• Gal Costa, A Mermaid Who Washed in From the Sea

    In the early ‘70s, during her first wave of stardom in Brazil, Gal Costa looked like a mermaid who had washed in from the sea: a doe-eyed nymph with a bikini top and a flower pinned to her hair. She had a honeyed voice of uncommon grace, and sang with a childlike innocence. But Costa was also fearless. In the same concert she would yowl out the acid-tripping Afro-Brazilian rock known as Tropicália; sing samba with the lighted possible touch; barrel her way through funk, blues, and folk songs from her native Bahia.

    It began in 1964, when the teenage Gal—born Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos in Salvador, the capital of Bahia—took part in a pair of local shows. They included four other Baianos—Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, and Tom Zé—who were likewise headed for great things. Costa was the shy non-intellectual who “never wanted to do anything else in her life besides sing,” recalled Veloso. All of them moved away to pursue their careers; Costa went to Rio, where she recorded her first sides in 1965. At the time, Americans envisioned the city as a tropical paradise of bossa nova and carefree life; in fact, Brazil had recently come under a dictatorship that by the late ‘60s would turn murderous and oppressive. Costa was swept up in a youth movement of protest, led by musicians who were bewitched by her singing.

    She became the key voice of Tropicália, a new avant-garde movement, spearheaded largely by Veloso and Gil, that echoed the chaos and rebellion of the day. Costa was game for almost anything. In 1976, when all of them were still at their peak of hippiedom, they teamed with Maria Bethânia to tour as Os Doces Barbaros (The Sweet Barbarians). Their shows inspired filmmaker Jom Tob Azulay to create a documentary named after the group; it stands as a historic portrait of a group of defiant young renegades, living in a country in turmoil.

    But Costa spent most of her time exploring the richness of Brazilian popular song. She championed the work of Chico Buarque, Roberto Carlos, Djavan, and other latter-day giants, while also saluting the elder statesmen. Over the years she has made albums in tribute to Ary Barroso, the samba composer who wrote “Aquarela do Brasil”; Dorival Caymmi, the king of Baiano composers; and Antônio Carlos Jobim, her partner on a live DVD, issued by Verve in 1987. Costa has also gone farther than most Brazilians in exploring American music; her discs include songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, and Rodgers and Hart. She has played New York often—most memorably at Carnegie Hall just weeks after 9/11, when she closed with “America the Beautiful.”

    Her rebel days may be well behind her, but that voice remains one of her country’s iconic sounds. Its influence is heard in many prominent young singers, including Marisa Monte and Adriana Calcanhotto. According to André Tavares, an actor-singer from Salvador: “She is very much a legend, a part of our history. Singers like Gal, Elis Regina, and Clara Nunes are from a period when singing was a reflection of the human soul, more than a way to make money and become a star.”

    -- James Gavin, 2011

    [James Gavin’s books include Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne and Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, soon to be republished by Chicago Review Press.]

    Related: March 24, Gal Costa 

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