People in the favelas are abandoned, completely marginalised [sic] by society, but dignified and proud. They have a right to humanity as well: they can also be chic.
—Seu Jorge, The Observer
The favelas of Brazil seem a familiar occurrence in the history of urban migration/life. Like any tenement, project, or slum, these shantytowns are a place where many spend their lives and from which few depart. And from a middle class standpoint the favelas, like any tenement, project, or slum, are frequently marginalized as a physical manifestation of the other, that which can and should only be experienced through a filter. Certainly, these are places where little trickles down, “un problema social”, but they are also locations like any other where people eat, sleep, and live.
The key to actor and musician Seu Jorge’s success in his native Brazil has been his ability to convey this universal humanity to a variety of audiences. Through music, he speaks with both current street swagger (“Chega no Suingue”) and past reference/reverence (the Luís Carlos da Vila penned “Samba Que Nem Rita à Dora”). Onscreen and onstage, he channels his upbringing, becoming a believable embodiment of the charismatic and proud carioca: the favela of his childhood is mirrored to an extent in his role as Knockout Ned in City of God, while his loose interpretations of Bowie hits infuse The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with pure Seu. No matter the medium, he bares his life with full focus. Thus, “Mister” Jorge Mário da Silva readily accepts the informality of his stage name, because he wants to invite you into his world.
Seu Jorge only confirmed his warm accessibility to New York City when he strolled onstage at S.O.B.‘s (Sound of Brasil). Warmed up solely by a Favela Chic-style DJ (current Brasilo-hip hop, like Marcelo D2, to CTI fusion jams), Jorge greeted the capacity audience by singing enthusiastically to the DJ’s final samba selection, immediately prompting a support chorus from the Brazilian expats in the house. In spite of the language barrier, the remaining audience members responded in kind to Jorge’s enthusiasm by cheering him on before he even picked up his guitar. Settling down, Jorge spoke in a steady mixture of Portuguese and English, and expressed his gratitude to everyone by noting that this performance was “important for Brazil and me.”
Seated in between a cavaquinho (ukulele-type instrument often used in Brasilian music) player to his right and a local percussionist (mostly playing a well-mic’d pandeiro) to his left, the show immediately carried the air of an impromptu jam session. Playing solo at first, Jorge strummed pickless on a jangling acoustic (similar in tone to his ragged instrument in Steve Zissou) to maintain this air of quiet intimacy before revealing his familiar take of “Space Oddity”. As if in recognition of his international audience, he put everyone at ease by following up with “Ziggy Stardust”, again met with a collective “ahhh” of recognition.
Now thoroughly warmed up, Jorge expressed his thanks to Bowie (to which a crowd member shot back, “Obrigado, Seu!”), and cued the ensemble to launch into his latest single, “Tive Razão”. The crowd surged with energy, recognizing the tune from its sweet cavaquinho intro, and hummed along to the vocal, a sign perhaps of the popularity of the Favela Chic: Postonove series (the song’s inclusion on the third volume precedes the U.S. release of Jorge’s latest album, Cru). This song in particular signaled the true beginning of Jorge’s set as it centered the performance on his voice: chattering percussively, dropping his tone to the far reaches of his baritone, then squeezing out higher notes for melodic effect. His dynamic vocal display more than compensated for his “not speaking ingles”, as the entire crowd marveled at his inventive adlibs.
Jorge nevertheless directed and deflected attention as appropriate: his send-up of silicone implants “Mania de Peitão” shared a melodic cavaquinho solo, while the pandeiro closed out Jorge’s low end-heavy cover of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Chatterton”. Replacing the heavy orchestration of his first album hit “Carolina” with inventive arrangement and spirited playing, Jorge used his voice where strings once swept in, guitar accents instead of horn stabs, and the crowd on the chorus to bring the song home (even a tardy Bill Murray received a genuine nod of gratitude from Jorge upon the song’s completion).
With the crowd pulsing, Jorge sealed the union with a nod to the other Jorge (Ben)‘s “Mas Que Nada”, prompting the entire house to let out a collective “Ooh…” Even when the song transitioned seamlessly into a less familiar samba cut, Jorge taught the three-note melody to the crowd, making sure everyone kept pace.
By building steady momentum with a mix of material, Jorge ensured a greater sense of attention and drama for his close. This time his “Rebel, Rebel” balladeering and bossa “Suffragette City” captured the majesty and mystique of his interpretations as the slow and steady pace placed emphasis on each of his adjustments. Jorge brought the tempo back up momentarily to revisit more first album favorites “O Samba Tai” and a samba rock version of “Hagua”, but at the peak of the audience’s attention he dove into his manifesto, “Eu Sou Favela” (“I am the favela”).
With careful attention, right down to staging, Jorge stood for the first time that evening and huddled close to his now all percussion ensemble to discuss this “problema social” of Brazil. Jorge remained calm and gentle with his words, pointing out “Brazil has a great culture” and that “my culture is poesia, food, dancing, music”, but he acknowledged that “there are problems everywhere… and so many people need help.” In a reference to the bloody depiction of Rio through City of God, he made sure to remind everyone that the violence of the favelas is a familiar one, “from hunger, not guns.” His optimism remained steadfast as he concluded, “Hopefully, Brazil will be much better in the future. Thank you for your attention.”
As Jorge left the stage to an impassioned applause and countless muito obrigado‘s, one could understand why he throws his soul into his craft. For that brief hour and a half at least, he held a group of strangers rapt and in doing so called their attention to his home, which he asserts as synonymous with his being. The effect is indeed theatrical, but in a sense it embodies the way art should highlight a person’s essence. Simultaneously, he appears realistic in his intentions, ultimately emphasizing music’s instantly liberating potential. Returning for an encore of Caetano Veloso covers and fast sambas, Jorge left the audience singing in powerful unison, as if to remind us once more of his unifying message.