When Gilberto Gil told the Independent last week that the greatest achievement for a performing artist is “to play for an audience that really gets it,” it immediately raised questions in my mind about what exactly “it” is. My understanding of “it” was further complicated by the composer’s performance at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Friday evening, in which he and his troupe nimbly dashed through the head-spinning number of genres that fall under the umbrella of Brazilian northeastern dance music known as baião. But Brazil is a land of syncretism, and thus necessitates a holistic understanding of all the things that have led up to “it,” and in that regard Gil and his company were right on the money.
Beginning with his most recent studio effort, “Fé Na Festa,” Gil first introduced us to forró, the Brazilian answer to polka. He explained that the genre has roots in Natal and Recife, where soldiers stationed at air force bases would throw parties on weekends that were open to the public — thus the name of his current tour, For All. He then schooled us in xaxado, the music and dance practiced by denizens of the arid Sertão region, and gave a nod to folk luminary Luiz Gonzanga before moving on to xote, a Brazilian corruption of Scottish polka. Switching gears to reggae mode, the six-piece flew a little closer to familiar territory with Portuguese renditions of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and “No Woman No Cry” before making the transition to rock and the tropicália style Gil helped popularize. As a world music group, this is where Gil and his crew really gave one another enough space to shine: dueling solos between violinist Nicolas Krassik, accordionist Toninho Ferragutti and Gil got us a little closer to that elusive “it” mark, until it was time for them to say their final obrigado with a closing run of “Na Casa Dela.”