We gave it an A-
Here’s a modest proposal: Let’s all learn Portuguese. That seems perfectly reasonable after hearing O Eterno Deus Mu Danca by Gilberto Gil, one of the giants of Brazilian music. Gil wraps his light, canny voice so seductively around his songs’ lyrics that anyone with half an ear would have to wonder what he’s singing about.
And the lyrics — once you’ve read the translations provided with the album — reward your curiosity. That, for a start, is because Brazilian pop stars tend to be more thoughtful than ours, and also more politically involved. Gil was exiled from 1969 to 1972 by the military dictatorship that ruled his country. In 1987, under a different regime, he became secretary of education and culture for the Brazilian city of Salvador, an important provincial capital.
But Brazilian pop also tends to be poetic, and — maybe because Brazil has had so much poverty and so much political distress — bittersweet. So in his title song (an easy, dancing blend of rock and funk that translates as ”The Eternal God of Change”), Gil senses a new political eruption in the air. But then in ”Each Time in Its Place” he tells himself, over a light accompaniment of keyboards, percussion, and his own acoustic guitar, to take it easy, even in his work for political change. ”I can’t change a crazy world,” he gently sings, ”by throwing punches in the air.”
In ”Baticum” he turns lightly ironic. Over a beat with an elegant African touch, he first evokes the fun everyone had at what seems to have been a gigantic concert at the seashore, then places the event in the context of global politics by listing its corporate sponsors.
There are also songs with no political meaning at all, among them ”From Japan,” which — with its wish that the Japanese would invent a camera that can film dreams — is pure, airy fantasy. Then in ”Requiem to ‘Mae Menininha of Gantois,”’ Gil soars into a realm of musical fantasy as well. The melodies of some of these songs tend to meander, but in this track the variety of the music is its strength. Gil might be a lamenting beggar wandering along a street that runs the length of the entire world, a street where he’d hear African singing, the patter of Indian drums, and the harmony of European strings.
His lyrics are just as subtle, though at the same time extravagant. In ”Tie Your Plow to a Star” Gil tells a poor farmer to escape in fantasy to ”other smiling planets,” where he’ll harvest ”kilos and kilos of love” — and also, as he lightly adds, new kinds of pain.
But no matter how much we’re touched by shadings like these, we can’t hear Gil’s music in its true, full colors unless we understand his language. It’s a tribute to his power that — even though not all of these ten songs rank with his best — it almost seems worthwhile to learn Portuguese just for him. A-