Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jorge Ben: Ben (1972)

Sweet Jesus!  I had no intention of featuring this record so soon, but was hustling down the street this morning to "Fio Maravilha" on my iPod and became swept up in the song's operatic grandeur, in the seismic power of its chorus.  What could prepare one, conceivably, for the ecstatic 45-second chant with which it ends--for the sweet rush of its vocal layerings, its ridiculous whoops and howls?  Nothing like it anywhere.  (Of course, the amusing irony about "Fio Maravilha" is that it essentially amounts to a play-by-play commentary on a soccer play that Jorge witnessed--but don't let this ruin its sublimity for you.)  I was tramping through the snow-cloaked roads of Madison, blasting this song for what must have been the billionth time, when it suddenly occurred to me that I was long past due for a Worlds of Wanwood post.  And, well, Ben (1972), though it is certainly not one of the very best Jorge albums, is still gifted with four or five of the artist's most blissful acoustic sambas, and on the strength of these alone it easily merits its place as the fourth installment of my special Jorge feature.  What's more, until the relatively recent advent of file-sharing, it was exceedingly hard to obtain: a "holy grail" of sorts for Jorge aficionados and for Brazilian music enthusiasts generally, for years it remained all but impossible to find and prohibitively expensive.  I myself came across it while stalking some vinyl crates at an outdoor sale in the Santa Teresa neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro last August, but by that time I'd already found it on any number of blogs, downloaded and played the hell out of it.  You should do the same.

To the extent that Ben sold when it initially came out, its main selling-points were "Fio Maravilha," the fluffy, summery-lovely "Caramba!...Galileu da Galileia," and a stripped-down version of "Taj Mahal," the earliest iteration of a chart that would reappear in the form of a massive bacchic chant on Gil & Jorge (1975), and the following year on Africa Brasil.  Yet Ben has more to recommend it than these three tracks: there's the fun, propulsive "Morre o burro" that opens the record; "Domingo 23," a hypnotically repetitive song showcasing Jorge's typical interest in heraldry; and "Moça," the album's emotional crux.  "Moça" is a song to become obsessed with, an anguished five-minute plea for a girl's love that features some of the most starkly beautiful acoustic guitar work--and desperate, dolorous singing--you are ever likely to hear.  Lyrically it's nothing terribly original, but musically the song is laced with such naked affective force, such forthright sadness, as to render it all but unbearable to listen to.  The ending, in which Jorge frenziedly repeats, "Eu conquistaria voce, moça!" ("I would win you, girl") while a shrill synthesized violin rises relentlessly in the background, has an eviscerating power that remains mostly unblunted after countless listens.  If there's a parallel elsewhere in pop music, it might be the final minutes of Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"--but this is considerably rawer and creepier.

The album isn't without its weak points, of course--on the whole Ben's strength seems concentrated on its first side, though "O circo chegou" and "Paz e arroz" always sound flat to my ears.  Like most Jorge records, it's a bold experiment in fusing samba with North American elements of soul and blues, only it makes fewer concessions to the listener in the way of catchy hooks and riffs than his better-known records.  If it falls flat some of the time, then when it does succeed it does so pretty unforgettably.  Of particular note--in addition to Jorge's blistering dexterity on acoustic guitar and keening vocals--is the bass-work, which on Ben's best songs is little short of astonishing. Whoever contributed this--his or her name doesn't appear anywhere on the album info--provided a remarkably agile foundation to the music on this challenging, wholly worthwhile record.

I'm including a video here of a live version of "Domingas" (off the self-titled 1969 album) that Ben performed, seemingly as part of a television special in 1970, backed by Trio Mocoto (which supplied the accompaniment on Força Bruta).  I don't think it quite lives up to the original studio cut, but it's still arrestingly good and worth checking out.  It's also too funny how the perv camera-man keeps focusing on attractive young women in the audience who are apparently entranced by the performance (like the one clawing her seat at 3:28), at the exclusion of anyone else.  Anyway, enjoy all this material--album and video both.  I plan to feature more videos here at Wanwood in posts to come.  Until next time, adieu and godspeed!


1. Morre o burro, foca o homem (2:06)
2. O circo chegou (2:44)
3. Paz e arroz (2:04)
4. Moça (4:59)
5. Domingo 23 (3:49)
6. Fio Maravilha (2:11)
7. Quem cochicha o rabo espicha (3:28)
8. Caramba!...Galileu da Galileia (2:29)
9. Que nega e essa (3:33)
10. As rosas eram todas amarelas (3:52)
11. Taj mahal (5:29)