Perfect Sound Forever

Jorge Ben

Album covers courtesy of Jorge Ben homepage

by Tim Atkins (May 2001)

Of all the musicians who came to prominence in the 1960's, Jorge Ben has always seemed to be the one to whom music-making came easiest. Feted by the Bossa crowd, the Tropicalia crowd and even the rock musicians of the Jovem Guarda, Ben has always stood outside all those movements ­ while being able to move freely between all of them.

 Jorge Ben's first single ­"Mais Que Nada"­ (translated as either 'No Way, Man' or 'Oh, Come On') was chosen to be the music for the 1998 Brazilian World Cup commercial. Written when he was a soldier about a complaining friend, it's incredible to learn that it originally came out over 37 years ago on a 78 rpm single - and that to date it's been covered over 200 times.

 Growing up in the working class north of Rio, the son of a stevedore and an Ethiopian mother, his parents were friends with the composer Ataulfo Alves, and his father wrote songs for carnival. Given a guitar at the age of 17, Ben's first group was the Copa 5, named after the Copacabana area of Rio where he was then living. Playing alongside Dom Um Romao and Dom Salvador, the little band played in the clubs along the Beco das Garrafas, and the informal atmosphere that existed in the small clubs, the jam sessions and the encouragement that he received led him to decide to become a musician instead of a football player for Flamengo (his earliest wish ­ until injury got in the way) or a lawyer (the wish of his parents). He was a success right from the start: his first night in Bottle's Club was attended by Armando Pittigliani (a producer for Phillips records), who signed him on the spot.

 From his very earliest recordings in the early '60's, Ben's guitar style made him unique. Having taught himself to play the guitar in the army, his percussive strumming style using either the thumb and forefinger or plectrum made him hard to play with. Jamming alongside Erasmo Carlos and Tim Maia in the clubs of his youth, his ability to incorporate all aspects of Brazilian popular music was (until the arrival of the Tropicalists) unrivalled.

 If a count was made of the proportion of good songs vs bad by all the major Brazilian artists of the last 40 years, the odds are that Jorge Ben would be very near the top. From 1963 to 1976 Ben produced a faultless string of albums, culminating in 1976's Africa Brasil. Samba, Bossa, Afro Samba, Tropicalia, Funk, Blues, Folk; you name it, it's there in his work. In later years, he's turned towards soul and an increasingly synthesised backing but it has made little difference either to his popularity or the quality of work.

 His first albums, Samba Esquema Novo (1963), Sacundin Ben Samba (1964), Ben E Samba Bom (1964), and Big Ben, are nowadays almost impossible to get, though each is well represented on the Serie Grandes Nomes 4-CD set available from Polygram (Samba Esquema Novo has just been reissued in Japan). They all show Ben as the high flying pop sambista, pumping out hits with small combos somewhere between the rock of the Jovem Guarda and the post-Bossa work of the likes of Edu Lobo.

 A change comes with the release of O Bidu (Silencio No Brooklin) (1967). Moving to the Sao Paulo district of Brooklin, he began pulling in other instruments and styles to augment his basic sound. The result is not unlike the sense of expanded horizons that you get on listening to The Beatles' Rubber Soul. Commenting on the album years later, Caetano Veloso remarked that the last track "Si Manda" (a brief tale of failed love) with its forceful beat and electric rhythm guitar was everything that he and Gil were hoping to achieve in their own work.

 The ten years following O Bidu saw Ben building on its success. It is this period in which he really stood at centre stage of MPB, enjoying the achievement of having compared "O Fino Da Bossa" (the bossa TV show), the Tropicalists' psychedelic and short-lived "Divino Maravilhoso," and been an integral part of the Jovem Guarda's rival rock TV shows. When Tropicalia started doing in 1968 what he had been doing for the previous 2 years, his flamboyantly psychedelic appearance and mastery of eclectic pop songs fitted in naturally with its speedy pop aesthetic. During this time, he also appeared in an episode of "Mission Impossible" singing in a nightclub, when he was touring America with Sergio Mendes.

 The fact that he was never the leader of any movement has meant that many histories of Brazilian music tend to overlook his huge contribution. Predating the Tropicalists by several years (and without copping the flack that they did), Ben was the first person to use an electric guitar to play sambas. A decade later (and again predating Caetano and Gil by a couple of years) he was the most successful popular artist at incorporating both African and black American rhythms into his work. His masterpiece, Africa Brasil (1976) takes on Fela Kuti and James Brown and (more so than Caetano's and Gil's efforts) successfully synthesises them with samba into something uniquely Brazilian.

 With Ben, the groove is the thing. While Caetano Veloso seems to have hundreds of different tunes inside him and Marisa Monte can move effortlessly from one style to another, Jorge Ben's entire career is founded upon the edifice of perhaps the mightiest riff known to man. The variation that he brings to his greatest songs ­ from the rhythms of "Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabarauma)" (from Africa Brasil), with its hypnotic percussion and guitar riff, to the soaring, propulsive "Mas Que Nada" of 13 years earlier ­ is slight, but it's enough. Any of his albums up to Africa Brasil are a safe bet, and there's enough variety and joy in the songs to make them among the most timeless of their period.

 Probably because of the simplicity of his songs, Ben escaped most of the persecution that was directed towards his contemporaries. Although he can be accused of being lightweight because of his lack of overt political agenda, it seems pointless to blame him for not doing something which obviously didn't come naturally. The flip side of this argument is that he did write some of the happiest songs of his (or indeed any) era. He has also probably written more songs about soccer than any other popular entertainer too.

 "Pais Tropical," with its exultant chorus and irresistible hook, is at least the equal of The Undertones "Teenage Kicks" in its celebration of carefree youth. The lyrics run thus: 'I live in a tropical country / Blessed by God / & beautiful by nature / (but what beauty) / In February there's Carnaval / I've got a VW bug & a guitar / I support Flamengo football team / I've got a black girl called Teresa / I'm a young boy of average intelligence (oh yeah) / But even so I 'm happy.'

 In what stands as a landmark of the dictatorship's stupidity even Ben's songs were censored. They thought "Pais Tropical" was a secret code. "Charles, Anjo 45" with its Robin Hood inspired lyric "to root for peace / for joy and love / for the pretty girls / I'm gonna root" was investigated. But at least Ben was not hounded out of the country: perhaps they figured out that there was nothing in the songs after all.

 With the '70's drawing to a close, Ben's albums began to sag a little. Never less than engaging (he did, after all, have the groove) but never more than that too, his career drifted until the early-nineties when he was rediscovered by the children of his original fans.

 In 1989, he changed his name to Jorge Ben Jor; the result of a mix up over royalty payments that went to George Benson instead of Ben. A more colorful version says that his interest in numerology and all things alchemical was what really caused the change. His interest in angels, alchemy, and Christian mysticism (demonstrated in numerous albums, songs and biographical pronouncements) perhaps comes from his time in the church choir when he was a boy, or from his Rosacrucian Grandfather. It's almost the sole theme of his lovely semi-acoustic A Tabua da Esmaralda album from 1974, and appears throughout his work.

 In the early '90's, the newly christened Jorge Ben Jor began playing concerts at Universities in and around Rio - in the process building a hefty fan base of completely new fans. All that he needed was a strong record to relaunch his career. He found it with with Brasil. Released in at the time of the impeachment of President Collor, its gentle political comment was picked up by young people all over the country who turned it into a hit: proof of the continued relevance of his music.

 In recent years he has had new hits (he signed to Sony Music in 1995), seen his songs covered by the likes of Daude and Marisa Monte, written songs with Arnaldo Antunes, been positively name-checked by many of the new artists, and introduced himself to a younger and appreciative new audience.

 For Ben it has been a case of the world catching up with him, as opposed to the other way around.

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