Refazenda in a World on Fire

Can Refazenda help us rethink how we approach the world? Can the album inspire radical action in fighting climate change?

In 2020, it’s hard to think about Brazil without also thinking about the Amazon, deforestation, and the sad state of our environment.  Though produced nearly a half century ago, Gilberto Gil’s Refazenda (1975) is timely in its insistence for humans to rethink our relationship with nature and the land.  That message, subtle but firm throughout the album, includes frightening visions of our world today but also suggests hopeful ways forward in a moment of serious peril and no small amount of paralysis.

The Bahian sertão (backlands), where Gil spent a portion of his childhood, inspired much of the album.  Gil depicts the region musically—using an accordion, for example, and riffing on baião, country music typical of the Brazilian northeast—and lyrically.  The album’s second track, “Tenho sede” (I’m Thirsty), evokes the parched, dusty landscape of the sertão.  Though infused with double meanings about love, the song’s first two lines leave no doubt about the potency of drought in the northeast: “Bring me a cup of water, I’m thirsty/ And this thirst can kill me.”

Those words, and the album itself, are especially timely and unsettling because of the unintentional ways they resonate beyond the specific historical and geographical contexts in which they were made.  In Refazenda,Gil’s sought to reconnect with the land in a way that had been impossible in recent years, as he had been forced into exile by the military dictatorship.  While the album is full of political messages, it does not tie drought in the sertão to climate change, a concept that was not yet on the radar of musicians.  To the contrary, the sertão was simply a dry space with conditions that made the lives of poor farmers especially brutal.  It had been that way for as long as anyone could remember, and if Gil was offering any kind of critique it was simply that Brazil’s government didn’t do enough to look out for people who lived in the sertão.

While Gil’s sertão is historically and geographically circumscribed, its conditions are now seeping well beyond its borders.  There are almost too many dire examples to count, but the Amazon provides perhaps the most alarming one.  Some researchers predict that the “earth’s lungs” are near a tipping point. As deforestation and climate change drive higher temperatures, longer dry seasons, and more fires, the Amazon will become a “savannah,” no longer capable of capturing carbon and instead releasing massive amounts of it into the atmosphere.  In effect, our world is turning into Gil’s sertão, once a geographically specific place known for its extreme conditions that now threatens to represent a harsh new status quo.

If Refazenda, however unintentionally, provides a sonic mode of measuring how the climate crisis has spiraled out of control in the last five decades, the album also contains inspiring ideas that might help us think about how to reverse things.

2019 Amazon Rainforest fires, SCMP

Gil invented the word “refazenda,” a play on fazenda (farm, or plantation) and refazendo (gerund of the verb refazer, to redo or remake).  As I explain in the book, at their most grandiose, Gil’s intentions were for the album to prompt society to “reconsider everything,” a monumental task that is precisely the one we now have before us.  Reconsidering, redoing, and remaking are all at the forefront of conversations about how to confront the climate crisis.  Even in the Amazon, where the tipping point towards “savannization” may be upon us, there are slivers of hope.  One of the most promising ways to confront the crisis in the Amazon may be reforestation.  Two scientists write, “we can build back a margin of safety through immediate, active, and ambitious reforestation.”  Enacting such a program would be a challenge, to say the least.  Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is as intransigent and vicious as they come, evident in his alarming response to the Amazon fires of 2019 and his ongoing efforts to open ever more and larger tracts of forest for destruction.

If it would be a great exaggeration to think that a single album could turn the tide against the existential threat that we are all facing, the creative reconsideration that Refazenda espouses, and its insistence that we listen to, immerse ourselves in, and rethink our relationship with the land add up, at the very least, to a positive step in the right direction.  Reforesting land that has already been destroyed is a perfect example of how Gil’s call to remake the world anew might blossom viscerally.  At the same time, Refazenda dares its listeners to think—and go—even further.  At the beginning of Track 9 (“The Nightingale”), Gil sings, “I threw my fishhook in the sky/ To catch the sun.”  That beautiful imagery beckons towards radical thinking and radical action.  Gil doesn’t end up catching the sun, and instead a nightingale with a broken wing, whom he nurses back to health.  Would that we can do the same with our environment.

Gilberto Gil’s Refazenda, by Marc A. Hertzman, is out today! Order your copy today to learn more about this amazing artist and his lasting legacy.

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