Ask any Brazilian music connoisseur about funk (pronounced “fankee” in Portuguese) and you’ll probably end up getting a lecture on Jorge Ben Jor, the master singer, songwriter and guitarist from Rio de Janeiro. James Brown, George Clinton and Sly Stone may epitomize funk for the rest of the world, but in Brazil Ben Jor is the indisputable king. In part because his brand of funk and soul comes together in a mix of samba, marchinha, maracatu and baiao, among other Brazilian genres, and in part because his guitar playing and stage presence have that “jeito especial” (special charisma), Ben Jor has ruled with ease for more than four decades.
“I always try to show Africa in my music,” says Ben Jor in a recent interview from his home in Rio. “If I were a music critic I would say that my music is based upon a contagious swing, a clear, direct urban poetry and an African heart. That’s the core of what I do. Of course, you can also say I’m always looking for news ways of writing songs.”
If you haven’t heard Ben Jor singing such staples as “W Brasil,” “Chove Chuva” or “Zumbi,” you’ve probably heard his music performed by the likes of Miriam Makeba (“Mas Que Nada”), Sergio Mendes (“Pais Tropical”) or Oscar D’Leon (“Por causa de usted”). And while he’s a solid lock with the old guard, Ber Jor has been rediscovered by a whole new generation of Brazilian hipsters. Two years ago, Ben Jor proved he was also a star among this new demographic with Acustico MTV, a double CD recorded with both his bands, Admiral Jorge V and Banda do Ze Pretinho, and in which he revisits most of his hits, from “Taj Mahal” to “Menina Mulher da pele preta” to “Jorge da Capadocia” to “Take It Easy My Brother Charles.” The CD sold over a million copies in the Brazilian market alone.
Now Ben Jor is back with Reactivus Amor Est (Turba Philosophorum), his first album of new songs since 1997’s Musicas Para Tocar Em Elevador (which contained few originals and a slew of reheated classics). The new album is the sum of many well-groomed elements in his style: groovy samba, jazzy arrangements and middle-of-the-road rock. But like all good funk, Reactivus Amor Est, which can be roughly translated as “Love is Reactive,” is really all about getting down. Ben Jor isn’t afraid to delve into electronica and hip-hop in the pursuit of getting down, either, suggesting that Ben Jor is reaching out to younger crowds.
“I like to evolve and by doing so you feel younger,” says Ben Jor, who recently turned 63. “But most importantly, I like to experiment. Writing songs can’t be a formula. Never. It has to be a creative process. That’s why I’m fascinated with what young composers are doing with hip-hop, rap and sampling.”
This infatuation is mutual, judging by how cariocas rappers like Racionais MC or Los Sebosos Postizos idolize his music (specially his