“I think of myself as the daughter of bossa nova,” says Brazilian singer Gal Costa by phone. “I have the essence of the genre inside me. When I sing, there is always a bossa nova-ish sound to it.”
It’s hard to believe, given her youthful looks and crystal-clear voice, that Gal Costa has been performing for more than 40 years—a career that’s still going strong began when she befriended Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in the early ’60s in Bahia. “We lived under the influence of João Gilberto—that was the main connection all of us had back then,” she recalls. “We went to Sao Paulo, and around the time Caetano wrote ‘Alegria Alegria’ [in 1967], I felt that there was something new for me there, and then I found myself involved in the Tropicalia movement as a means to find a musical path of my own.”
Tropicalia was Brazil’s response to the psychedelic movement of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. As Veloso wrote in his 2003 memoir Tropical Truth: A Story Of Music And Revolution In Brazil, Gilberto Gil would listen repeatedly to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, influencing the members of this circle of singers and songwriters to blend their bossa-nova roots with the kind of music that was going on in Europe.
“Tropicalismo opened my musical horizons,” says Costa. “I was too narrow-minded towards music, and after going through that movement I was able to learn to enjoy other musical styles.”
The result of all this experimentation was the collective 1968 landmark album Tropicalia, which brought together Costa, Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, the late Nara Leão (who had been the muse of the bossa nova movement almost 10 years earlier), the enigmatic Zé and the maestro Rogério Duprat. The disc is a mix of sounds, with lyrics ranging from the romantic to the political and other tunes clearly written under the influence of mind-enhancing drugs, such as “Panis Et Circenses,” written for Os Mutantes by Veloso, and Tom Ze’s “Parque Industrial.”
A year later, both Veloso and Gil were arrested and sent into exile by the military dictatorship that had been ruling the country since a coup toppled Socialist-sympathizing president João Goulart in 1964. By the time they were allowed to return to Brazil in 1972, the musical scene there had radically changed.
“When Veloso returned from his exile, he produced my album Cantar, which brought out the essence of the singer that I really wanted to be. Tropicalismo had definitely changed me, but in the early ’70s there was no need to sing with all that screaming, and I began to drift apart from the movement’s language, and experiment with new things, and that was the path that I followed throughout the ’80s and ’90s."
Costa was also instrumental in launching the careers of many promising young songwriters in Brazil—she was the first to record songs by the likes of Luis Melodia, Zeca Baleiro and many others. “It’s very hard for young songwriters to break in Brazil,” she says. “I launched many of them, and today they have landed record deals and are making records on their own—this is very gratifying.”
Throughout her career, the singer went in various musical directions, at one point recording very electric carnival tunes. As she grew older, her voice became slightly deeper, and she began reconnecting with her bossa nova roots through her friendship with Antonio Carlos Jobim. The two performed and recorded together on several occasions. The mid-’80s saw Costa making her U.S. live début. She first played Carnegie Hall in 1985, and has appeared there and at Lincoln Center several times since.
In May 2006, Costa tried something new, playing a weeklong stand at New York’s Blue Note—an unprecedented move to an intimate jazz club for a singer used to concert halls. “The club invited me, and I was seduced by the idea of performing where so many legends had been before,” she says. She had been