Gilberto Gil - Daniel Neri/Arte UOL - Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

Gilberto Gil, 79, tells anyone who asks. The mother, Mrs. Claudina Passos Gil Moreira, identified her taste for music when her 2-year-old son said he wanted to be a “mossgueiro”. It wasn’t difficult for her to identify what he wanted to be: a musician. First, she sent the boy to study the accordion. Afterwards, she gave the money for the first guitar, which the 16-year-old accordionist didn’t go far to acquire. He found one at the Mesbla branch in Salvador, where the family lived. It was 1958, and the Luiz Gonzaga fan had just become intoxicated by the way João Gilberto played samba.

Gil tells this and other stories in the video above, “Origins: Music in the DNA of the Gil family”, produced by MOV, the video producer of UOLin partnership with ECOA, the platform for UOL for a better world, and the Diversity Center.

Before recording the first album in which he explicitly addressed the condition of being black, Gil went much further: in 1977, he traveled to Nigeria and Benin, more than 5,000 km from the Bahian capital. “No one comes back from Africa the same. We come back wanting to get closer to that filigree, that rhythmic sagacity typical of the African world”, he says in his studio in Rio. at the invitation of echo, the musician, close to turning 80, agreed to embark on another journey: he did a DNA test that maps genetic ancestry and indicates the likely places where his ancestors came from. And what did he show? Today, the inspiration for “Refavela”, 45 years after its release, sounds like a premonition of Gil’s reunion and his origins.

The black when it starts

It wasn’t Gil’s first time in Africa. Years before, he had gone to Angola, where, he says, he thought, “This is where all those like us come from, who are of black origin in Brazil.” But in Nigeria it was different.

There, he saw an entire continent leaning over the Second World Festival of Black and African Arts and Culture, which received about 17,000 artists from 56 countries, including Africans and those from the African diaspora (from Brazil, from Gil, to the United States, in Stevie wonder).

Gilberto Gil

Image: Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

The construction of accommodation for all these people, later used to alleviate the housing pressure in Lagos, led Gil to see parallels with the BNH (National Housing Bank) buildings erected here in Brazil at the time. “Refavela” was born (The refavela / Reveals the leap / That the poor black tries to make / When he pulls himself / From his shack / Prum block of the BNH), title song of the album that still had “Ilê Ayê”, “Babá Alapalá” and “Balaphon”.

“It was the first record that I decided to directly address the issue of black origin, blackness, the impacts of blackness on citizenship and on understanding the vision of the existential dimension. I would say that the changes [desta viagem] they are even sharper in music than in the field of speech. Musical notes are like words, they translate things and project images, as much as the verses of the lyrics of the songs”, says Gil.

The man who is many

In this sense, the test result proves something that Gil already knew from historical family accounts and the basic configuration of the Brazilian population, after all, Africans from the so-called Costa da Mina, a region that comprised Benin, Togo and Nigeria, were sent to Bahia.

Test gil - Daniel Neri/Arte UOL - Daniel Neri/Arte UOL
Image: Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

“It’s a kind of positive response via scientific data, which is proof of the genetic code. I always thought that I was racially and culturally multiple. I always thought that I am not one, that I am many.”

The presence of genetic material from Poland and Ireland surprised his wife, businesswoman Flora Gil, and her children, such as chef Bela Gil. For now, there are no discoveries that make Gil pull the guitar. “Maybe one day I will be curious and interested in speculating a little in poetic and musical terms about my Irish and Polish origins.”

Faced with the hypothesis that the discovery of these clearer roots in African, European and American soil could give new meaning to some of his compositions, Gil prefers to let time take its course. “These novelties in terms of the genetic code are still new to know if they will have an impact. I am like the Chinese, when asked about the French Revolution [1789]: ‘It’s a very recent thing to know what impacts it will have,'” he says, and then bursts out laughing.


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Gilberto Gil and Flora, in 1979 and in 2022. The two have been married since 1988.

Image: Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

In addition to Gil, Flora and other children agreed to take the test, which gave rise to a discussion about inheritance passed on in the family. “Thank God I married a black man. The result of our three children [Bem, Bela e José] It’s not like mine, but similar to ours. Everyone there will have something from Africa. This makes me very happy”, comments Flora. “It’s a family from Brazil with the face of many parts of the world.”

The son of black parents, the musician had relationships with white women. Before Flora, Gil had two other marriages. With belina Aguiar (1938-2019), had Nara and Marília. With Sandra Gadelha, she had Pedro, Preta and Maria. This miscegenation and the fame, reflects, spared their children more severe episodes of racism.

“In a society that was constituted and developed like the Brazilian one, mixing, especially with whites, is rather equivalent to manumission. It is equivalent to a kind of whitening, idealized a little by Brazilian society and Brazilian elites, who are basically of European origin.”

Gilberto Gil’s family tree

Music in the DNA of the Gil family

In addition to the African heritage, Gil sees transmitting another heritage ahead. “Music is in the Gil family’s DNA,” he says. The presence of four of the seven living children and three of the 12 grandchildren in the recording industry does not let him lie. But Gil’s consideration has a hint of philosophical reflection.

In addition to the innate tendencies, which could have come from the genetic inheritance itself, such cultural influences create new layers in what we call personality. The personalities of my sons, daughters, grandchildren and granddaughters benefit from this, so to speak, influence by osmosis, spiritual and transbiological, beyond the biological dimension. They are culturally heirs to something that has already grown and cultivated.”

At this point, the conversation intertwines with another point raised by Gil, which also took a philosophical turn. When talking about going to Nigeria, he relativized the power of grandiose events to exert great change in people’s lives, because even banal situations, despite their imperceptible and irrelevant impacts, change what they touch. “Everything changes people’s lives. The only constant in the universe is change. It is the only thing that remains in the eternal plan.”

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Gil and his family at various times: (from right to left) with his wife, seven children and ten of his 12 grandchildren; with her parents, Claudina Passos and José Gil Moreira; with the children and grandchildren at two different times

Image: Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

Here and now

Speaking of the cruel visit of time, the almost octogenarian doesn’t talk back when the talk is finitude. He says that he has already tried to resort to religious beliefs to try to understand or even anticipate some vision of what would come after death. Before going on, he pauses to reflect on why we think about the end of life:

We have this thing of wanting to coagulate existence, which gives us these moments to reflect on the possibility of the stagnation of this permanent flow. It is one of those forms of freezing that we have in order to be able to withstand the extraordinary and extreme elasticity of existence. Without being able to resort to these instances of agglutinating meaning and meaning, it would be absolute madness for not knowing where we are, what we are, what we came to, what we will be.”

gil2 - Daniel Neri/Arte UOL - Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

Gil and the family; (from left to right) Gil and his parents, José Gil Moreira and Claudina Passos Gil Moreira, on graduation day; Gil with Flora, Bem, Pedro, Gilberto, Nara, Preta, Maria and Marília.

Image: Daniel Neri/Arte UOL

Now, he says, he is content with uncertainty (“Just as I don’t know what it was like to get here, I don’t know what it will be like to continue after here”). But, in a way that only he knows, he gives his recipe on how to proceed:

“Nowadays, I just try to dedicate myself to being here now”, he says and recites the lines of “Aqui e Agora”, another song from “Refavela”:

From where the eye looks / Now that the ear hears / the time the voice does not speak / but the heart pays tribute”

“The best place in the world”, continues the videomaker from MOV Raquel Arriola who conducted the recordings.

“Aqui e Agora”, confirms Gil, already pulling out his guitar to strum the song.

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