Expresso 2222 and the accordion mood promoted by the acoustic guitar

Gilberto Gil composed the title track for the 1972 LP using strings, but took inspiration on the cadence of the typically Northeastern instrument.

By Instituto Gilberto Gil

Text: Ceci Alves, filmmaker and journalist

Gilberto Gil em ensaio fotográfico para a revista Bravo (2012)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil canta Expresso 2222 durante apresentação do projeto Luz do Solo

Here is a challenge: listen to the introductory chords of the song Expresso 2222, by Gilberto Gil, strummed virtuously by him, on his guitar, and try to replace the sonority of the strings with the syncopated harmony of an accordion.

If you managed to finish this phase, you will notice that it gets easier to picture the rest of the song as if it had that compassed swing of a xote [a Brazilian genre]. As the percussion instruments get into it and turn into a part of the song, you get to think you are at a Brazilian forró party.

First, timid caxixi [Brazilian rattle] colors the beat, then an agogô [Brazilian double bell] starts to mark the rhythm; ultimately, in the last verse of the song, comes the triangle, a traditional instrument of the Northeastern trios that accompany the accordion player in the Saint John’s parties.

The triangle is the perfect finish to close this forró [Brazilian genre] disguised into an MPB song, where the acoustic guitar replaces the accordion.

The acoustic guitar and the songwriting

There is a curiosity to this similarity, as it reveals a fundamental paradox of Gilberto Gil’s relationship with the music and says a lot about him as an artist: the artist’s (affective) entry door of the artist into this universe had been the accordion, his first instrument. Yet, for him, the musical maturity and ability to compose only came with the acoustic guitar. Gil says that, despite the accordion being a mark in his formation as a musician, it was the acoustic guitar that have woke in him the creative capability and, thus, consolidated him as an author.

Gilberto Gil dedilha e canta São João, Xangô Menino, que compôs com o amigo Caetano Veloso, para Mãe Stella de Oxóssi, em cena do filme Tempo Rei (Janeiro de 1996)Instituto Gilberto Gil

But here is the paradox: despite Gil’s statement that his musical world only got consolidated when he listened to João Gilberto and bossa nova, and that “the acoustic guitar is what brought me into this world of a new way of composing, a new way of bringing poetry to music”…

Gilberto Gil e o acordeonista Dominguinhos ensaiam antes da gravação do DVD Fé na Festa no Retiro dos Artistas (2010-02-10)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Expresso 2222, composed to be played on the acoustic guitar, seems to have been designed in, or thought for, an accordion. It is as if, in his mind, the accordion-playing child he once was, would still play and make him dream of and create in 120 bass keys…

Gilberto Gil e a irmã, Gildina Gil, na infância (1952)Instituto Gilberto Gil

After all, this is his root. Gil started playing accordion at age of ten, in the beginning of the 1950s, an era in which said instrument had a fundamental importance for the paths of the national popular repertoire.

Dominguinhos, Luiz Gonzaga e Gilberto Gil no show 20 Anos-Luz (Novembro de 1985)Instituto Gilberto Gil

It was the peak of the King of Baião [Brazilian rhythm], Luiz Gonzaga, an avowed idol of the singer and songwriter – Gilberto Gil even wrote the preface for the book Vida de Viajante – A Saga de Luiz Gonzaga [Life of a Traveler – The Saga of Luiz Gonzaga], a biography written by Dominique Dreyfus.

Dominguinhos, Luiz Gonzaga e Gilberto Gil no show 20 Anos-Luz (1985)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The musical revolution caused by Luiz Gonzaga, also known as Gonzagão, in Brazil, by bringing the Northeastern outlands and inlands to the spotlight, had been one of the motivations for the boy’s wish to learn the instrument.

Luiz Gonzaga, the strongest influence

As said by Regina Zappa in the book Gilberto Bem Perto [Gilberto Up Close], which she organized in cooperation with the artist, in the chapter about Luiz Gonzaga, being his strongest influence: “If, as a child, listening to the radio, Gil was already fascinated by the King of Baião, when his Aunt Margarida took him to see a concert by Luiz Gonzaga at Sé Square in Salvador, at the age of 11, he just got even more fascinated. Gil never forgot this event and then decided he wanted to be an artist too once he grew older.

Gilberto Gil no show São João Vivo (2001)Instituto Gilberto Gil

In addition to that, inside him the Northeastern identity and the memories of him as an inhabitant of Bahia’s inlands also spoke:

“By chance, because I was in Bahia, more connected to the Northeastern culture, I got closer to Gonzaga and of what would be later on called forró, and associated my musical taste to all of it. I had even composed on the accordion before I hear of João Gilberto…

“… but these were songs that vanished from memory, because they were all very experimental, many ways for me to get closer to the Northeastern way, to Gonzaga’s way of composing, getting closer to the singers, to the acoustic guitar players of Ituaçu markets, where I used to go as a small child…

“… the accordion hang around, as a starting instrument for me. It had introduced me to music, a lot due to Gonzaga, without a doubt,” says Gil.

The formation of a generation

Gil says the accordion was a starter not only for him. In a historical review, its importance as an instrument which has paved the way for a generation of artists becomes evident:

João Donato e Gilberto Gil se apresentam juntos no Rio de Janeiro (Abril de 1996)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“Let me introduce a general data on the accordion’s presence in the Brazilian music world: you think of Milton Nascimento, there it was, the accordion, with him; you think of João Donato, there it was, the accordion; you think of Wagner Tiso, there it was…

Foto de Luiz Gonzaga para Gilberto Gil (1950-10-28)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“… the accordion had a strong presence at that moment, for the generations who were there, in the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s; It was a basic instrument, because of the presence of Luiz Gonzaga, no doubt about it…

Gilberto Gil em ensaio fotográfico para a revista Bravo (2012)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“… because of the presence of several authors from Southern Brazil, the Rio Grande do Sul state, associated to the country music of that region, to the country music of São Paulo, to the music of Minas Gerais… I mean, the accordion was fundamental in the formation of these generations…

Gilberto Gil e o acordeonista Dominguinhos na gravação do DVD Fé na Festa (2010-02-10)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“…There are several artists, some with roots in the field of instrumental music, others who have spread through the field of composition, others were songwriters, singers, that have turned into interpreters in a broad sense… And I am one of them.”

Os Desafinados

From first instrument, the accordion moved on to accompanying him on his first steps in the artistic universe. Already living in Salvador, at the Santo Antônio Além do Carmo neighborhood, in the city’s historical center, the young Gilberto Gil started to hang with other outstanding musicians, becoming known as “accordion boy.” He had a band, Os Desafinados, in which he played the accordion.

Gilberto Gil divide o palco com o acordeonista e amigo Dominguinhos na gravação do DVD Fé na Festa (2010-02-10)Instituto Gilberto Gil


“There, I turned into a reference,” he says, amused. “One day, I ended up being invited by Jorge Santos (musical producer), and the boys of the Santo Antônio neighborhood took me to JS studios, to record a jingle,” he recalls, smiling.

Gilberto Gil toca violão no aniversário de Elba Ramalho (1994-08-17)Instituto Gilberto Gil

João Gilberto’s mysterious acoustic guitar

His loyalty to the accordion lasted just until he got to know the acoustic guitar, by the hands of singer, guitar player, songwriter, father of bossa nova, the master João Gilberto—and had an epiphany. From then on, he started exploring what he calls “the strings language.”

Gilberto Gil, em planície, toca Lamento Sertanejo em seu violão durante documentário Tempo Rei (Janeiro de 1996)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gil left aside the “pitagoric” accordion, with its “straight forward, rational” sonority. “I left the accordion behind when I first heard João,” he says, in an almost confessional way. “When I saw João, the acoustic guitar was an instrument that scared me. I thought it was weird…

Gilberto Gil e seu violão em ensaio fotográfico de João Wainer (2009-09-28)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“... I could not feel attracted to the instrument, and vice-versa. The accordion was easier to me, that pitagoric way it has” he laughs. And he goes on: “Not the acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar was a mystery. It was more Eastern, more North of Africa, linked to the lute…

Gilberto Gil toca violão para crianças no início de sua carreira, em São Paulo (1967)Instituto Gilberto Gil

“… the sound formations for the harmonies and melodies were more complex than what you had in a keyboard, in a piano. It was the acoustic guitar that made me abandon the accordion, to have me devoted to it definitely.”

Gil and the Saint John’s parties

Ensaio fotográfico com Gilberto Gil e Milton Nascimento (2000)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Although the singer-songwriter has never played his accordion again – except when he released the album Gil & Milton, in which he and his friend from Minas Gerais, Milton Nascimento, wrote together the track Duas Sanfonas.

Ensaio fotográfico com Gilberto Gil e Milton Nascimento (2000)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil talks about the show Gil & Milton, when he returned to the accordion after many years without using the instrument

In it, they play the instrument, something that was repeated during the tour - the vibrant, simple, and colorful sound of the bellows still inhabits Gilberto Gil's imagination, and accompanies him, whether in the example that opened this text, or in other signs of his dormant passion.

Ensaio fotográfico com Gilberto Gil e Milton Nascimento (2000)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Gilberto Gil e banda na gravação do DVD Fé na Festa (2010-02-10)Instituto Gilberto Gil

Like his devotion to the Saint John’s parties, which he has always made a point of attending, performing concerts in the main Northeastern parties.

Gilberto Gil e banda na gravação do DVD Fé na Festa (2010-02-10)Instituto Gilberto Gil

This devotion even yielded the album Fé na Festa, released in 2010.

Gilberto Gil e a cantora Vanessa da Mata na festa São João Carioca (2010-05-29)Instituto Gilberto Gil

The album lists tracks that bring back his accordion origins.

Gilberto Gil com o cantor e acordeonista Targino Gondim durante o São João Carioca (2010-05-29)Instituto Gilberto Gil

It even brings an homage to Luiz Gonzaga, in the track “Aprendi com o Rei,” a fresher recording of the song released in the album Refavela, from 1977.

Credits: Story

Exhibit credits

Text and research: Ceci Alves
Assembly: Isabela Marinho 
Editing and copyediting: Chris Fuscaldo

General credits

Editing and curating: Chris Fuscaldo / Garota FM
Musical content research: Ceci Alves, Chris Fuscaldo, and Ricardo Schott
MinC content research: Carla Peixoto, Ceci Alves, Chris Fuscaldo, and Laura Zandonadi
Photo subtitles: Anna Durão, Carla Peixoto, Ceci Alves, Chris Fuscaldo, Daniel Malafaia, Gilberto Porcidonio, Kamille Viola, Laura Zandonadi, Lucas Vieira, Luciana Azevedo, Patrícia Sá Rêgo, Pedro Felitte, Ricardo Schott, Roni Filgueiras, and Tito Guedes
Data editing: Isabela Marinho
Acknowledgments: Gege Produções, Gilberto Gil, Flora Gil, Gilda Mattoso, Fafá Giordano, Maria Gil, Meny Lopes, Nelci Frangipani, Cristina Doria, Daniella Bartolini, and all photographers and characters in the stories
All media: Instituto Gilberto Gil

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Gilberto Gil
A musical journey into the sound of Brazilian icon, Gilberto Gil
View theme
Google apps