Saturday, July 10, 2010

Jorge Ben: A Tabua de Esmeralda (1974)

First thing's first: this is one of the most breathtakingly original recordings I've had the pleasure of hearing, in any genre.
The first of the so-called triologia mística, that celebrated string of three esoteric records that Ben made between 1974 and 1976 (the other two are Solta O Povao and the already-discussed Africa Brasil), A Tabua de Esmeralda is also, arguably, the best. As a shameless Jorge junkie who has clocked far more hours listening to the guy's discography than I'd care to admit, I would venture to call it his greatest album, period. Apparently, it also happens to be Jorge's own favorite among the records he's cut, which must count for something. There are other junkies whose taste I respect who give this distinction to Solta O Povao or the even more obscure O Bidu - Silencio No Brooklin (1967), but I think they're just being cute. Pound for pound, A Tabua is Jorge at his superb best.

This isn't to say, however, that A Tabua is an exceedingly complex recording, or even a varied, eclectic one. On the contrary, what strikes one about many of these songs is their simplicity: the best of them possess the radiant transp
arency of elegant math proofs, and all of them are spun from the same sonic cloth, as if they comprised a single album-length suite. The title is a reference to the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary Hellenistic text that purported to hold the secret of the primordial substance from which all other matter in the cosmos derived. In the Middle Ages the text was considered the foundation of the art of alchemy. This is all quite absurd, of course (although Newton took it seriously enough to translate a supposed version of the text from Latin into English), and Jorge treats of it with an appropriate mixture of humor and fascination. There is nothing facetious, though, about the manner in which this record will, in time, come to take hold of you irrevocably, permeating your mind and, if you elect to play it with a stereo system, your body; indeed, there is something genuinely mystical, as befits its subject matter, about the otherworldly power of its melodies, its grooves. Before long, you will need to hear it every day, perhaps several times a day. Don't think you won't.

The stand-out tracks on A Tabua are, to begin with, the first five, an unfalteringly gorgeous sequence of songs suffused with an irresistible sweetness--tunes like "O Homem da Gravata Florida," "Eu Vou Torcer," and the especially excellent "Os Alquimistas Estao Chegando" have a summery loveliness about them, a warmth and exuberance that will immediately transport you to a sunnier clime. The glittering jewel, however, is "Errare Humanum Est," as eerily masterful a song as any to be found in Ben's catalogue, or indeed anywhere else in the music of the 70s. My buddy Jarrett, the only other soul here in Ma
dison I know of who's alert to the mind-boggling riches of classic Brazilian music, theorizes that this song, whose theme is space travel, was inspired by the whacked-out writings of Erik von Daniken. Daniken's notorious bestseller, Chariots of the Gods (1968), posited an "ancient astronauts" account of the origin of human beings, one which Jorge, an intensely devout Catholic, may well have had reason to rebuke as erroneous. (The title is a phrase borrowed from Seneca.) Whatever the song's provenance, and whatever the significance of its cryptic lyrics, these matters ultimately have little to do with the five-minute acoustic orgasm that is the music itself.

Other high points include "Zumbi," an homage to the leader of the 17th century fugitive slave community called Palmares in Brazil, and the weirdly mesmeric closer, "Cinco Minutos." The only weak point, it should be noted, is the irritatingly pious "Brother," which I'd advise you to skip over. The download is available here courtesy of my anonymous friend, "F.," who runs the spectacularly encyclopedic blog Flabbergasted Vibes, which was the partial inspiration for this blog. He's generously given me permission to sh
are all of the links to Ben's discography available on his site. Check out FV sometime. The password for this DL is "vibes."

So that's it. I'm going to close this entry with a somewhat random quotation by Percy Shelley, which I came across in the course of my reading last night:

For the end o
f social corruption is to destroy all sensibility to pleasure; and, therefore, it is corruption. It begins at the imagination and the intellect as at the core, and distributes itself thence as a paralysing venom, through the affections into the very appetites, until all become a torpid mass in which sense hardly survives. At the approach of such a period, Poetry ever addresses itself to those faculties which are the last to be destroyed, and its voice is heard, like the footsteps of Astraea, departing from the world.

Heady, beautiful stuff. I'd add that music ideally performs this same function. With poetry, it's humanity's last bastion against the insidious venom of social corruption, which for Shelley meant abuse of political power, moral hypocrisy, and selfishness--all of which conspire to deaden the individual spirit over time. It's poetry--and, I think, music--that offer us a means of combating this process, through the regular promise of ecstasy that both provide. They remind us that we're alive.

A Tabua de Esmeralda
  1. Os alquimistas estão chegando (3:15)
  2. O homem da gravata florida (3:05)
  3. Errare humanum est (4:50)
  4. Menina mulher da pele preta (2:57)
  5. Eu vou torcer (3:15)
  6. Magnólia (3:14)
  7. Minha teimosia, uma arma pra te conquistar (2:41)
  8. Zumbi (3:31)
  9. Brother (2:54)
  10. O namorado da viúva (2:03)
  11. Hermes Trismegisto e sua celeste tábua de esmeralda (5:30)
  12. Cinco minutos (2:57)

No comments:

Post a Comment