Divino, Maravilhoso: The Splendor of Gal Costa

After 40 years in music, how’s a singer keep things interesting? Talking with Brazil’s treasure, Gal Costa, about how things change, and how they stay the same.

“I feel like I’m in your living room,” Brazilian singer Gal Costa told a sold-out audience during one of 12 shows this spring at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club. Though she usually plays arenas and stadiums, Costa spent a week performing at one of New York City’s most intimate venues, which could explain the throngs of adoring fans gathered outside. Costa has just released Hoje, her cool-jazz interpretation of ballads by Brazil’s latest generation of songwriters, but she sang bossa-nova classics, including Antonio Carlos Jobim’s and Vinicius de Moraes’s “The Girl from Ipanema,” at her Blue Note concerts.

“I played songs from Hoje in London with eight musicians on stage,” she explains to me after the second set. “While I was here in New York, I wanted to perform Jobim’s songs with a smaller group.”

After more than 40 years of singing, Costa hasn’t lost any of her vocal range, but her voice has grown coarser, heightening the emotional intensity of songs like “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” “I like to sing in English,” she says. “And when I first heard that song as a teenager, it really inspired me. I always loved Chet Baker.”

“When I heard João Gilberto for the first time, it changed my life completely.”

Accompanying Costa on acoustic guitar tonight was Marcus Teixeira, who has played with her for almost a decade. His subtle command over the instrument stretched the boundaries of the bossa-nova form and provided plenty of room for Zé Canuto’s improvisations on flute and alto saxophone during upbeat Jobim standards like “Triste” and “Wave.” Gentle plucking by acoustic bassist Adriano Giffoni and the brushwork of drummer Jurim Moreira supplied steady rhythms, and at one point, Giffoni’s bass line carried the melody on “Nada Além,” a classic Mesquita-Lago number from the ‘30s, while the audience snapped and sang along.


Gal Costa was born Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos in the northeastern port city of Salvador, the capital of Brazil’s Bahia region and the epicenter of the country’s avant-garde scene. She grew up loving music and began singing as a child, surrounding herself with kitchen pots to amplify her voice. At 15 she started playing guitar and performing at parties. “I had always wanted to be a singer,” Costa says. “And when I heard João Gilberto for the first time, it changed my life completely. I don’t even remember the way I sang before hearing João Gilberto.”

Credit: Patrick Ambrose

In the early ‘60s, Gilberto, Jobim, and de Moraes created bossa nova, a Brazilian combination of samba rhythms with the soft harmonics of West Coast jazz. In 1963, bossa nova gained international attention with Stan Getz’s version of “The Girl from Ipanema,” a song that became synonymous with Rio de Janeiro’s white-sand beaches. But by the following year, Brazil’s staggering foreign debt had plunged the country into economic ruin and paved the way for Gen. Humberto Castelo Branco’s brutal military coup, which quickly banned labor unions, purged leftist legislators, and arrested suspected communists and political activists.

Costa was part of a group of musicians, including fellow Bahians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who opposed the military dictatorship but had major differences with the political left. These artists, soon to be known as the tropicalistas, also challenged what they considered the sonic limitations of bossa nova. Costa, Veloso, Gil, multi-instrumentalist Tom Zé, and rock trio Os Mutantes redefined Brazilian music with a complex mixture of psychedelic pop, Brazilian folk, samba, electronica, bossa-nova textures, and tape loops of urban noise. Their 1968 album Tropicália ou Panis et Circenses (“Tropicália or Bread and Diversion”), defied the cultural status quo with metaphoric lyrics that satirically underscored the horrors of authoritarian rule.

“Although tropicalismo wasn’t a political movement, it was a reaction against the dictatorship and the politics of the era,” Costa says. “And it was also the first time that electric instruments were used in Brazilian music. Before tropicalismo, musicians relied on acoustic instruments.”

“It was a very hard time for me, but I was keeping tropicália alive… It was like I was representing Caetano and Gil while they were in exile.”

The tropicalistas abandoned satire and subtlety with “Divino, Maravilhoso,” a catchy pop song that vividly describes the violent measures of the Brazilian government and warns listeners to beware of complacency. Dressed in hippie regalia, Costa surprised the audience when she performed the number at the Festival of Brazilian Popular Music in 1968, peppering her sophisticated vocal style with primal hollers and grunts. Divino, Maravilhoso was also the name of the tropicalistas’ short-lived variety show, in which they sang and improvised skits that mocked student nationalists and the military dictatorship. In December of that year, Brazil’s TV Tupi yanked the program off the air after President Artur da Costa e Silva enacted the Fifth Institutional Act, which censored the media, suspended individual freedom of expression, and eliminated national and state legislatures. Two weeks later, Veloso and Gil were arrested and placed in solitary confinement. The reason for the arrests is unclear, but both artists were imprisoned for two months and asked to leave the country. Veloso and Gil performed a concert in Salvador to cover transportation costs to London, where they remained in exile until 1972. While they were away, Costa continued performing their songs.

“It was a very hard time for me, but I was keeping tropicália alive,” she says. “It was like I was representing Caetano and Gil while they were in exile. They [continued to write] in London and I would visit them and bring their songs back to Brazil—songs like ‘London, London.’ Many others, too.”

In 1969, Costa released two self-titled albums that exemplify the most radical and ambitious material produced by any Brazilian artist. Complex, melodic bass lines converge with fuzzy psychedelic guitar and layers of Costa’s yelping vocal tracks to produce a bizarre yet riveting collage of fusion jazz and experimental rock. With Legal, her 1970 follow-up, she adopted a bluesy vocal style and added touches of Motown soul. “At this time, I started incorporating North American influences,” she explains. “I was inspired by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles.”

Costa continued merging various musical styles throughout the ‘70s. India, her 1973 release, combined everything from funk and Brazilian rhythms to heart-wrenching accordion melodies. The album cover, which featured a close-up of Costa in a red loincloth, along with back-cover photographs of her bare-breasted, wearing indigenous apparel, was prohibited from public display by censors. Phonogram, the distributor, had to wrap the product in dark-blue cellophane for the record stores, and Costa’s version of the Luiz Melodia song “Presente Cotidiano,” was banned from the radio because of its political connotations.

“I’ve always sought change and that’s why all of my records are different.”

By the time Costa embarked on a series of international tours in the early ‘80s, she had become a global superstar with a multi-platinum single, “Festa do Interior.” Her performances became increasingly grandiose and elaborate, combining theatrics, vibrant costumes, and intense special effects, and she collaborated with Jobim on the soundtrack for Bruno Barreto’s film Gabriela, the beginning of a musical partnership that culminated in a United States tour and the live album Rio Revisited. But by 1988, after more than a decade of exhausting recording sessions, public appearances, and living on the road, Costa withdrew from the music business for the next two years.

So, how did Gal Costa occupy herself during her hiatus?

She smiles broadly, considers the question, and leans forward, a pensive expression on her radiant face. “Sometimes we have to stop for awhile and reflect,” she says “I’ve always sought change and that’s why all of my records are different. It’s good for an artist to experiment and evolve, even though there’s always a risk.”


There’s a knock on Costa’s dressing-room door. In walks Arto Lindsay, one of the most respected producers of Brazilian music and a New York City art-rock legend. Throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Lindsay’s collaborations with other musicians and composers resulted in some of the most exciting improvised music of the era. In 1993, he brought all of these skills into the studio with Costa to produce O Sorriso do Gato de Alice (“The Smile of Alice’s Cat”), a playful mix of rock riffs, bossa-nova strumming, and bare-bones minimalist percussion hailing back to Costa’s avant-garde recordings in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Tonight’s performance of Brazilian standards contrasted sharply with her earlier experimental work, as does her smoky crooning and the cool-jazz inflections on Hoje. I suggest that the new album might represent a new musical direction for her. Costa disagrees.

Credit: Patrick Ambrose

“I’ve always had a jazz influence,” she says. “As a teenager, I listened to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. I was inspired by those divas. I’ve always loved jazz, and when you hear music that you love, of course, it influences you and inspires you.”

Hoje, which contains songs by Veloso and the sensational urban-samba singer Chico Buarque, pays tribute to Brazil’s young songwriters. Veloso’s son, Moreno, wrote two of the compositions. I ask Costa what it was like to record songs written by the son of the artist with whom she began her career. Her expression softens.

“Moreno is my godson,” she says. “I’m very proud of him and I can still recall when he was born and so small. To now be singing his songs has had such an emotional [impact] on me.” These sentiments are capably conveyed in her new album.