Brazilian Gal Costa, eternal muse of tropicalism, dies at 77

The only female figure, alongside Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, of the protest artistic movement created after the coup d’etat of the military dictatorship in Brazil. This singer with an exceptional charisma and crystalline voice marked an entire generation.

Thanks to her crystalline voice and her charisma, the Brazilian singer Gal Costa, who died on Wednesday November 9 at the age of 77, was elevated to the rank of eternal muse of tropicalism.

With her abundant brown hair and her devastating smile, she gave a special charm to the songs of her friend Caetano Veloso, Tom Jobim, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento and many other composers, throughout her career. Gal Costa became a legend in Brazilian popular music with her interpretations of Baby, Chuva de Prata Where Divino maravilhosoand about thirty recorded discs.

During her adolescence in Salvador de Bahia (north-east), she met people who marked her for life: Caetano Veloso, her sister Maria Bethania and Gilberto Gil, Bahian artists whom she then followed to Rio de Janeiro in the 60s. “Gal came from Bahia, like me, to try to become a professional singer. She never wanted to do anything else.says Caetano Veloso in his book Tropical Verdade (tropical truth).

A counter-culture that mixed samba, rock and bossa nova

It was in duet with him that Gal Costa launched his first record, domingoin 1967. The following year, she took part in the collective album that was to revolutionize Brazilian music: Tropicalia Where Panis and Circensisthe starting point of tropicalism, which advocates cultural openness and the universality of music.

With Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tom Zé and the group Mutant Bones, she sang in several tracks on this iconic counter-culture record that mixed samba, bossa-nova, jazz and psychedelic rock. In 1969, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil had to go into exile in London after being arrested by the military regime.

Gal Costa, she assured that she had never been interrogated during the dictatorship (1964-1985), even if the cover of her disc India (1973), which shows her topless, was censored.

A voice of fate

Born in Salvador on September 26, 1945, under the name of Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos, she would have seen the birth of her vocation for song while she was still in her mother’s womb…Pregnant, Mariah Costa Penna, nicknamed “Dedestuck a small transistor radio on her stomach, so that her daughter would soak up the music. “My daughter, you will be a great singer”she said, according to Tom Zé, her neighbor during her childhood. “When she came out of that womb, she came with that predestined voice”he added.

Intuitive and self-taught, Gal Costa has never taken any singing lessons. His greatest influence: João Gilberto, the father of Bossa Nova who died in 2019, also from Bahia. One day, after an impromptu audition, he said to her: “you are the greatest singer in Brazil”. With her soft, high-pitched voice, she became the muse of tropicalism. She has even been compared to Janis Joplin because of her rebellious sensuality in the midst of a dictatorship.

Her presence on stage, her colorful and sometimes provocative outfits, her Afro cut in the 70s, made her a sex symbol, far from the image of the shy teenager of her debut.

Permanent reinvention

After tropicalism, Gal Costa did not hesitate to change register, from the interpretation of classic carnival samba songs to rock, soul, disco, not to mention the credits of telenovelas. During the coronavirus pandemic, she celebrated her 75th birthday with a concert broadcast live on Youtube.

Winner of a Latin Grammy in 2011, Gal Costa has always been committed, particularly to the feminist cause, although she has remained discreet about her political convictions. This did not prevent her from strongly criticizing the cultural policy of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

She’s managed to keep her private life out of the spotlight, but surprised her fans in 2021 by posting a photo of her adopted son Gabriel on social media on his 16th birthday. The singer later revealed that she couldn’t be pregnant, but decided to adopt in 2007, when she was over 60: “He gave me a lot of life, I rejuvenated thanks to him”.

Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa in 1971 in London

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