Gal Costa, one of the most important artists in Brazilian music, died on Wednesday, Nov. 11. Born Maria da Graça Penna Burgos Costa in 1945, the influential singer was raised in Salvador, Bahia, where she took her first steps into music with the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Maria Bethânia. She was barely in her twenties in 1967 when she released her first album Domingo, a bossa nova-only feat with Veloso.
In 1968, she became one of the most important voices of tropicália, the counterculture movement that disrupted Brazil’s arts and society at the time. Costa’s interpretations shaped national music in the following decades: Her majestic mezzo-soprano vocal skills brought new approaches to the scene and inspired artists of various generations, such as Marisa Monte and Marília Mendonça. From Brazilian music standards to new classics, Gal’s imprint was often insurmountable.
The singer never stopped working on her artistry. She released singles and feature albums well into her seventies, linking up with young artists such as Silva and Rodrigo Amarante and performing in packed venues. She was expected to perform at Primavera Festival São Paulo last weekend, but the concert was canceled. Survived by her son, Gabriel, Costa now inhabits the realm of Brazilian music legends. Here are the songs that shaped her career and artistry.
“Baby,” with Caetano Veloso (1969)
One year after Domingo, Costa teamed up with a group of cutting-edge, future-bending Brazilian artists from the collaboration album Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis, a landmark for the tropicália movement. Costa made waves with a first hit through “Baby,” written by Veloso himself, a gorgeous song where she gracefully winds her voice over ornamented violin orchestration.
“Dê um Rolê” (1971)
Following the establishment of a military dictatorship in Brazil in the Sixties, several artists had to flee the country. Costa held her ground, though, exploding into music with a striking rock ‘n ‘roll verve. On “Dê um Rolê,” she decided to take a make-love-not-war stance in her artistry, one that would stand through the decades, backed by her torn-up vocals and fuzzy guitars.
“Flor de Maracujá” (1971)
By the Seventies, Costa had already made a name for herself as a promising guardian of the Brazilian songbook. Digging into the classics, the singer reshaped João Donato’s jazzy “Flor de Maracujá,” transforming it into a funky forró with her melodious, effortless singing.
On the 1977 album Caras & Bocas, Costa explored somber textures in her singing, jaunting across minor modes, darkened moods, and folk covers, expanding her repertoire. “Tigresa” is a whole-hearted blues song written by Veloso and mastered by Costa. The track follows “Minha Estrela É do Oriente,” a song by Jorge Ben, also one of the singer ‘s most renowned music partners.
“Meu Nome é Gal” (1979)
First released in 1969, “Meu Nome é Gal” was revamped as a sparkling, swinging samba de gafieira ten years later. The song literally translates to ‘My Name is Gal” and served as one of the most stunning displays of Costa’s dexterity. Her vocals seemingly blend in with the guitar high-pitched notes, a feat she would repeat for years to come in live performances.
Costa’s take on Djavan’s “Azul” is a sublime example of her artistry. Capturing all the nuances of the song’s main theme, Costa articulates each vowel through weaving violin lines and digi-piano stomping chords. It’s a unique groove.
“Vaca Profana” (1984)
When democracy was regaining ground in Brazil, Costa’s firepower didn’t cease; on the contrary, it grew more intense. “Vaca Profana” is both a codified and straightforward manifesto against the many contradictions in Brazilian society. She goes after moral right-holders and persistent machismo.
From the late Eighties to the early Nineties, Costa linked up with Brazilian up-and-coming rockers such as Cazuza. She added one of his songs to her tracklist both as an homage — he passed away in 1990 — and a jab to Brazilian politics. As important as “Brasil” was, thanks to its flammable lyrics, Costa’s fierce version added to its power — as did her topless performance in 1994.
Costa didn’t lose her counterculture spunk in the 2000s. Released in the 2011 album Recanto, “Neguinho” lays a digital noise ground for the singer’s tranquil yet mighty lyricism.
“Paula e Bebeto” with Criolo (2021)
One of Costa’s latest recordings, “Paula e Bebeto” was first released in 1975 by Milton Nascimento — another artist that shares the realm of Brazilian greatness with her. Alongside rapper Criolo, Costa revisited the song in 2021 with no sign of losing the shine of her singing.