Jorge Ben - Biography
By Robert Leaver
After completing a stint in the army Jorge Ben burst onto Brazil’s dynamic music scene at the age of 21 with his first recording, Samba Esquema Novo (1963 Phillips). The single, “Mas Que Nada,” was written in response to a friend’s constant complaints and is variously translated as “Oh, Come On” or “No Way, Man.” An instant hit, it has since been covered by hundreds of artists around the world placing it among the most successful songs ever recorded in the Portuguese language.
Born March 22, 1942 in Rio de Janeiro to an Ethiopian woman and her Brazilian husband he grew up listening to songs his father composed for carnival. In his teens Ben played the pandeiro (the Brazilian tambourine) and sang in a church choir. A soccer player in his youth his professional aspirations were dashed with injury and, despite his parents hopes that he would become a lawyer, music became his passion. While in the army he taught himself to play the guitar developing a bass-like approach and began composing songs.
Mixing traditional elements of samba with bossa nova and pop, his approach to music did not fit neatly into Brazil’s distinct musical movements. His early works are no doubt influenced by the bossa nova of João Gilberto but have a heavier rhythm element more akin to samba and a youthful energy that marked the rock-influenced “jovem guarda (young guard).”
His next three albums, Sacundin Ben Samba (1964 Phillips), Ben é Samba Bom (1964 Phillips) and Big-Ben (1965 Phillips), established him as singer-guitarist-songwriter. Employing a small combo with guitar, percussion and horns his cool vocals and lyrics are loose and playful. A modern, urban take on samba infused with other Afro-Brazilian rhythms made him popular with the youth.
After moving to the Brooklin district of Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo, his musical vision expanded and O Bidu (Silencio No Brooklin) (1967 Phillips) joyfully exploits a broader stylistic palette. The accelerated pace of life in the bustling megalopolis may have influenced this record which sounds clearly aligned with the “tropicalía” spirit, although it predates the movement as such. Slinging an electric guitar by that time he is given credit for being the first popular artist to integrate the instrument into a samba format. Commenting on the track “Si Manda” Brazilian icon Caetano Veloso said that it embodied all that he and Gilberto Gil were trying to do in the “tropicalía” movement.
In the midst of cultural and political upheaval Ben released his most significant and commercially successful album to date- Jorge Ben (1969 Phillips). Its colorful tropi-psychedelia graphics are a clear nod to the controversial “tropicalía” movement spearheaded by Veloso and Gil. Broken shackles on his wrist were an obvious allusion to black history and struggle and several songs allude to the “favelas” populated mostly by poor people of color. The album featured backing by Trio Mocotó, who were busy working with various artists on the cutting edge of a growing rock-samba fusion, and would help launch their career. Unapologetically cheerful, “Pais Tropical” was received like an anthem when Wilson Simonal’s cover version shot to the top of the charts.
“Charles Anjo 45,” a sympathetic song about a “Robin Hood” from the favelas, was jeered when performed at a prestigious song festival yet charted for Ben and became a cornerstone of his songbook. Taking a stab at English, a related song takes an Afro-Brazilian perspective and cautions, “take it easy my brother Charles/take it easy (my brother of color.)” “Crioula” is a celebration of a black woman who works in the marketplace but transcends her station in life as the queen of carnival. It asserts an even more Afro-centric perspective singing she is “a child of African nobles/who by geographic mistake/was born in born in Brazil on carnival day.” This self-conscious, self-titled album asserted Ben’s identity with the confidence and exuberance of one who is comfortable in his own skin.
Armed with draconian police powers the military junta in Brazil cracked down on popular artists who challenged their authority. Fearful and confused by the “tropicalía” movement they arrested the more overtly political Veloso and Gil in December 1968, and jailed them briefly. Ultimately, they went into exile in England the following year. They didn’t know what to do with Ben, but saw fit to censor even some of his innocuous songs. Later, in 1971, they even went so far as to stop a live performance because his background singers were dancing too salaciously, but he was never arrested.
Continuing to work with Trio Mocotó he produced a more intimate set of acoustic soul-stirred samba in Força Bruta (1970 Phillips); given the political heat in Brazil and the albums more gentle music and subtle lyric one can see a sly irony in the title “brute strength.” Though still identified mostly as part of the MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) post-bossa nova movement Ben continued to take on the themes of black identity as in Negro é Lindo (1971 Phillips) (Black is Beautiful).
Moving into more philosophical territory and continuing on an acoustic Afro-Brazilian path he released A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974 Brazil). The melodically mesmerizing album of well-written, quirky songs starts with the humorous “Os Alquimistas Estão Chegando Os Alquimistas” or “the alchemists are bringing the alchemists near.” The album’s mystical and spiritual themes are enveloped in an aesthetic that is perhaps influenced by Ben’s Rosicrucian (an esoteric international brotherhood said to possess ancient wisdom) grandfather. Also of note is the song “Zumbi,” a homage to the 17th century leader of a freed community of African slaves in Brazil and a potent image of African pride, not to mention a symbol of rebellion. Again, Ben seemed to be sending a message of defiance that eluded the authorities.
Teaming up with compatriot Gilberto Gil in an unplugged session, Gil e Jorge (1975 Phillips/Verve) is an acoustic masterpiece that captures the brilliant interplay between the two as they exchange guitar riffs, improvise, and harmonize beautifully on vocals. Originally released as a double LP the songs stretch out as they jam accompanied only by percussion. The centerpiece here is the mystical “Taj Mahal” which takes its familiar melody to an ecstatic fifteen minutes. A popular hit from his Ben (1972 Phillips) album, the song’s melody went round the world when Rod Stewart appropriated it for his disco blockbuster “Do you think I’m sexy?” In fact, a lawsuit in Brazil ultimately ruled that it was a clear case of plagiarism.
Ben’s music from the beginning was riff-centered and the primacy of rhythm and precise use of percussion made irresistible grooves. Strapping on the electric guitar he led his musicians squarely into the realm of the “monster groove” and took his fans into his mythical ÁfricaBrasil (1976 Phillips). One of the most compelling recordings to burst forth from the Americas, its influence is only exceeded by its timeless brilliance.
As much as James Brown brought the funk to America and Fela Kuti brought the funk to Africa with Afro-beat, Ben brought the funk to Brazil. This international embrace of negritude would echo in the “Black Soul” movement in Brazil. A heady, bass-heavy chomp starts the show on “Ponta da Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)” whose hypnotic and playful mantra was resurrected for international consumption by David Byrne’s collection Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical (1989 Luaka Bop). The samba-funk hybrid here is perfectly exemplified with “Xica da Silva” which became one of his most popular tunes and the theme for a film by Carlos Diegues. The title track alludes once again to Zumbi challenging Brazil’s self-image.
Tropical (1977 Phillips) included another version of “Taj Mahal” and the energetic Banda do Zé Pretinho (1978 Phillips) employs a two-tone whistle in the soccer themed “Cadê o penalty” (Where’s the Penalty?). He began to embrace more of a dance-pop sound and fell victim to state-of-the art production and its use of synthesizers in subsequent years. Always surrounded by great musicians and with an innate sense of how to make his audience move, Ben’s live shows were like an endless party as heard on Live in Rio (1992 WEA Latina). In the ‘80s and ‘90s he frequently toured Europe, the Americas and beyond.
In 1989 he officially changed his name (and label affiliation) to Jorge Benjor, which at the time was attributed to numerological beliefs, but in reality came after royalty checks due to him were miss-sent to George Benson. Established as an international pop artist, his Homo Sapiens (1996Sony) saw an initial pressing of 250,000 copies and was released in numerous European countries and the U.S. Musicas Para Tocar Em Elevador (1997 Sony) was more than just that and Puro Suingue (2000 Universal International) celebrated the new millennium still alive and kicking out the grooves which continued through Reactivus Amor Est (Turba Philosophorum) (2004 Universal International).
Hugely important in the evolution of contemporary Brazilian music forms Jorge Ben became a bona fide pop star on the world stage. He authored several classic tunes that have become part of a common world songbook and he spearheaded the samba-soul-funk explosion of the seventies. His songs celebrate everyday life in Brazil from the favelas to the football (soccer) fields, but also delve into esoteric musings about alchemy and spirit. As a champion of his people’s African roots he has helped forge a new Brazilian identity, but above all his music and performances have always made people dance. He sings “I live in a tropical country/Blessed by God/and beautiful by nature/In February there’s carnival…I’m a young boy of average intelligence (oh yeah)/But even so I’m happy” in “Pais Tropical.” It is precisely his joy of being Brazilian that he so effectively transmits and therein lies the essence of his appeal.