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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jorge Ben, "África Brasil"

Jorge Ben
"África Brasil"
Universal (1976)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die

Tom Moon's major argument for Jorge Ben's album "África Brasil" is that it's a prime example of fusion between, you guessed it, Africa and Brazil. The African inspiration present in Brazilian music and culture isn't exactly a new concept however. Coincidentally, I just read a novel detailing the influence of slave descendants in the Brazilian region of Bahia, The Tent of Miracles, written by another famous Jorge, Jorge Amado. Heck, the South American nation was a next-door neighbor to the continent in question until Pangaea split up, so surely it isn't that surprising African influences found their way into Brazilian music. What truly sets Ben's music a notch above is the seamless incorporation of popular American styles as well.

"África Brasil" came out in 1976, when funk was near its apex in the United States. Parliament and Funkadelic had been touring for nearly ten years, and their approaches to funk rubbed off on many, including Ben. The obvious homage begins right out of the gate with "Ponta de Lanca Africano," featuring a prominent guitar riff and bass line that can only be summarized as motorcycle-cruising theme music. Ben also took obvious cues on how to assemble a funk group from the American icons: Just as Parliament and Funkadelic had a revolving door of additional vocalists and instrumentalists appearing on stage, Ben's recording group features a boatload of extra guitarists, percussionists and vocalists.

The multitude of percussion players do lend a distinctly Brazilian air to the music. Just like with traditional samba, polyrhythms set the pace. And, of course, the polyrhythms present in Brazilian fare are the biggest indication of African influence on the nation's musical culture. Although funk was best exemplified by American bands at the time, Ben was inspired to record "África Brasil" after meeting Fela Kuti, probably the biggest native African name in popular music, and a man not averse to getting the funk out.

Although Africa is to thank for the polyrhythms prevalent in Brazilian music, Brazilians themselves get a good deal of credit for having some of the most inventive percussion instruments in the world. One is the agogo, a more finely-tuned version of the American cowbell, but my personal favorite is the cuíca, a tom-shaped drum that's played by rubbing the drum's skin with a finger or stick to create a hooting noise. Heard for the first time, a listener can be forgiven for thinking that the sound must be produced by a whistle of some sort. "Xica de Silva" features both of these instruments in action, with a catchy hook to go with it. Granted, both of these drums are African in origin, but the samba culture of Brazil is what has kept them alive today.

Even if the ethnomusicology aspect of this recording bores you, "África Brasil" is still well worth the listen. Ben's band is nearly as funky as your American favorites, even if the vocals are in Portugese. And let's be honest; you always listened to Parliament for the bass anyway, not the lyrics.

INTERESTING FACT: Ben caught Rod Stewart stealing the beat from his track "Taj Mahal" for the song "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Ben sued him for plagiarism, and Stewart settled by donating his royalties from the song to UNICEF.

"Xica de Silva"

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