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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Gal Costa, singer who embodied tropicália’s innovative spirit, dies at 77

Gal Costa in 1996. Her recording career spanned more than 50 years and three dozen albums.

By Jon Pareles

Gal Costa, one of Brazil’s greatest singers and a model for generations of Brazilian performers, died Wednesday at her home in São Paulo. She was 77.

Her death was announced on her social media accounts. No cause was cited.

Costa’s voice, a lustrous mezzo-soprano, was a marvel of grace and vitality, equally capable of gravity-defying delicacy, tart teasing, jazzy agility and rock intensity. Over a recording career that spanned more than 50 years and three dozen albums, she championed innovative Brazilian songwriters and cross-fertilized Brazilian regional styles with international pop and rock.

In the 1960s, Costa was at the forefront of tropicália, the movement that brought psychedelic experimentation and anti-authoritarian irreverence to Brazilian pop music. When the leading songwriters of tropicália, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, were forced into exile by Brazil’s dictatorship, from 1969 to 1972, Costa recorded their songs for Brazilian listeners.

“It was not a matter of courage,” she told The New York Times in 1985. “I belonged to that movement, and they were my friends.”

Throughout her career, she continued to seek out emerging songwriters. She also reached back to older Brazilian repertoire, devoting full albums to songwriters including Antonio Carlos Jobim, Dorival Caymmi and Ary Barroso. She performed and recorded with her peers in Brazilian music, among them Veloso, Elis Regina, João Gilberto, Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento. She received the Latin Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2011.

The president-elect of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, wrote on Twitter: “Gal Costa was among the world’s best singers, among our principal artists to carry the name and sounds of Brazil to the whole planet. Her talent, technique and courage enriched and renewed our culture, shaped and marked the lives of millions of Brazilians.”

Maria da Graça Costa Penna Burgos was born Sept. 26, 1945, in Salvador, Bahia. She was encouraged to sing by her mother, Mariah Costa Penna, who separated from her father, Arnaldo Burgos, after discovering that he had a second family in another city.

Strongly influenced by the subtle bossa novas sung by João Gilberto, Costa began performing in her teens. “I didn’t study music, and I don’t read music,” she told the Times. “I sing by feeling.”

She also absorbed current music by working at a record store. In Salvador, she joined a coterie of Bahian musicians who would transform Brazilian music, among them Veloso, Gil, Maria Bethânia and Tom Zé.

Her first single, which she released in 1965 as Maria da Graça, included a song by Veloso on one side and a song by Gil on the other. Costa and Veloso made an album as a duo, “Domingo,” in 1967. In 1968, she joined her fellow Bahians and kindred spirits on an album that was a manifesto of their movement: “Tropicália, ou Panis et Circenses” (“Tropicália, or Bread and Circuses”). It included Veloso’s “Baby,” a sweetly melodic ballad satirizing consumerism that became her first major hit.

Veloso and Gil collaborated on the defiant “Divino, Maravilhoso” (“Divine Marvelous”), which Costa introduced at a music festival in 1968. The lyrics declared, “You have to be attentive and strong / We don’t have time to fear death,” and Costa let loose her rock side with growls and shouts. It appeared, along with “Baby,” on her debut solo album, called simply “Gal Costa” and released in 1969.

She was both popular and prolific in the 1970s, building a catalog that drew on the tropicália songwriters as well as on many other schools of Brazilian pop. Her 1971 concert tour, built around her album “-Fa-Tal-,” was seen as a bold statement defying Brazil’s military dictatorship. In Rio de Janeiro, a section of the beach at Ipanema with a reputation for uninhibited behavior was known in the early 1970s as the Dunes of Gal.

In 1976, she joined Veloso, Gil and Bethânia to perform and record as Os Doces Bárbaros (the Sweet Barbarians); they regrouped for a concert in 1994.

In 1985, when she made her United States debut with a pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall, Costa told the Times that despite her decision to finally perform in America, “I am not planning to conquer the United States market; I am a Brazilian singer, and I am kind of lazy about leaving Brazil.”

Costa never settled into one style. Through the decades, she recorded upbeat carnival-rooted songs, hard rock, crystalline acoustic ballads, Afro-Brazilian funk and orchestral pop. Her 2018 album, “A Pele do Futuro” (“The Skin of the Future”), dipped into disco and featured a duet with sertanejo (Brazil’s equivalent of country music) star Marília Mendonça. Her most recent album, “Nenhuma Dor” (“No Pain”), released in 2021, was a set of duets recorded during the pandemic, revisiting old songs with collaborators including Seu Jorge, Rodrigo Amarante and Jorge Drexler.

“I’m a singer who likes to dare, to change, to create new paths,” Costa said in a 2022 Brazilian newspaper interview.

She is survived by her son, Gabriel.

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