March 22: The birthday of Jorge Ben, the guitarist who revolutionized Brazilian music mixing Samba, Bossa Nova and Soul with lyrics that celebrated blackness

Note from BBT: In my March 4th post on the Orquestra Afro-Brasileira, I mentioned a CD compilation called Putumayo Presents Brasileiro that was my official introduction to Brazilian music. I say official because, as I wrote in another post, I had heard Brazilian many years before, I just didn’t know it. Whether I consider the Sergio Mendes version of “Mas Que Nada”, the various Jazz versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” or even the Hip Hop group The Pharcyde’s 1995 hit “Runnin”, I knew bits and pieces of Brazilian music before the year 2000. But it was with that Putumayo CD that I bought in early 2000 that I really dove into exploring Brazilian music.

The advantage of a compilation CD is that, if you’re aren’t familiar with a certain genre of music, it acts as an introduction with a good mixture of artists who may be some of the best in that style. The disadvantage is of mixed compilation CDs is that they don’t really allow you to get to know the artist or artists that you might like more than the others on that same disc. To do that, you’ll need to start investing in that particular artist’s music. This was also the case with that Putumayo CD.

In reality, I can’t say that there is any one song that I absolutely hated on that disc. It served its purpose. It introduced to Brazilian music. Some of the artists I heard on that disc would ultimately become some of my favorite music artists out of Brazil. One example would be the late, great Clara Nunes, whose entire discography I would end up collecting on vinyl over the years before a great box set with this discography would be released on CD.

I would becone a fan of many of Brasileiro’s artists. Martinho da Vila, Paulinho da Viola and Chico Buarque are namews that come to mind. But of Brazil’s great artists from the 60s/70s period, my other favorite that I was introduced tp on the Brasileiro CD was Jorge Duílio Lima Meneses, better known as Jorge Ben. The Ben track on Brasileiro was the song “O Namorado Da Viúva” taken from his 1974 LP A Tábua de Esmeralda. A cool little track that featured Ben’s signature acoustic guitar rhythms. But, to tell the truth, I wasn’t blown away by the track. Again, it’s a good song, but there were others on that disc that I would play over and over such as the Nunes track “Canto das Três Raças”.

“Viúva” wasn’t the song that would make me a Jorge Ben fan. That wouldn’t happen until a few months later in that same year. You see, I’m a crate digger. I LOVE finding great albums on vinyl in used record stores. In the Detroit suburbs, there were still a number of great used record store that I would visit from time to time. On one trip to the old Car City Records Store in St.Clair Shores, Michigan, I was flipping through some albums in their international music section when I came across two vinyl albums by Brazilian artists. One by Bahian Afro-Pop singer Margareth Menezes and the other, the 1978 Jorge Ben album A Banda do Zé Pretinho.

Ben 1978 LP ‘A Banda do Zé Pretinho’

After giving the Ben Pretinho disc a few spins on my turntable, I descided to make a cassette of the disc to play in my car. It’s on my car stereo where I usually become a fan of an artist. And after hearing Ben’s stew of samba-oriented rhythms with its whirling, melodic string arrangements, Carnaval vamps and slight R&B/Funk groove, I knew I would need to explore his discography. What hooked me on Ben was that he wasn’t blatantly trying to copy American R&B/Funk. His groove was clearly Brazilian. From the pandeiro slap that opens “Bom Dia, Boa Tarde, Boa Noite”, to the Carnavalesque march of the title track, and the reference futebol/soccer in “Cadê O Penalty?” (where’s the penalty), the album has Brazil all over it.

Although there are several tracks I love on this album, it’s the song “Menino Jesus de Praga” that would be the song that I found myself constantly rewinding. If Sly Stone and Isaac Hayes were ever to collaborate, I think this is the type of song they would have come up with. Tropical R&B with slight nods to the Funk, complete with a string arrangement that seemed to come right out of a blaxploitation soundtrack.

The funny thing about the Pretinho album is that it is Ben’s third album in which he switched from acoustic guitar to electric guitar but also one of the last albums that from his discography that I liked. Every artist hits a period when they will get lost in the shuffle as the music world moves on to other production standards and they end up sounding dated or not quite able to update their sounds to compete with newer artists.

But Ben’s run was magic.

From his 1963 debut to Pretinho, every one of his albums offered something. If he had only released his first hit, the aforementioned “Mas Que Nada” that has been covered more than 200 times, his place in Brazil’s music history would be guaranteed. The version by the Sergio Mendes and the Black Eyed Peas from 2006 that opened the Globo TV program Estrelas was not the first time an American act had covered the classic. American Jazz artists Al Jarreau, Dizzy Gillespie as well as Ella Fitzgerald had covered the song, as well as Puerto Rican guitarist José Feliciano and South African artists Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

Ben’s sound and guitar rhythms revolutionized Brazilian music of the time. It was a new way of playing a samba as his 1963 debut album Samba Esquema Novo (new scheme samba) suggested. But that wasn’t all, listen close enough to Ben’s unique guitar work and you1ll hear elements of not only samba and bossa nova (itself derived from samba), but also American soul, rock and jazz. Like what Sly Stone did with his fusions of pop, soul, funk, rock and gospel, Jorge Ben was ‘a whole new thang’.

The hits are simply too many to name here. As I slowly began immersing myself in Ben’s catalog, on a 2008 trip to São Paulo, a DJ from the famous Galeria shopping strip slipped me a bootleg of Ben’s 1967 album O Bidú: Silêncio no Brooklin. The album has a distinctly mid-60s sound reminscent of some classic Motown sessions. The New Samba and Carnaval still have a strong presence on this album as well as hints at Ben’s African roots in the song “Nascimento de um Príncipe Africano”, meaning ‘birth of an African prince’. Ben didn’t have to go to far back to discover his own African roots. His mother was Ethiopian. Some friends of mine and I wonder if Ben may have inherited his yodeling vocal from his mother.

1967 album ‘O Bidú – Silêncio no Brooklin’

From the Samba-Rock-Jazz of his first albums, to his anthems of black pride such as “Negro é Lindo” (meaning ‘black is beautiful’), “Zumbi” and “Príncipe Africano” up through his experiments with electric Samba-Soul-Funk-Rock on albums such as África Brasil (1976), Ben’s music has had a huge influence on what’s being called “música preta brasileira“, MPB, meaning ‘black Brazilian music’, a twist on the official name for Brazilian Popular Music, “música popular brasileira”. It must also be noted that when Ben was singing ‘black is beautiful’ it was not at all common in a Eurocentric Brazil that associated all ‘coisas do negro’ (black things) as ugly, backward and primitive. 

When Max de Castro, one of the musician sons of Brazil’s first black pop star, Wilson Simonal, posted on his IG that today’s Jorge’s day, I knew it was time to dedicate a post to the legend. While we know that March 22 is his actually birthday, we’re still not exactly sure of what year. For years, I thought Ben was born in 1942 just like several other legends of Brazilian music such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Tim Maia. But that depends on who you believe.

I’ve seen Ben’s year of birth listed as 1939, 1942 and 1945, which is the year Ben claims he was born. But we know artists DO lie about their age. A researcher on Ben’s life and music claims she’s seen a birth certificate that she believes is Ben’s. On the other hand, I know Brazilians whose names and birthdates have been recorded wrong, so what does that really tell us?

Well, whether Ben is celebrating 82 years, 79 years or 76 years, it’s been long overdue for me to do a piece on him. In the post below, Christian Ribeiro further explored Ben’s connection to a celebration of black pride through a Ben song about one of “the greatest” icons of blackness.

The song “Cassius Marcelo Clay” and the Afro-Diasporic work by Jorge Ben

By Christian Ribeiro

The political and cultural effervescence that permeated the daily lives of Afrodiasporic populations around the world between the 1960s and 1970s, did not go unnoticed in Brazil, even in the midst of the civic-military dictatorial regime, having in Jorge Ben’s work one of its most significant and original expressions. An aesthetic and political ensemble in constant dialogue – being influenced and influencing – with the modern contemporaries of Afro-descendant identities that were being constituted and manifested throughout the world, as a reflection of that historical period of manifestations developed from the experiences of these populations located in the so-called Western world, since the processes of anticolonial revolutions in the African continent; the constitution of African film and modern music scenes after the 1950s; from the movements of literature and poetry, through the expressions of anti-colonial liberation in the Antilles and Caribbean in the 1950s/1960s; of the political-cultural movements (Rock and Roll; Bebop; Free Jazz; Soul Music; Civil Movements; Black Power; Black is Beautiful) of Afro origin in the United States from the mid-1950s, which would end up re-signifying and in a sense radicalize the political and cultural ideology of blackness developed by African, West Indies/Caribbean and Africans, such as Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001) and Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), in France in the 1930s.

Ben 1971 LP ‘Negro é Lindo’, meaning ‘black is beautiful’

Jorge Ben, an artist routinely classified as an extraordinary musician, but a composer of naive and simplistic poetics – in our view in a misguided and prejudiced way – by a large part of our musical criticism and cultural scholars, an apolitical artistic subject, when not alienated, in comparison to his peers of generation like Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, he was the one who musically established in the 1960s the insertion of Afro-Brazilian culture into this universe of modernity in the African diaspora. Through his eminently popular poetic imagery, valuing and extolling Afro historicities and ancestry, from his experiences in the hills and suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, he developed an artistic ensemble that goes beyond the Parnassian heritage and structure that influences decisively, even if for the its negation (1), the majorities of the Brazilian songwriter then, with its rigid metrics, of structurally orthodox and non-flexible rhymes.

Classic Ben 1976 LP ‘Áfrican Brasil’ mixes elements of Samba, Soul, Funk and Rock

A form of suburban Afro-Brazilian creative and poetic originality, which undergoes a radicalization in its aesthetics and imagery, when in addition to its “samba mixed with maracatu” (2) it incorporates the elements of jazz improvisation, harmonies and soul notes, of the rhythmic and arpeggios of the blues, in addition to the greater emphasis on the elements of drumming in his guitar playing, which brought about a change in his singing, and corresponded to his desire not to be labeled as an artist and, mainly, a black man who wanted to sing the daily lives of his, their experiences according to their own artistic profile, dialoguing with the musical movements around them, such as Bossa Nova, Jovem Guarda, Tropicália, but in an autonomous and independent way, without giving up his artistic and creative freedom and without being measured or defined by others.

What we believe has greatly influenced his decision to start working on his poetics and imagery, themes and references from international black artistic and political expressions. In the midst of a regime of democratic exception, that didn’t admit the existence of racism in Brazilian lands and interpreted the struggles and anti-racist and pro-blackness manifestations as subversive actions aimed at the destruction of the Brazilian social and cultural unity through the valuation of external issues to our historical reality as a people and nation, Jorge Ben puts in check, questions and confronts our ideology of democracy and social harmony, through a series of albums (3) that would end up influencing a whole new generation of artists for the following decades and would also end up being an cultural and political influence to the rearticulation processes of young African descendent social subjects who would eventually constitute what would come to be defined as “new black movements in Brazil”. What we believe to be an example that rejects the definition of this work as alienated and apolitical, an artistic and aesthetic set not properly studied and valued, below its importance and qualities, below the political and social transformations that ended up demarcating in Brazilian society.

One of the songs that best exemplifies this phase of Ben’s work, of the insertion of his work as inherent in the international Afro-diasporic political and cultural ensemble and at the same time of contestation and denial of the ideas of racial democracy and social harmony promulgated by the dictatorial governments of the period in question, is “Cassius Marcelo Clay” (track 03: 1971), in which Ben pays direct tribute to the then destitute heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (4), for his opposition to the Vietnam War and systematic confrontation with North American structural racism. Being presented as a superhero, a champion and defender of the people, a combatant of all evil (5), in this case the racism represented by his own government:

“Cassius Marcelo Clay,

20th century hero, successor to Batman/

Successor to Batman, Captain America and Superman”

As great in meaning and importance as the heroes, the super-beings fighting all evil and dangers, DC and Marvel, as references of world pop culture, symbols of heroism and honesty. Highlighted as the greatest of all, the first, the “chief” (6), that brother who even far away territorially, also defended us, because he was/is one of us, hence the description of his boxer praxis similar to the cadenced and elegant parade of samba schools – the time a form of black cultural expressiveness associated with freedom and creative power, before the process of cultural alienation and its transformation into a mass consumer product, started in the late 1970s and consolidated in the mid 1990s – and the exuberance and plasticity characteristic of the Brazilian soccer teams of the time, it’s not by chance that both forms of cultural and social expressions commonly associated as forms of black experiences in Brazil.

“Cassius Marcelo Clay, the first

Has the cadence

From a samba school

And the 4-3-4 of a futebol team”

A reference of world black resistance, of anti-racist and anti-systemic struggle, for all black populations spread around the world, an example of black beauty and pride. Jorge Ben sings Muhammad Ali as a reborn, black and contemporary, defiant Narcissus, being the one who disrupts all orders constituted for the benefit and protection of his people, prophet of a new era that was being announced, number one enemy of the “System”, a tireless fighter for his people, a true king. The only true “champion of the people”!

“All Hail the Black Narcissus, all hail Muhammad Ali, all hail Fight Brother,

All Hail King Clay

The eternal champion, in reality, a world idol”

A composition that from the beginning is rhythmically structured simulating a boxing fight, and when it reaches halfway through the song, it opens space for a musical improvisation, in which Jorge Ben accompanied by the group Trio Mocotó, mixes samba, batuques and jazz, transforming the guitar itself into a percussive instrument, executing a series of falsetto and screams, emulating a fight of Ali against an enemy that ends up knocked out before the great champion. An allusion to the conquest of the boxer in recovering his boxer license, winning his dispute with the great racist monster represented by the “System”, thus being a symbol of anti-racist struggle for the black populations of the planet.

This song, which in its final part, starts to highlight a man who, because of his stance and his deeds, because of his heroic courage is so important and symbolic as the maximum living representation of freedom in the United States, being for this reason his typical victory pose alluded to the “Statue of Liberty”, as gigantic as the world’s largest building at the time, originating from and representing a whole new black generation, of new activisms and cultural and political ideals of Afro-descendant representation, insurgent and restless, but at the same time poetic and liberating, as soul music.

“He has the statue of liberty posture

And the height of the Empire State

Hail Cassius Marcelo Clay

Soul brother, soul boxer, soul man”

Thus demonstrating how much the struggle against racism, the struggle for the (re)construction of contemporary blackness, the constitution of Afrocentric identities is an arduous battle that sometimes manifests itself while, apparently, impossible to be achieved, but that is indispensable for all people who really want to build a truly free, radically democratic, egalitarian and socially just society. Even in Brazil, a society structured and developed to deny its conflicts and discrimination, to devalue, disqualify or ignore the existences and powers of knowledge and desires that don’t accept or are situated in the incessant search of our elites to build in the tropics a European nation of body and soul, which for this reason goes to the extreme of constituting a systematic process of genocide among “non-white” populations, especially black people, throughout its history. And Jorge Ben, developing a whole work with this theme as one of his main conceptual references, despite the contempt of a large part of our intellectuality towards his poetic-artistic ensemble, is one of the most notable facts, instigating in the midst of national culture from the second half of the 20th century on. “Cassius Marcelus Clay” being a song that synthesizes this complexity and originality of Ben’s work.

Debuting in 1963, Ben’s career began spans nearly six decades

What for an author considered alienated or naïve – with all the negativity and prejudice that such expression carries, especially when directed to black people, in a society of slavery origin, which reveals to us how much this work and its author are marked by an analytical look biased by depreciative and even racist slants, even today – is not at all bad! How many artistic authors could tread such unusual paths, but as surprising in complexities and subtleties, importance and meaning as those of Jorge Ben? How many works could be incorporated into family life, passing from generation to generation, often far from the mainstream media, and end up influencing new political and cultural praxis in a country of infinite diversity and continental size like Brazil?

I believe that few, very few … And Jorge Ben, the man who has played the “old black samba/samba in you black samba”, for decades is the architect and owner of one of them!

Yesterday, today and always, LONG LIVE JORGE!

Bibliographic Notes:

(1) As for example, the tropicalist movement, which had as one of its goals to develop modern Brazilian music beyond our Parnassian poetic heritage, a contesting characteristic directly influenced by the poetic and creative freedom of Jorge Ben’s compositions.

(2) Excerpt from the verse “This samba that is mixed with maracatu/It’s old black samba/you black samba” from “Mas que nada” (track 1: 1964), his first recorded song and one of his greatest hits his career, present in the album Samba Esquema Novo

(3) Of which the “BEN” albums (1972) are part; “Jorge Ben – L ‘Stage” (1971a); “Negro é Lindo” (1971b); “Força Bruta” (1970); “Jorge Ben” (1969); “O Bidú – Silêncio no Brooklin” (1967).

(4) Name adopted by Cassius Marcelo Clay (1942-2016) to signal his conversion to Islam and the refusal to use a slave name, symbolizing his full liberation as a black man in the American society of the 1960s.

(5) A condition of superhero inherent in the public figure of Muhammad Ali that would result in the publication of the comic book story (HQ), entitled “Superman vs Muhammad Ali” in 1978, by DC, in which, through the plot, to save the planet Earth from an alien invasion, the “champion of the people” ends up facing and beating the “last son of Kripton”, which doesn’t fail to highlight the size of the importance and significance that Muhammad Ali had reached within American society.

(6) Reference to one of Muhammad Ali’s nicknames, which was attributed to him by the black communities of the United States.

Audio-Visual Reference:

BEN, Jorge. Ben. Label: Universal Music, 1972.

BEN, Jorge. Jorge Ben – L ‘Stage. Universal Music, 1971a.

BEN, Jorge. Negro é lindo. Label: Phillips, 1971b.

BEN, Jorge. Força bruta. Label: Phillips, 1970.

BEN, Jorge. Jorge Ben. Label: Phillips, 1969.

BEN, Jorge. O Bidú – Silêncio no Brooklin. Label: Movieplay, 1967.

BEN, Jorge. Samba Esquema Novo. Label: Phillips, 1964

Source: Geledés

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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