Tripping Out on Jorge Ben Jor

It’s a funny thing, how a certain vibe or beat can be immediately associated to a country. Brazilian music is just like that, instantly identifiable by its groove and samba. It’s like they were able to literally translate caipirinha, sun, beach and football into actual sounds, and wrapped it all beautifully with a, quite frankly, ridiculously musical language. Jorge Ben Jor goes one step further – he is an artist that is instantly identifiable by the unique guitar style he created. I’m not going to bother you with the specifics, mainly because I don’t fully understand them myself, but Jorge emphasized the guitar’s potential as a bass, by using two fingers and a pick. What that means is that basically he kicks ass, and was extremely successful at infusing samba and bossa nova with elements of rock, funk and soul, all of which contributed to his status as one of the kings of Brazilian music. Having already introduced to you, dear reader, the wonderfully elegant vibe of Chico Buarque and the unique sound of Tim Maia, I feel it is also my responsibility to tell you a little about another of the Brazilian greats. Ben Jor, one of Brazil’s most important composers, is an intriguing artist, to say the least – while one of his most famous songs is an ode to one of the 7 World Wonders, the Taj Mahal, another is probably the best (and only) song about plankton you have ever listened to. But we’ll get to it later.

Born Jorge Duilio Lima Menezes in 1942, music never seemed to be part of young Jorge’s long terms plans. Like many Brazilian boys, Jorge wanted something else – “my father wanted me to be a lawyer and my mother a paediatrician. I wanted to be a football player”. But his hometown had something different to say. Mind you, when growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, the musical scene was erupting with fresh sound and young talent – this was the time of Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim, the time of caipirinha and sun, the time of samba and bossa nova. In summary, not much has changed since then. So for someone self taught at the guitar, it started to seem unavoidable that he would dip his toes in the musical scene sooner or later. At 16, Jorge Ben was already a member of the Turma do Matoso, a musical group made by a bunch of friends from the same street in Rio de Janeiro, including future Brazilian superstar Tim Maia which introduced him to Erasmo Carlos and Roberto Carlos, and from 18 years onward was performing at parties and nightclubs.

Young Jorge Ben, effortlessly cool

Performing under the name Jorge Ben, influenced by his Ethiopian mother Silvia Saint Ben Lima, his first big break came in 1963 when he sang the first song in our playlist, Mas Que Nada, and changed the face of Brazilian music. Record label Philips quickly noticed and recruited the new talent, and later that same year was releasing Jorge’s first album, Samba Esquema Novo. The gamble proved to be a successful one, both critically and commercially, with records flying off the shelves and selling an unprecedented 100,000 copies. On the back of phenomenal tracks such as Chove Chuva or Por Causa de Voce, Menina, Jorge Ben’s debut record showcased a new style of samba, a blend between bossa nova, samba and Western influences of rock and pop. While samba was rather popular amongst workers and the rural population, bossa nova was particularly appreciated within middle-class communities – in other words, Ben Jor was able to bring together not only different musical genres, but also different social classes. If at the time his style might have been initialized met with some push back and criticism, with preeminent publications believing the record would soon disappear into oblivion, nowadays it is widely regarded as one of the best Brazilian albums of all time and a pioneer in a new musical era in Brazil, which would later lead to the Tropicalia movement of the 1970s.

It is at this point in our story that Ben found himself in the middle of a musical war – on one side there were the more traditional artists such as Elis Regina, who believed Brazilian music should stay true to its acoustic and natural roots, the original samba and bossa nova sound if you will, while on the other there was the Tropicalia army. Spearheaded by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, these new kids in the block wanted to bring another dimension to the American Rock sound to the party, infusing elements of rock, soul, pop and funk with the traditional sound of Brazil. Always the multi-faceted artist, Jorge remained faithful to his beliefs and sided with neither – he sided with himself and kept developing his own sound. I probably wouldn’t be writing about him if he choose differently, much like The Matrix would not have been a ground-breaking movie if Neo had chosen the blue pill and never became The One [Author’s note: fantastic movie, right?]. His musical open-mindedness and, quite frankly, overall positive and enjoyable personality, allowed him to quietly play with both sides – during this time Ben Jor was a regular appearance on both O Fino da Bossa and on Jovem Guarda, respectively Elis Regina and Erasmo Carlos’ TV shows. But eventually the double game ended as the day after he performed Agora Ninguem Chora Mais (the next song in our playlist) on Jovem Guarda, he was banned by the producers of O Fino Da Bossa.

Setting the standard for guitar playing right from the start

In 1965 Ben toured for three months in the US, exploring his love for rock and roll along the way and developing the foundations for what later would end up known as “samba rock”, a sort of electric samba infused with elements of rock and popular music, a genre Jorge is considered the godfather of. Realizing the cash cow they had stumbled upon, Philips pushed Ben to rapidly deliver record after record, which lead to three albums released in the span of 18 months. Well, as any music lover knows, quantity is not quality [Author’s note: hear that, Daniel Ek?] and to be honest there really isn’t any song from any of these records that is worthy to go into our playlist, considering… well, pretty much everything else in Ben’s decades-long repertoire. On top of this, his already strained relationship with Philips reached its snapping point following the release of his fourth EP, Big Ben, in 1965, and the label terminated his contract, pushing a 23-year old Ben to the marvellous and glamorous life of independent producing.

Outside of Brazil, on the other hand, the picture was completely different – the late 60s saw several of Jorge’s compositions being covered by widely known and recognized artist such as Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie (and even Coldplay, at Rock in Rio 2011), with his maximum exponent in Sergio Mendes’ 1966 cover of Mas Que Nada, which remains to this day the only song completely in Portuguese to have reached the top of the American charts. As we all know, the same Sergio Mendes would later revisit Mas Que Nada with The Black Eyed Peas in 2006 to produce an international hit, which reached the Top 10 in several European countries.

The Tropicalia gang in the late 60s – Jorge Ben Jor, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Gal Costa, Sergio Dias e Arnaldo Baptista

During his years as an independent artist, Ben never stopped developing his unique style of samba, all while writing several songs recorded by mainstream acts such as Elis Regina, Os Mutantes and Wilson Simonal – imagine having so much talent that you are basically handing out tune after tune to other acts? It wasn’t long before Philips realized their mistake and, already under new management and with a little help from pals Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, re-signed Ben in early 1969. Once again, the label struck gold almost immediately, as on that same year Jorge released his sixth EP, the eponymous Jorge Ben, and changed the game. Incorporating psychedelic and soul elements, the record was a pioneer in the so-called “samba jovem”, which mixed bossa nova with iê-iê-iê, adequately named after The Beatles’ musical style, and opened the door to a whole new generation of artists.

Produced with state of the art effects at the time and with orchestral arrangements by Jose Briamonte and Rogerio Duprat, Jorge Ben also marked the first of his many collaborations with the supporting band Trio Mocoto, all of which contributed to the critical and commercial success of Jorge Ben. Addressing the everyday Brazilian life, football (with his love for boyhood club Flamengo immortalized on the record’s iconic cover) and women, as well as more sensitive topics as racial pride, self determination and collective struggle, the record’s standout tracks include Pais Tropical, one of Jorge and Brazil’s most famous anthems, Bebete Vaobora, Que Pena and Take It Easy My Brother Charles. This last one is one of the main reasons why I am writing this article, as I believe that everyone should listen to it at least once in their lifetime. Personal convictions aside, we should all take a step back to acknowledge the type of music that was being made in Brazil in the 1960s – put simply, phenomenal music.

Jorge Ben and Trio Mocoto, a long and succesful partnership

One year later, at the peak of political tensions of the military dictatorship regime in Brazil, Jorge releases in 1970 Forca Bruta, literally translated as “brute force”. Recorded with the same Trio Mocoto, Forca Bruta marks the first time the singer addresses more sensitive topics such as political ideologies and values, alongside his more traditional themes of love and women – but the overall sombre tone of these political messages ends up impacting even these more care-free issues, as most songs in the record end in romantic disenchantment. The record further positioned Ben Jor as a pioneer in samba rock and in the forefront of the Tropicalia movement, as it further explored the unique relationship started in Jorge Ben between the groove of Trio Mocoto with Ben Jor’s rock guitar style. Even though Oba La Vem Ela or Domenica Domingava are arguably the most famous songs of the album, the definitive listen of Forca Bruta, and my personal favourite, is Charles Jr. With beautifully orchestrated arrangements, it is phenomenal and melancholic tune [Author’s note: John’s soft spot] with an extraordinary message – allow me to shed some light on how Ben uses his music to promote black heritage and address the marginalization of black people in Brazil by resorting to my Portuguese skills (and Wikipedia too):

“My name is Charles Jr.
And I’m an angel too
But I don’t want to be the first
Nor be better than anybody
I just want to live in peace
And be treated as an equal among equals
For in exchange of my love and affection
I want to be understood and taken into consideration
And, if possible, loved as well
‘Cause it doesn’t matter what I have
But what I can do with what I have
I’m no longer what my brothers once were, no, no
I was born of a free womb
Born of a free womb in the 20th century
I have love and faith
To go into the 21st century
Where the conquests of science, space and medicine
And the brotherhood of all human beings
And the humbleness of a king
Will be the weapons of victory
For universal peace
And the whole world will hear
And the whole world will know
That my name is Charles Jr.
And I’m an angel too.”

In 1972 he releases his ninth studio album, another eponymous Ben and the first album without Trio Mocoto since 1967, from where the next two entries in our playlist are taken from – his classic tribute to Flamengo striker Fio Maravilha (renamed Filho Maravilha due to legal disputes between the two, which since have been settled) and Paz e Arroz because… well, because he sings about what is needed is peace and rice, and I am firm believer that most world problems would be solved with a hearty serving of both.

The Godfather of samba rock – understandably

Always the dreamer and explorer, the early 1970s saw Jorge performing all over the world, with shows in Italy, France, Portugal and Japan to name a few. These performances pave the way for Ben’s embrace of soul on 1974’s A Tabua da Esmeralda, arguably his most mysterious and experimental album, now considered one of the best Brazilian records of all time – the 6th best to be exact, according to the Rolling Stone magazine. With its title referencing the Emerald Tablet, which is said to contain the secret of prima materia and its transmutation into gold, the record explores Ben’s curiosity around alchemy and the esoteric. It also shows that there was definitely some really weird stuff going in Brazil in the 1970s – I remind you this was around the time when Tim Maia was walking around in white and promoting the UFO-filled preachings of the Rational Culture cult. But more importantly that Rolling Stone’s ranking or the odd beliefs going around at the time, however, is that A Tabua da Esmeralda is my favourite record of Jorge, and another of the main reasons of this article. With each song elegantly flowing from one to the other, glued by Jorge’s soft and smooth voice, A Tabua da Esmeralda is a beautifully constructed record and a true landmark in Brazilian and world music.

With production and orchestral arrangements that raise the whole package to a whole new level, the record and Ben’s work in that period sparked the creativity that took the Brazilian music scene by storm throughout the 1970s. It is quite difficult to choose only a few songs from Jorge’s masterpiece, as it also explores a much wider array of sounds and themes than up to that point in his career, from his Afro-Brazilian identity (in songs such as Menina Mulher da Cor Preta or Zumbi), to alchemy and mysticism (Os Alquimistas estao Chegando), space travelling (Errare Humanum Est, my personal favourite) or simply his love for the beautiful (O Homem da Gravata Florida and 5 Minutos). It is a complex album that infuses samba and bossa nova with rock, jazz, pop, funk and psychedelic, all elements explored in Ben’s previous work. Of course I would advocate that you have to listen to his entire discography, but A Tabua da Esmeralda is probably the best choice if you will only listen to one of his records from beginning to end – hopefully by then you will listen to the entire thing.

Casually drinking a coke, showing he’s actually one of us

Always influenced by his Ethiopian mother, introducing even more African elements into his music and further exploring his Afro-Brazilian identity and roots was the next logical and natural step. All of these elements were abundant on Africa Brasil, Jorge Ben’s fourteenth album, released in 1976 and one of his most famous albums. A mix of new and reworked materials, my personal favourite tracks include Ponta de Lanca Africano, a song about an African football striker, and Xica da Silva, probably the most Brazilian-like sound you will ever listen to. But the definitive standout of Africa Brasil is Taj Mahal – you might recognize a few bars from this mammoth of a track in Rod Stewarts’s hit Do You Think I’m Sexy – well, that is because its true, as Stewart reluctantly admitted when confessing the theft in 1970. Africa Brasil is a kick ass, funky and groovy record – overall, super cool, as cool as a cucumber. If a cucumber knew how to write, sing and play the guitar, that is.

As we get closer to the end of our playlist, and after 1983’s epic Rio Babilonia, I wanted to leave you with a two gems from some of Jorge’s live performances – a fantastic live rendition of his 1991’s homage to Tim Maia, W/Brasil (Chama o Síndico), which reached international success and became a dance floor hit, and the extraordinary live medley Pais Tropical / Spiro Giro – remember the song about plankton I mentioned in the beginning? Well, this is it, and I obviously couldn’t leave it out of the playlist.

Ben Jor live in the late 1970s

Jorge’s originality and open-mindedness didn’t limit him to a single style or vibe, and the Brazilian legend ended up being a member and having a key role in the most important Brazilian music movements of the 20th century (Jovem Guarda, bossa nova and Tropicalia), an unrivalled position in the musical landscape in his home country. It is impossible to talk about Brazilian greats such as Tim Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Tim Maia or Chico Buarque and not include the name of Ben Jor in the mix. Exploring the beaty and poetry of the everyday urban life,

His music is, above all, a celebration of black culture, an affirmation of pride and self respect, without attacking racism and racists per se as Ben Jor’s music, much like the man himself, rises elegantly above the violence and hate of the time on which it was created. To this day, in Brazil and abroad, artists of every style, age or race record, cover and play his songs, which are guaranteed to move the masses whenever and wherever they are played. Hell, more than 50 years following the release of Mas Que Nada, we still continue to hear it all over the world, from cinema soundtracks to TV commercials to underground hip hop discos. A man in love with the beaty and poetry of the everyday urban life, a man who wrote hit songs in every decade since the 1960s, a man that helped shaped Brazilian music throughout his decades long career.

And what have we been doing with our lives in the meantime?

Jorge Ben Jor and Gilberto Gil