Sunday, 10 July 2011


Nobody does it like Gilberto Gil. Nobody. A one man powerhouse of ideas, music and insight, Gilberto was one of the front men of the late 1960s revolutionary Tropicalia movement which brought foreign influences and the voicing of social conscience directly into Brazillian music.

With the poet Torquato Mento, Gil wrote what became the hymn of the Torpical movement - Geleir Geral:
A poet unfurls the flag

And the tropical morn begins to beat 

Resplendent, cascading, gracious

A joyous sunflower heat 

In the general jam of Brazil

That the Jornal do Brasil will greet

With Tropicalia, Gil became a global superstar and then shocked everyone by becoming Brazil's Minister of Culture in 2003, exciting another cultural revolution for the 21st century, this time in cultural policy. Pontos de Cultura focuses on the dispossessed and disenfranchised, creating a network of belonging and social change through the arts, supported by the Brazilian Government. But what has this got to do with physics? At first glance not alot.

Quanta, Gil's 32nd album released in 1997, shows as ever Gilberto Gil's focus on living and creativity. It is a heady blend of sambas, country, rock, forros, funk, ballads and boss nova rhythms and won the Grammy for World Music. But that's what one expects from Gil. What makes it so unusual is that it is an albulm all about art and science - as one of its samba tracks, 'Cinenci e Arte, makes explicit.

The lyrics of the title track say it all: "I know that art is the sister of science, both daughters of a fleeting God who makes and in the same moment unmakes. This vague God behind the world, from behind the behind." The albulm's quest for meaning through its elaborate series of short song cycles is thus set.

Another song, 'Pela Internet' (For the Internet) is a buoyant starry eyed ode to the information super highway, describing the evolution of communications.
However, Gil's image in this song isn't the internet as a superhighway, but instead as an "infosea," where the port of call receives not slave ships and merchandise, but diskettes and far flung missives. "I want to enter the net," sings Gil, "to contact the homes in Nepal, the bars in Gabon, that the carioca chief of police warns on his mobile."

It is this infinite web of possibilities and social connection which the internet offers, which was to become nearly 20 years after he wrote this song, the heart of Gilberto Gil's radical Pontos de Cultura policy.

The song is doubly ironic too. In form and style, Gilberto Gil draws comparison with what is considered to be the first samba ever recorded in Brazillian music, 'Pelo Telefone'. The last verses in Gil's song are an update of the original lyrics - bringing it up to date for the internet world, and the finale is a parody o Rolling Stones 'I Cant Get No Satisfaction' with playful vocal adlibs echoing Mick Jagger's endless quest for satisfaction with the line, sneered in English during the fade, "Got no connection!"

There are many shout outs throughout the albulm - embracing language from quantum mechanics, crab vendors and the goddess Shiva. But the ghost in this musical machine is undoubtedly physics. The albulm is in all but name dedicated to Brazil's most distinguished and honoured physicist, Cesar Lattes. Lattes was one of the discoverers of the pion - a subatomic partcile made of a quark and an antiquark and studied cosmic rays for all of his life. He came close to winning the Nobel prize twice, but never did.

The albulm contains an open letter from Lattes to Gil, in which he analyses the lyrics and the songs, observing

I ask only that you let me tell you of the happiness that your words about physics give me, but in some cases there is poetic license:

The "infinitesimal" is a mathematical fiction. Quantum is the minimum action (energy x time).

This theme of minimalism is reflected in the albulm on many levels. None of the twenty songs runs over four-and-a-half minutes, but together they amount to what has been called 'a sprawling, hungry embrace of everything from Gil's African roots, to God and the cosmos, to personal reflections, to the wowing possibilities of the Internet.'

Lattes ends his letter movingly with these observations directly to the great musician:

"Science and Art": moved and appreciate the attention.
Science inseminates subliminally.
Science is a younger sister (perhaps illegitimate)
Art: Camões asked for help from the ingenuity and art - not science.
Solomon says that "science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul" - the art, no. I will stop here, because Solomon also says: "Seek not to be too tight nor too wise: you want to ruin it?"

To conclude I quote a great architect, "When science is silent, art speaks" (Artigas).

With a hug,
Cesar Lattes

In the end, Quanta quanta is all about transformations - not only of the science and arts kind, but also of the society. The particle turned samba. A universe of possibilities in a quantum world. Quanta quanta

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