If you’ve never heard Jorge Ben Jor, don’t worry, you’re (mostly) not to blame.
The man who wrote “Mas, Que Nada!” is, after all, not the same man who popularized it, but despite being responsible for one of the most famous bossa nova songs, Jorge Ben is not a name that gets brought up frequently in the music world.
It was luck that I ever encountered Jorge Ben to begin with. A gift guide from the Boston Globe had recommended the reissue of Força Bruta in 2007, when Dusty Groove finally gave the album an American release. I say finally for our sake, because Jorge Ben Jor has been a widely successful and beloved musician in Brazil throughout almost the entirety of his career. He wasn’t languishing from a lack of recognition, we were.
“Mas, Que Nada!,” though a sublime and breezy example of bossa nova at it’s most alluring, is not his best work. That would start with Jorge Ben in 1969.
At the time, Brazil’s major music scene was starting to split into two camps; Jovem Guarda and Música Popular Brasileira (MPB), both of which were reactions to American and British rock and roll. Jorge Ben, however, didn’t want to abandon samba in his music, a distinction he found both groups were all too willing to do to further their audience.
It’s truly hard to write about the level of importance that musical culture had in South America at this time, and how the government reacted to it. It was not uncommon for musicians to be jailed for speaking out against the government, especially in Brazil and Argentina during the late 60s and early 70s. Jorge Ben escaped that, largely because he was never brazenly political, a fact that made some characterize him as a musical lightweight.
Jorge Ben is anything but musical fluff, managing to integrate American soul music with samba and calypso in energetic form. There are probably only a handful of phrases that I can understand on this whole album, but the whole sound of the album is what makes this such a phenomenal record.
Everything about this record screams summer. Nylon stringed acoustic guitars dominate the arrangements while strings and horns swirl in and out of the picture like swooning waves of heat. But “País Tropical” is the best place to start. Now, the song is almost Brazil’s unofficial anthem, and it fuses soulful call and response vocals with the unmistakeable jaunty samba beat. As the summer heat starts to dial up, this is a great record to have on repeat.
Força Bruta was Jorge Ben’s follow-up that arrived a year later in 1970, a slightly more bare bones affair than the technicolor explosion that was Jorge Ben. This is a much more acoustic album, which isn’t to say that the songs are all spare, but rather more intimate, sometimes infused with more dark glamour than their Jorge Ben counterparts. Horns are also largely gone from this album, and the acoustic guitar and percussion take on much more prominent roles. “Apareceu Aparecida” remains my favorite Jorge Ben song, as it features the most upbeat hook in an album full of them. “Zé Canjica” is a beautiful place to start with a harmonica lead in that almost plays like a restless wind at the beginning of a film.
Both Jorge Ben and Força Bruta are phenomenal, though awfully hard to find outside the digital format. They are both on Spotify, if that method suits you.