Jorge Ben: Forca Bruta (1970) and A Tabua De Esmeralda (1974)
Two of Jorge Ben's early 70s absolute must-hear classics.
Last week, Brazilian music legend Jorge Ben turned 83.
His first LP arrived smack in the middle of the worldwide Bossa Nova craze in 1963 and contained his catchy anthem, “Mas Que Nada,” which would become an international smash hit three years later in a very famous cover by Sergio Mendes and Brazil ‘66.
“Mas Que Nada” represented the second wave of Brazilian music to wash up on American shores and take the record industry by storm; if breezy Bossa Nova was associated with hushed and romantic jazz—“quiet nights of quiet stars”—the next wave was more playful, outgoing, and more closely tied to the samba. The mix was truly pop music of the time, based on song forms common in the mid-1960s. Jorge Ben and his first four albums fit in perfectly.
A few years later, psychedelic music was ascendant. By then, Jorge Ben began to chart his own idiosyncratic course, which would make him a star all over the world in the 70s and produce eight stone classic LPs in the first half of the decade. It was a blockbuster run, similar to Stevie Wonder’s contemporaneous triumphs. The energy, sound and creativity of these Jorge Ben records from at era ended up influencing the third wave of Brazilian popular music in America—Tropicalia—in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when his funky, anthemic “Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)” appeared on a LukaBop compilation.
Each of the albums Jorge Ben released from 1969 until 1977 is worth hearing, and can easily be considered a masterpiece. His response to Brazilian psychedelia was to strip his music down and embrace samba: he replaced his conventional band with Trio Mocoto, a group of three traditional samba percussionists. Almost always, he added a bassist and other musicians, but the core of the sound and the structure of the songwriting owed a tremendous amount to the Trio’s accompaniment. The songs were loose, seemingly improvised, and allowed Jorge Ben’s voice to float on top of the rhythms. His low-key mastery of tempo—singing well behind the beat, right on top of it, or rushing ahead—is evident in nearly every track from that time.
Forca Bruta from 1970, and A Tabua De Esmeralda are two perfect ‘roots samba-rock’ records; you might compare them both to American Beauty or Workingman’s Dead from the Grateful Dead: both cover a similar sonic terrain, but visit different places. Like both, they feature gems of songwriting, most of which would become well-known standards. If you like one, you’ll like the other.
There’s much more to Jorge Ben from this period that deserves attention, but here’s a good start for the uninitiated. Happy birthday, maestro.