Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A flag-waver with heart

Jorge Ben
Barbican Hall
20 July

Jorge (‘Georgie’) Ben is a Brazilian artist who has been around since the bossa nova days of the 60s, pre-empting the Tropicalia of Veloso and Gil, since then becoming a vital reference point for any local act. Live, he does not play his most well-known-to-Westerners-song, Mas Que Nada, but he does play Taj Mahal, the tune for which Manilow ripped off and was then sued for Do You Think I’m Sexy, perhaps while he was on the Copacabana I dunno.

That was to come. First, Trio Mocoto, as old an act as Ben if not quite so revered, got the place going with their pacey, percussive Brazilian pop. Then I reproached JB in my head for having St George flags draped on his set, reaching out to the local contingent in the diverse crowd. Though doubtless there were many wet Liberals happy to see its appearance here, it is a symbol of backward, anti-multicultural exclusivity: our ‘boys’ use it for all the wrong reasons that other nations’ flagbearers don’t. High time to get beyond nation states and the brotherhood of flags.

JB’s arrival was so rapturously greeted that Ronaldo or Rivaldo would blush at similar treatment, but the English spirit of heroic failure infected the first few songs. The sound levels weren’t right, the guitar licks jarring against piano and percussion, brass and beats. Come back Mocoto, a few were thinking (while you always get a few punters on Barbican season tickets leaving early, having ticked their ‘cultural fill’ box on the week’s calendar). Soundman duly fiddled with knobs and by the third or fourth song JB had found the groove and the joint was jumping. Mid-period ‘disco-samba’ classics like Fio Maravilha, Spyro Gyra, Jorge de Capadocia and A Banda de Ze Pretinho were greeted with mad love; it is a pity he does not play the more diverse or mellow stuff such as Umbabarauma and Xica da Silva, as I can still see those filling places like this. But the touring legend seems to have found his range with this type of set.

By Taj Mahal the ‘ordem e progresso’ (not our tawdry regression) of the Brazilian flags were out, accompanying the women who JB exhorted to join the men on stage for the last dance. Two got his coveted vote for carnival queen. By the encore, a reprise of Taj, the two became about 40. This is all usual in JB gigs - his music is a celebration of life; people come to enjoy themselves. Indeed, my arse had even left its balcony-level seat at that stage.

In that affirmation he is naturally more tied to his national/musical roots than newer acts such as Otto and Nacao Zumbi (who were too much for a staid crowd here three years ago), but his melding of local and European/US vernaculars, of pure plaintive voice with hip-hop-style call and response, makes him a good deal more progressive than most. Obrigado, Georgie.

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