Never has Brazilian music been as funky as this. The colour and hustle of Rio de Janeiro’s streets sits alongside the tight funk of James Brown and Fela Kuti on an album increasingly being thought of as Jorge Ben’s crowning achievement. The glittering guitar work, insistent vocals and bursting melodies are the same as he’s always used but there’s a power to the band that wasn’t completely there before and a rawness which would soon be lost in the eighties.
Opening track “Ponta De Laca Africano (Umbabaraúma)” starts the album with one of the densest grooves Ben has ever concocted. It also continues one of Ben’s main lyrical themes, that of football. Umbabaraúma is the name given to dribbling the ball past the opponents. It’s almost startling when you see the English translation of lyrics as the song is built like a chant. Here’s one of the verses:
Play ball play ball ball player
Play ball I want to play ball ball player
Jump, jump, fall, get up, go up and get down
Run, kick, find a hole, thrill and give thanks
See how the whole city empties out
On this beautiful afternoon to watch you play
Another two songs take football as their main theme on this disc; “Meus Filhos, Meu Tesouro” and “Camisa 10 da Gavea”. It’s one of his enduring qualities that Ben has always stayed clear of songs with political intent, choosing instead to write about themes from which any Brazilian can find joy. That he’s held in the same regard as heavyweight songwriters such as Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso is testament to how good these songs actually are.
This album includes two particular songs which have gone on to become stoned-on classics. “Taj Mahal”, which had featured as an improvisational jam on his collaboration with Gilberto Gil from the previous year, was here reinvented as a disco-funk tour-de-force. Some people see this as the step that Ben made away from Samba Funk and towards Samba Disco. It is definitely true that later albums would be far more disco’d up, but this should in no way detract from this track. It is impossible to sit still as the beat kicks in on this number, before the hushed words ‘Taj Mahal’ get the ball rolling and both an irresisitible verse and chorus leave no moment of rest for the song’s entirety.
“Xica da Silva” is another song which has gone on to become a staple, appearing in different guises on future Ben albums. It also brings up one of the other themes of the album, it’s African roots. I’ve tried to find out more about this record and where the African influence comes from but have failed to find anything substantial. Has Ben been to Africa? Were African musicians used on the record? After many listens I would have to suggest that the African influence comes more from the African influence within Brazil, a country which bought more slaves than any other. Xica da Silva, more commonly written as Chica da Silva or Francisca da Silva, is the name of an African slave who managed to work up the class ladder by marrying one of the wealthiest colonialists in Brazil. In some ways her story is very controversial as she kept slaves once she became wealthy but Ben chooses to concentrate on the paradigm of her being a black slave treated like loyalty, and with such a slinky, soulful groove this was perhaps the better choice.
Although I’ve alluded to James Brown and Fela Kuti these are just some touchstones in terms of understanding this album because it seems to have it’s own unique flavour. On first listen I was quite adamant that I’d never heard anything like it. Even other Ben records written around this time don’t seem to quite grasp the raw funkiness of this, a funkiness which does undeniably make you think of Fela Kuti rather than any of Ben’s Brazilian contemporaries, but then at the same time the album is undeniably Brazilian. From the songs about football to the Afro-Brazilian drums and rippling samba he learnt in Rio it has to be Brazilian, but then songs such as “Cavaleiro do Cavalo Imaculado” seem to come out of nowhere and you get lost once more in this album.
It has to go down as one of the greatest Brazilian albums of all time. I have no doubt about that despite only so far having a limited exposure to Brazilian music. There is put simply just some music which breaches all boundaries and exists on its own pedastal. Africa Brasil has to be one of these albums.
In 1989 David Byrne released Brazil Classics Vol.1: Beleza Tropical, a collection of classic MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) songs. “Ponta de Laca Africano” was the opening track and made a lot of people in America investigate more of Ben’s work, and especially Africa Brasil. This video of the song was produced when that CD was released: