Marc Hertzman on his his new addition to 33 1/3 Brazil.
During the 1970s, Gilberto Gil produced a remarkable musical trilogy: Refazenda (1975), Refavela (1977), and Realce (1979). Of the three, Refavela is probably the most popular and widely discussed, and Realce includes, among other hits, a beautiful cover of “No Woman, No Cry,” with Portuguese lyrics. So, why Refazenda?
Reasons person, political, aesthetic, and intellectual drew me to the album.
A couple of chance encounters with Refazenda over the years illustrate the album’s—and Gil’s—larger significance. I first stumbled upon it in 1999 at a record store in Santiago, Chile. Recorded while a military dictatorship ruled Brazil, I found the album just after Chile’s own infamous strongman, Augusto Pinochet, had been arrested in England for crimes committed during his reign of terror. At the time, I just liked the album, and was drawn to its funky cover. Only later did I appreciate the record’s meaning in relation to dictatorships and authoritarianism across Latin America. Some fifteen years after I found Refazenda in Chile, I came across a second version of the album, this time in Tokyo. While every other pressing of the album features images on the back, this one included a long treatise written by the famous Japanese critic-producer Tōyō Nakamura about Gil’s music and Refazenda’s anti-authoritarian, Marxist meanings.
Gil might well disagree with Nakamura’s interpretation, and my own, but everyone would agree that the album is a beautiful, daringly creative musical wonder.
In the book, I explore how my personal encounters with Refazenda are, in fact, indicative of larger political and historical forces, including the dictatorships that gripped Latin America during the 1960s, ’70, and ‘80s; the longstanding relationships and exchanges that have tied Brazil and Japan together in complex ways; and Gil’s own transnational trajectory, first while exiled to England by the military, and then, increasingly, as a global icon.
I also focus on the music and lyrics, discussing them on their own terms and also placing them in context with Gil’s larger body of work. This was one of the great gifts and surprises that came with writing the book—it provided a welcome opportunity to immerse myself not only in an album that I love but also into Gil’s earlier albums.
Finally, Refazenda serves as a poignant statement about how art is created under a dictatorship and as such also functions as an inspiring messenger during a time when many of the worst aspects of the era when Gil wrote the album are returning. As the book went to press, Brazil was in its first year under the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, an apologist for—indeed, celebrant of—the military dictatorship. Among other crises, alarming rates of deforestation helped ignite massive fires in the Amazon, a tragedy of truly global proportions.
In these turbulent times, Refazenda has much to offer. For those in search of a subtly subversive, perhaps Marxist (perhaps not) treatise, the album will be a welcome treat, and I am very happy to say that the book offers full English translations for all the lyrics. If you are, instead, looking for inspiration about our relationship to nature, there is also a lot here. Of course, the album also offers a delightful array of great music, inspired by musical traditions from all over the world but centered firmly in Gil’s native Bahia, in northeastern Brazil.
All of this, and more, drew me to the album in the first place, and made me want to learn everything about it, and to try and make sense of it, however much that is even possible. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the album to undergraduates, whose own insightful reflections and interpretations have in turn shaped my own understanding of the book. Accordingly, while I present my own ideas about the album, the book is ultimately meant as a companion and as an invitation for you to explore, enjoy, and perhaps ultimately find new meanings in this magnificent record.
Gilberto Gil’s Refazenda, by Marc A. Hertzman, is out this Thursday! Order your copy today to learn more about this amazing artist and his lasting legacy.