MIAMI — On his latest album, “Seu Jorge and Almaz,” 40-year-old Brazilian singer Seu Jorge dares to cover Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” and turns the King of Pop’s sunny disco celebration into a sultry, enigmatic statement so much his own that it’s almost unrecognizable.
“When we decided to make this album, we decided to represent the whole world,” says the gravelly voiced Jorge from his home in Sao Paulo. “It is very hard to make a cover of Michael Jackson ... but I took the challenge.”
The challenge is one for which Jorge, now touring the United States, feels both he and his country are ready. “There’s a new movement, a new concept in Brazil,” he says. “Everything is starting to change. ... Brazil has the opportunity to earn a following in the world. I make Brazilian music, but this music has a great community around the world. I want to make music that is less traditional, more universal.”
As Brazil, headed by former factory worker Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, takes an increasingly influential place on the world political and economic stage, one of the most compelling and original artists to emerge there in the past decade is a product of the appalling slums that represent the country’s most stubborn problems. As intrinsically and proudly Brazilian as Jorge is, his career owes as much to international recognition as national fame. And to Jorge’s own confidence in his music, his culture, and the drive and creativity that has lifted him up from the depths. “Getting out of the ‘favelas’ is everyone’s aspiration,” Jorge told The Miami Herald in 2005. “How you do it is up to you.”
Jorge Mario da Silva (Seu means “Mr.”) grew up in a grinding ghetto on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. He had an affectionate family and a percussionist father who inspired him to be a musician. But after Jorge’s younger brother was killed in a drug-gang shootout, the family was driven onto the streets. As a teen, Jorge became homeless and addicted to drugs. He was saved after he began sleeping outside a theater, which eventually took him in, and began training and using the teenage musician in their productions. At the same time, Jorge began playing an adventurous mix of samba, funk and rock, making two records that were hits in Brazil.
His breakthrough came when he got the role of the menacing gangster Knockout Ned in the critically acclaimed 2003 film “City of God,” about the Rio de Janeiro “favela” of the same name. His performance so impressed director Wes Anderson that he cast Jorge to croon David Bowie songs in Portuguese in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”
The “Almaz” album came about after Jorge worked with drummer Pupillo and guitarist Lucio Maia, from the well-known experimental rock group Nacao Zumbi, and bassist Antonio Pinto, who produced the soundtrack for “City of God,” on a song for a Walter Salles film. They hit it off so well they continued on their own, recording 17 songs in nine days. The 12 that made it onto the album are a dark, undefineable mix of samba, psychedelic rock, funk and a strange, sensual kind of experimental electronica, ruled by Jorge’s deep, smoky voice. Besides “Rock With You,” there are covers of Kraftwerk’s icy” Das Model” and Roy Ayers’ laid-back 1976 jazz-soul classic “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” as well as unexpected Brazilian songs.
For Jorge, the record is another step in his own creative quest, which he compares to his country’s journey toward a new position in the world. “Brazil has spent so much time sitting, waiting for the world’s opinion, asking for permission to participate,” he says.
“I’m a representative face now, and I feel a responsibility for my culture. My message is that we are ready for the new moment. ... We are ready for a big change.”
The responsibility he feels is not only for his three young children, but for the neighborhood he left and for people still struggling in others like it.
“I want to show those people the possibilities there are to make your dreams a real project, not just a dream. I make my dreams a great project for me, and I work every day for my project, because that’s my dream. That’s why I want to sing for these people, to be strong, to work and to still dream.”