JORGE BEN JOR
Traversing five decades, Brazilian singer-songwriter, Jorge Ben Jor has long teased hearts the world over. But unlike the feathery bossa nova pop favoured by Western cocktail party hosts whose idea of Brazilian music is limited to whimsically voiced versions of Girl From Ipanema, Ben Jor’s eclecticism forged a far more radical music early on. His fusions of Afro-Brazilian folk, rock, funk, blues, reggae and pop, masterfully bridged the romance of bossa nova and the psychedelic turns of post-fifties experimental activism.
“It all started… with jazz… when I was a little kid,” says Ben Jor in his native tongue, Portuguese. With the aid of a translator, the vital looking 68 year-old explains that these days he enjoys a lot of modern drum ‘n’ bass.
“I’ve always liked to listen to a little bit of everything and still do,” continues Ben Jor. “This contributed somehow to inventing my own style. It helped me to give shape to, and mold my own thing - according to my ears.
“I assume that it’s worked,” he adds jokingly.
As the writer/performer of Mas Que Nada – the only Portuguese language song to break the American Top 10 – Ben Jor can confidently assume. Originally released in 1963, Mas Que Nada topped charts afresh in 2006 when covered by Black Eyed Peas and Sergio Mendes, becoming an unofficial FIFA World Cup theme and transatlantic chart topper.
In between those dates is a career boasting over 30 albums, including the much lauded Forca Bruta (1970) and Africa Brasil (1976). The latter featured a disco-samba rendition of Ben Jor’s Taj Mahal – the song which Rod Stewart infamously plagiarised for Do You Think I’m Sexy’s melody. The album remains a standout in Ben Jor’s mind.
“I'm very proud of the album,” says Ben Jor. “It was, and still is, very important in my career.”
The album Africa Brasil was very much a product of Brazil’s Tropicália movement, a cultural crusade fuelled by political activism and restive rhythms, where innovation and creative freedom were juxtaposed against an oppressive military dictatorship who exiled some of its high profile artistic agitators. The movement encompassed all art forms, not just music, and set out to devour all genres and cultures in an extension of an earlier Brazilian theory encompassed in the Cannibal Manifesto.
“It was a great…” recalls Ben Jor, “and lots of fun. In this period, Brazilian music was extremely valued and appreciated by the media. Great Brazilian music icons came from this period and still remain symbols of the Tropicália movement, and of MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) worldwide - like my friends Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa.”
Tropicália has enjoyed a resurgence of interest after artists like Beck and David Byrne began singing its praises, while Devandra Banhardt and El Guincho have more recently taken up the baton. In reality though, many of the original Tropicålistas have continued creating and performing with the same open-mindedness.
“Performing for an audience is my biggest joy,” says Ben Jor on the eve of his first ever show in Australia. “I'm bringing six musicians with me: The Ze Pretinho's Band. My repertoire will be very mixed. I’ll perform songs from throughout my career and throw in some surprises for those who have my albums at home.”
Apart from his love of music, Ben Jor is a committed football fan. At home, where he’s hoping to be for the June 11th kick-off of the FIFA World Cup, he barracks for Rio de Janeiro’s Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, for whom he’s composed songs and whose crest adorned one of his earliest albums.
Is he willing to put money on who will make the World Cup final in South Africa this year?
“Sincerely, it's quite hard to predict. Brazil has a very strong team. Spain is doing well, Germany always surprises and Argentina is always up to something.”
“Even Australia is playing this year,” adds Ben Jor diplomatically. “It should be a beautiful world cup!”
By Paris Pompor
JORGE BEN JOR
Sunday May 23, 7pm, Enmore Theatre, Enmore, $89.00