Playing from the Hip

by Marcelo Ballvé

26 August 2007

Jorge Ben always sounds like he's playing from the hip, not from the head, not really from the heart either.
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Jorge Ben, Brazilian musician and songwriter, is such a fount of creativity it’s difficult to know where to begin charting his career.  In his precocious bossa-influenced work of the ‘60s, in the deep funk of the ‘70s? In the still-great ‘80s?

I’ve slowly been working my way through his albums and although I have to agree with the general critical consensus, which seems to be that África Brasil (1976) and O Bidú- Silencio no Brooklin (1967) are his best work, there are moments in all the others worthy of close attention.

cover art

Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil

Caetano Veloso

(Da Capo)

He’s still putting out albums, most recently some unreleased tracks from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so I still have a lot of listening to do.  Perhaps his first album Samba Esquema Novo (1963) is somewhat underrated. It is mind-blowing for being a complete reworking of bossa nova and its relationship to samba and this only four years after João Gilberto himself launched the bossa nova revolution with 1959’s Chega de Saudade.

Every time I hear Ben’s albums it’s obvious: he bled this music, it came right out of him, he didn’t have to think it up. He had assimilated bossa nova, samba, and rock to such an extent that as early as 1963 he was comfortable enough to play close to all three without risking a slip into any genre exclusively. Neither did he feel the need for attention-grabbing antics or dramatic ruptures. His music has never been self-consciously dissonant with respect to the reigning trends in Brazilian pop. It is simply more alive.

Ben always sounds like he’s playing from the hip, not from the head, not really from the heart either. A good example of this style is “Mas que nada”, a 1963 song that has been endlessly anthologized and covered (most recently by The Black Eyed Peas with Sergio Mendes). The song makes radical innovation look easy. “Mas Que Nada” is a deceptively simple tune, with catchy lyrics and a sticky rhythm. It’s a dance song.

On another level, it’s a remarkable appropriation of bossa nova. With this song Ben updates a still-young genre. In others’ hands bossa was delicate, nearly cerebral and ultra-urbane. In Ben’s “Mas que nada” it becomes something more muscular and rough-hewn, also more vital. No one’s bossa nova is quite like Ben’s.

There’s one indispensable fact to keep in mind: Ben is a Carioca, born in Rio de Janeiro. Musicians from other Brazilian cities might need to sing aloud their creds before letting loose. All Cariocas tend to follow their own idiosyncratic paths through Brazilian music history. This is true of the trippy Jards Macalé, troubador Chico Buarque, and legendary sambista Cartola. I have to admit I’m partial to the Cariocas.

I think it has something to do with the birthright that Rio gives them, the knowledge, that seems congenital, that they don’t need to prove themselves. Musicians from Rio always seem to be doing whatever they please. Also, and I think this goes for Ben but also for most people doing things of note creatively these days, there’s no obsessive professionalism, snobbery, or intellectual posturing.

Ben for one is obviously not so hung up on the results of an individual album. He’s more interested on what the overall result of his creative emanation is. I think it is palpable in his music that the man is simply creating, making music, putting it out there; he’s not worrying about what the result might be, he’s not worrying about repeating himself or reaching heights of artistic genius.

The fact that Ben does have peaks and valleys is probably essential to the fact that he does have peaks as high and as unsurpassed as the album África Brasil—a novel’s worth of sound and poetry—and Silencio no Brooklin, which brims over with vitality and an intentional roughness. It seems to say: this is freedom, cutting an album and mixing it as rough around the edges as this one is. For that reason it’s nearly perfect.

There are some interesting passages on Ben in Caetano Veloso’s book Tropical Truth, A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil (Da Capo Press, 2003). The book is Veloso’s memoir of Tropicália, the musical and artistic movement in the late ‘60s that made him and Gilberto Gil famous in Brazil, and laid the foundation for their later international superstardom. In the book, Veloso remembers the extent to which he and buddy Gil worshipped Ben and his preternatural talent and spontaneity.

The book talks about how in 1968 Veloso, Gil and friends became obsessed with a characteristically fuzzy philosophical ideal, which they attempted to corral into coherence with the word saúde, or health. Veloso says that for them Ben embodied health. Not necessarily a fit body or a robust organism, but everything else that went into wellbeing, especially the intangibles. That is, the ease with which he seemed to inhabit his own skin, the effortlessness with which music seemed to pour out of him and seemed to vibrate in every cell of his being.

That was health: Ben singing, playing guitar, endlessly, and seeming to enjoy every millisecond, as if he woke up every morning with the notes dancing in his head. As if it was as natural as walking to spew music from one’s hands and throat.

In other words, Ben was a giant for them, a walking titan of creativity. Somehow, Ben had found the key to creative freedom, which is to embody and live your art, without having to strain for it. For music to be the same as breathing. Not only that, but Ben, without being overtly intellectual in lyrics or arrangements, was always ahead of the curve. In 1976 his África Brasil gave a revisionist history of Afro-Brazil and in a sense, the entire developing world. He did this before much of Brazil’s cultural and artistic establishment would take on the same themes and institutionalize them in the form of Brazilian Reggae, blocos afro or Afro-Brazilian music troupes such as Olodum (founded in 1979), and a somewhat late Black consciousness that only recently bore fruit in a series of affirmative action policies and recognition of racism in the supposed “racial utopia” of Brazil.

Jorge Ben

Jorge Ben

But the real lesson of Ben has remained one of freedom. His aesthetic of spontaneity is what impresses. It’s true that he has a certain propensity toward repetitiveness that verges on self parody, and he’s always prioritizing the riff or the groove ahead of production value. Even in the most produced of his albums he manages to sound like he’s improvising. He has never taken the script too seriously.  It’s as if he’s made it all up as he went along.

What he’s done is prove that it doesn’t have to be hard to make art. It can be easy. Here’s to Ben’s health and long life.

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