[The Guardian] Gal Costa was a flamboyant revolutionary in Brazilian music

This is a story assignment for The Guardian. It was first published in November 2022.

Much has been said of how João Gilberto disrupted Brazillian music with his take on samba, which went on to become bossa nova. His whispering vocals and offbeat, percussion-laced guitar were a novelty to Brazil in the 1950s, when chested-voice crooners and sumptuous arrangements were nothing but the top-charters of the country’s radio. Few would dare saying the same of Gal Costa, who died this week aged 77 – even though she, too, sparked Brazilian musical revolution.

Where Gilberto found minimalism, Gal found maximalism. Where Gilberto found dissonance, Gal found perfect pitch. Where Gilberto found shyness, Gal found a total flamboyance that reverberated through Tropicália and in the years that came after.

Gal Costa performs live on stage during Coala festival 2022 in São Paulo, Brazil, in September.
Gal Costa performs live on stage during Coala festival 2022 in São Paulo, Brazil, in September. Photograph: Mauricio Santana/Getty Images

Gal was as unique as her name. Born Maria da Graça Penna Burgos Costa in 1945, in Salvador, Bahia, she used to hang out with the cool kids in town – fellow future legends such as Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia and Gilberto Gil. They gave her the moniker Gal – Gau at first – and with them she laid the foundations of the Tropicália movement.

The collective’s first album, Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis, painted a portrait of Gal as a singer with astounding vocals and unsettling boldness. She struck a hit with the soothing Baby and channelled the energy of her rebel generation with the deconstructed baião Mamãe, Coragem, a farewell letter to a mother.

Stepping out of her bossa nova beginnings – namely a 1967 duet album with Veloso titled Domingo – and diving into experimentalism with two self-titled albums in 1969, Gal found her place in Brazilian arts of the 1970s as a bandleader with no band. She pushed the counterculture movement ahead, even as her closest friends were forced to flee the country due to the military regime.

Gal opened her 1973 album India with grandeur, singing a wailing classical South American guarânia. The song’s wholehearted lyrics clashed with the album cover: a closeup of Gal’s groin in a red bikini. The album cover was censored by the government; years before body politics entered the realm of academia or Twitter threads, Gal showcased a clear-eyed, embodied feminism.

On 1984’s Vaca Profana, she sang plainly about female rebellion; in 1994, she performed the song Brasil topless. For Gal, feminism was an everyday prospect: “I think that these women who stand out, who empower themselves, naturally already do feminism, with no intention of being a feminist,” she said in an interview a few years ago. “I’m not a feminist, but I think the future is female.”

Gal’s art was as much about performance as it was about the music itself. In one of her most famous performances – a rendition of Meu Nome é Gal performed at the Globo studios in 1981 – she duels with guitarist Victor Biglione in a call-and-response game that drifts from samba jazz into an astonishing crescendo, Gal and her rich mezzo-soprano voice defiantly shimmying around in a spectacular feather boa. As a performance, it was emblematic of Gal’s irrepressible elan: she used to pull out the same showwomanship throughout the world, whether headlining the Montreux jazz festival in 1980 or baffling New York Times critics in her US debut in 1985.

From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, Gal explored her own limits as a household name in Brazilian music. She collaborated with global superstars such as Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder. In Brazil, she experimented with synth sounds while revisiting standards such as Canta Brasil and the fanfare xote Festa do Interior.

In the 2010s, Gal returned to the rebellion of her Tropicália origins. Her 2011 album Recanto is filled with digital textures and strong lyrics, while on 2016’s Gal Estratosférica she drew once again from psychedelia and rock’n’roll. Her vocals were not as potent as before, but her desire for an expressive and poetic Brazilian music remained intact.

It seems that Gal intended to keep forging forward as she always had: she was expected to perform in the first weekend of November at Primavera Sound São Paulo, and was planning to tour shortly afterwards when her death was announced.

Her last shows were often sold out, the venues filled with fans of various generations. Her artistry was astonishing, singular, and reshaped Brazilian music. So she was never rediscovered by younger audiences, because she didn’t need to be – her presence rarely left the cultural conversation. From the moment she stepped into the Brazilian pantheon, sequined and feather boa’d, she was in for life.

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