On tour through the globe’s indigenous and marginalised peoples in Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s Viramundo, Gilberto Gil is turning the world upside-down.
Heal The World by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Named after Gilberto Gil’s 1988 live album, Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s Viramundo is both a tour with Brazil’s first black minister of culture through the world’s marginalised and indigenous peoples, but also Gil’s attempts to turn the world upside-down through music. Breaking down the Manichaean division between black and white in Brazil, Australia and South Africa, the Bahian singer leads us on a journey through traditional music and protest songs. It’s an anthropological study opening on a Salgado-esque sea of faces, with Gil uniquely placed to get under their skin, jamming with orchestras in Soweto or rappers in Redfern, Sydney and drawing out similarities in the music of oppression the world over.
Gilberto Gil is in Salvador for Carnival, singing as a member of the Sons of Gandhi. Further north in Cachoeira, he meets with school students who discuss the ex-minister’s legacy of education through technology and the integration of Brazilian Indians. In Australia, Gil meets politician and former lead singer of Midnight Oil Peter Garrett and visits a school where aboriginal children teach themselves on laptops and Google. He also meets Shellie Morris, a half-aborigine singer who takes Gil to Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories to take part in a bawaka blessing ceremony and listens to the aborigines’ traditional songs. In Soweto, he practises with a mixed youth orchestra as well as Vusi Mahlasela and Xhosa singer Madosini Latozi Mpahleni for a concert in Johannesburg. His musical world tour ends back in Amazonian Brazil, singing with indigenous singer Sabrina Santos, and contemplating the problems that unite people across the globe – poverty, education and integration.
Wearing any old T-shirt, Gilberto Gil is a humble man. And as he walks the streets of Salvador on the eve of Carnival, he’s well loved too – approached and greeted on all sides. Brazil’s first black Minister of Culture, Gil is a Bahian through and through, instilled not only with their love of music but also the Caribbean state’s mixed ethnic heritage – part Portuguese, part black, part Amerindian. He’s taking part in the procession, as a singer in the Filhos de Gandhy – a non-religious candomblé musical group which brings all colours together in an impressive sea of white turbans on Salvador’s packed streets. But before that we’re treated to an unplugged street rendition of A Raça Humana – a song laying down Gilberto Gil’s purpose – to unpick the threads that connect the human race and that unite the oppressed and colonised the world over.
As a music man, Gil is able to access the downtrodden and marginalised in a way which would be inconceivable for anyone else, breaking down barriers and finding common ties though music. Rapping with aborigine kids in Australia in defence of the Black and Yellow, it’s not only colours that link these disenfranchised peoples, but design, religion, music and instruments too, underpinning their struggles with a common context. And as Gil seizes the opportunity for interviews with musicians and project workers the world over, singing La Renaissance Africaine or extolling the virtues of web learning, we catch a glimpse of a united protest with similar calls for integration and self-determination.
Africa, Australia and Brazil’s disaffected indigenous folk share the same problem of marginalisation, leading to suicide, alcohol and drugs. They’re balanced between two worlds, like Shellie Morris singing in an estranged tongue given to her by her sister, or like the aborigines’ gularé song – about a dolphin in the mouth of a creek where salt and freshwater meet. Against a history of oppression, it’s often a question of self-belief and finding a voice, learning to be equal in order to close the gap. Viramundo though is an anthropological exploration of the world through music, the aborigines’ traditional songs at the bawaka blessing, where Gil is unflappably daubed in white, proving a human need for music as much as a self-assertion through didgeridoo and pride. In South Africa, from the mixed MIAGI Youth Orchestra, with its black and white musicians blowing trumpet and stringing violin, to Madosini Latozi Mpahleni’s berimbau music and Vusi Mahlasela’s dark soul, Gil explores Africa’s black past of slavery and apartheid and its Mandela-inspired future of a rainbow nation, only able to be at peace with the world when Africa learns to be at peace with herself.
Taking on the unwieldy subjects of racism, integration and world peace, Pierre-Yves Borgeaud’s Viramundo is too broad to bring any change to these prevailing winds. And in the absence of any solution to the issues raked up, there are some unsubtle hints in the final coda towards Gil’s legacy as Minister of Culture, as his final song is intercut with images of Aborigines and Africans watching him on the internet, the world suddenly smaller. Closure on such a hefty topic is inevitably somewhat forced, but Borgeaud does well to structure Viramundo like music rather than a traditional documentary narrative, ending with a variation of A Raça Humana reprised from the beginning. And if not peace, it is nevertheless a harmony for the world thanks to whirlwind maestro Gilberto Gil, Viramundo providing both soul food and Brazilian soul.
Viramundo is released on 26th July 2013 in the UK