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Artist: Gal Costa

Album: Gal

Label: Dusty Groove

Review date: Jul. 2, 2008

Of all the topics that the reissue of Gal Costa’s eponymous 1969 album opens up for discussion - the recent interest in Tropicalia and the ethical/aesthetic implications of cultural exchange, to name a couple - one of the most interesting is what is gained and lost as this particular piece of art re-enters the world as a commercial product after spending years out of print.

When I first sat down to write, what really struck me as poetic was the political similarity between two contexts – the global political tumult in the wake of 1968 and the current crises (global food shortages, major environmental disasters, the war in Iraq, the housing crisis here with its financial repercussions abroad, etc.) that are affecting the political landscape (although sans the concerted and overwhelming resistance of 1968). Recently, Democracy Now! has been running a series of features under the rubric “1968, Forty Years Later”, dealing with a number of topics such as the May uprising in France, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, the Columbia student strike and so on, the questions behind these reports being something like the ones I am asking of Costa’s album: what did these things mean then, what have the repercussions been and what do they mean now. What’s interesting about the re-emergence of Gal is that it re-appears on the scene merely as an artifact of a bygone era. Where it once had real political significance, it, like a number of the Democracy Now! subjects, has lost that meaning, or rather, not lost it per se, but had it covered over, buried under the intervening years. Part of the immediacy of Costa’s voice, both in contrast to her later work and the previous self-titled album, comes directly out of the politics of the age and place: five years prior to the recording of the album, a military coup overthrew the government. In the wake of the insurrection, politicians, labor leaders, artists and regular citizens faced brutal repression, torture, and execution. This intensified in 1968 when the “president” General Costa e Silva introduced Institutional Act 5, effectively creating a dictatorship. This continued into the following year, bringing with it opposition in the form of a host of revolutionary acts until Silva’s death.

The context that Gal was created within, and the political and artistic repression that specifically affected members of the Tropicalia movement (see this interview with Sergio Dias for more information) imbue the album, at that originary time, with a meaning that just isn’t accessible to us today but that still resides dormant in the music. In other words, the album is that period rendered concrete, but without that political context, it comes across now as merely a pop album, an amazing pop album of course, one that can be appreciated for any number of its aesthetic qualities, but still lacking a central importance: the facet of resistance.

While the Tropicalia’s movement’s politics might have been left-leaning but as inchoate as some of their influences (ahem, The Beatles), it’s her voice that truly embodies the resistance of the age. I hold out hope that that immediacy in Costa’s voice and in the music, a quality that we can still viscerally recognize, can bring its former meaning to the fore, and in addition further inspire both artistically and politically positive action. I suppose my own overwhelming pessimism forces me to believe it will not, but even so, the aesthetic qualities are more than enough to draw upon. Unfortunately, as an American audience, all we can (without knowledge of Portuguese, that is) draw upon is that immediacy, as the political content of the lyrics is lost as is the phenomenological feeling of resistance that it originally brought out in the listener.

By Andrew Beckerman

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