film productions, but has raised hackles for a series of clauses suggesting domestic film and television industries should encourage family values and promote Brazil's national interests.

Critics, including many of the country's major newspapers, said the clauses represent a government attempt to control media content.

Authoritarian, bureaucratic and Stalinist were among the terms opponents used to describe both the bill and Mr. Gil -- a reversal from the adulation the performer has enjoyed producing more than 40 hit albums.

"I don't feel it," he said. "I consider it just rhetorical, part of the rhetorical elements for the political battle that's being fought."

Although he retaliated with harsh rhetoric of his own, Mr. Gil subsequently retreated, ordering the content clauses stricken from the bill.

But he is still trying to win committee approval and will then have to navigate the project through the fractious Brazilian congress, a process that has sunk three similar bills introduced by previous governments.

Mr. Gil believes his status as an outsider may prove the critical difference this time.

"If you think of a bureaucrat or a politician, an artist is a different person -- [he] has a different view of the world, a different considering of the relation between culture and power, culture and government."

Asked how that will help the bill, the minister paused, shook his dreadlocks and smiled. "I don't have a political career," he replied. "Power is not the question for me."

Back on stage in Rio de Janeiro, Mr. Gil brings a concert to a close with a song from his days of political exile in London. "Soy loco por ti, America. I'm crazy about you America. I'm crazy about you for love," he sings.

The crowd applauds, the curtain drops and Mr. Gil departs the stage to return to his day job.

Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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