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You are here: Home Life in Lifestyle Brazil's alchemist of funkTropical superstar Jorge...
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22/07/2004Brazil's alchemist of funkTropical superstar Jorge Ben Jor brings the funk to Germany

Brazil's alchemist of funkTropical superstar Jorge Ben Jor brings the funk to Germany Cult Brazilian funk musician Jorge Ben Jor has released 30 albums, written more than 700 songs, and successfully sued Rod Stewart. We caught up with the tropical superstar after his recent Berlin show.

With 30 albums and more than 700 original songs under his belt, Jorge Ben Jor is unquestionably one of Brazil's most prolific and popular singer-songwriters. His career spans four decades and one name change (originally performing as Jorge Ben, he added the Jor in 1989 to avoid confusion with George Benson, after the American singer was mistakenly paid royalties for a Ben Jor tour) and covers an impressive range of styles, including frenetic barroom samba, Afrocentric funk, 1970s disco and samba rock — a genre he practically invented himself.

Ben Jor wooed the crowd at his Berlin show with a greatest hits selection.

A superstar in his native country, he is best known outside Brazil for his hit Mas Que Nada, which provided the soundtrack to a Nike commercial and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Sergio Mendes, Ella Fitzgerald and Al Jarreau. His 1970s recordings are coveted by contemporary DJs for their dancefloor-filling grooves and help explain Ben Jor's enduring appeal, with present-day fans including such prominent musicians as Beck and David Byrne.

However, when I met Ben Jor backstage at Berlin's Tränenpalast after his successful show as part of the venue's Blue Nites series, where Ben Jor and his eight-piece backing band had wooed the Berlin crowd with a greatest hits selection, my impression was more of a friendly uncle than a funk superstar.

Dressed completely in white, his eyes hidden behind his trademark sunglasses, Ben Jor spoke in colloquial Portuguese reminiscent of the working-class Rio neighbourhood where he grew up, punctuating his sentences by tapping my knee familiarly. At 64 he gives the impression of a man at ease with himself, proud of his achievements yet approachable and unpretentious.

Despite being in his 60s, Ben Jor continues to attract listeners of all ages; the predominantly Brazilian audience at the show had ranged from groups of excited teenagers to women in their 60s.

Is he pleased that he appeals to such a broad cross-section of ages?

“Of course,” he said. “This is my audience. I make music for all ages. In Brazil, teenagers are rediscovering my music.”

Most pundits agree that Ben Jor reached his creative peak in the 1970s, when he produced such classic Brazilian funk albums as A Tabua de Esmeralda and Africa Brasil. I commented on the difficulty of obtaining records from Ben Jor's back catalogue, much of which is no longer available.

“Tell me about it, man,” he said with a groan. “I don't even own copies of all my own albums.” He explained how the vinyl originals of his albums were highly coveted in Brazil, with DJs searching through second hand shops for hard-to-find gems. “Sometimes they have two copies of the same album and then they trade them with each other.”

Ben Jor backstage in Berlin, wearing his trademark sunglasses.

Fortunately Universal, which owns the rights to Ben Jor's back catalogue, has plans to re-release classic Ben Jor albums on CD, with the eventual aim of producing a box set covering his whole career  — a formidable proposition, considering the 30 albums the Brazilian has produced.

Given such an impressive body of work, Ben Jor could be forgiven for resting on his laurels, but he has recently completed work on a new album, due to be released this autumn, which features 16 brand new compositions — his first album of entirely new songs since 1996's Homo Sapiens. I asked him about his lyrics, which are among the most inventive and imaginative in Brazilian popular music, featuring topics as diverse as football, alchemists and semi-mythical slave queens.

“In my country, I am considered an urban poet,” Ben Jor said. “I look around me and describe the reality that I see.”

Ben Jor may be an urban poet, but he's certainly no soft touch. In his celebrated spat with Rod Stewart, Ben Jor successfully sued the Scottish crooner after he 'borrowed' the melody of the Ben Jor song Taj Mahal for the chorus of his hit Da Ya Think I'm Sexy.

Nowadays Ben Jor seems remarkably sanguine about the affair. He explained how the dispute with Stewart had been settled amicably, with the Scottish singer agreeing to donate the profits from his song to UNICEF.

Finding out I was also from Scotland, Ben Jor then turned the conversation to angling, an interest I found unlikely for a samba rock superstar. “I hear there's good fishing in Scotland,” he said.

“I live in Rio, near the beach, and in the evenings I go fishing with a friend of mine. But we don't try very hard, we just sit there and chat and give food to the fish.”

As I walked out of the dressing room with Ben Jor, our interview at an end, the funk superstar revealed more unlikely ambitions for spending his free time in Scotland.

“My son tells me St Andrews is the best golf course in the world,” he said, grasping my arm companionably.

“One day I'd like to play golf there.”

The Tränenpalast's Blue Nites festival continues until 25 July. See www.traenenpalast.de for more information.

July 2004

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Jorge Ben Jor, Brazilian music, Tränenpalast




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