Seu Jorge has got to be one of the coolest cats on the planet – a Brazilian samba singer with a rich baritone and an easy groove. You may know him from his popular Portuguese covers of David Bowie songs featured in the Wes Anderson movie, “The Life Aquatic,” or, from his role as a street hood in the great Brazilian film, “City of God.”
We caught up with this international music star and his new band, Almaz, at a recent concert at the Royale in Boston. On our latest “Quick Hits,” you can see Seu Jorge on stage, singing a song for us outside on the theater’s fire escape, and talking with Marco Werman about his music and his rough early life in a Rio de Janeiro favela.
Don't miss other Quick Hits starring Dengue Fever, Charles Bradley & Sharon Jones, Helene Grimaud, Jovanotti, KT Tunstall, Meklit Hadero, Ozomatli, and Seu Jorge. For more info visit the Sound Tracks website.
Seu Jorge: an Evolution in Three Parts
By Marco Werman
In his forty years, Seu Jorge has gone from a kid imprisoned by the artificial walls of a Rio de Janeiro slum – a favela – to frontman for the soulful boy band Farofa Carioca, to international star and Brazilian totem of cool. As I've met him over the past ten years, I've seen him evolve musically as his identity becomes clearer.
World Music Expo, Essen, Germany, October 2004
In “City of God,” the brilliant film by Brazilian director Fernando Mireilles, the authenticity of the acting makes the viewer one with the favela. And there’s one actor you can’t take your eyes off of, the guy who plays Knockout Ned, the ruthless kid who becomes the don of the favela. It was my first encounter with Seu Jorge, born Jorge Mario da Silva.
A few months later it’s spring, and his CD “Cru” drops into my mailbox. The songs are radical, rocking, and soulful, and include the first clue that Seu Jorge’s mind works in funky ways as it curates his repertoire: he covers “Don’t” by Elvis Presley with such a languid manner that Chet Baker might grow impatient with it.
Then a few weeks later, another dose of Jorge arrives in the post. It’s the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s quirky Jacques Cousteau spoof, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” The film didn’t get embraced by many critics, but as usual, Mr. Anderson let his film double as his personal jukebox, mixing in songs by Joan Baez, the Zombies and David Bowie, as well as a few Bowie tracks by Seu Jorge, performed unplugged in Portuguese. They’re sublime, and in my opinion represent some of Seu Jorge’s most interesting work.
I go to see the movie, and there’s even more Jorge singing Bowie than the soundtrack offers (those additional tunes later to be released as “The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions”).
In October, I’m in Essen, Germany, and Jorge is on the bill there at WOMEX, the World Music Expo.
In a backstage tent before the show, Jorge and I stumble through an interview in the chilly autumn night of the Ruhr Valley. He’d just been signed to a small deal with the French label Naïve, so he’s talking a sort of French/Portuguese/pidgin English. But he’s clear in any language.
“I will never make a cerebral or intellectual record,” he told me, a confession that I will never forget. “I make records for the people to touch their hearts.”
It was then that I learned about his teenage years on the streets of Rio: homeless at first, then squatting in the rafters of a theater company that eventually taught him to perform, which led to his first gig with the hit-making Farofa Carioca band. (Farofa is a popular Brazilian cassava porridge, and carioca means “of Rio de Janeiro”).
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, July 2006
A warm, clear summer night in the central courtyard of the MFA with the right artist performing is a recipe for a perfect moment. And such a moment was struck when Seu Jorge took to the stage.
He had released his latest CD “Carolina” the year before. Where “Cru” seemed to illustrate Jorge’s ability to stretch out creatively, “Carolina” brought him back to the samba-soul style with its happy high-end beat that contrasts so well with his smoky baritone.
I was hoping to do another interview that night. But after the concert, the roadies were breaking things down, so it wasn’t conducive to producing a quiet bit of radio. Jorge said we could do it on the tour bus later (as in, after midnight sometime). So we spent nearly an hour beneath the stars after the concert, sharing a smoke and chatting casually.
Jorge marveled at the popularity of his David Bowie covers from “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” We spoke about the songwriting genius of Bowie and how a tune like “Changes” has chord changes that resolve themselves like bossa nova patterns.
By the time we all piled on the bus, Jorge was getting ready to hit the sack and move on to the next city on the tour. There went my radio interview. Oh well. I understood. It had already been a pretty grueling tour for him and the band, 19 dates over 22 days through the US and Canada, dealing on one occasion with Canadian Mounties who searched the bus for several hours.
Jorge is a cool samba cat, but as a professional musician he’s learned how to survive a marathon road trip. Even musicians need to sleep.
Royale, Boston, Massachusetts, 2010
Seu Jorge steps off his glossy tour bus, parked in an alley behind the downtown venue. He sits down on the curb with his soundman and bassist, and they each lunge into burritos from a Mexican joint around the corner. After one bite, Jorge says he can’t wait to get back to Los Angeles where he’ll get to rejoin his wife and child right after this tour with his new band Almaz.
He’s recruited several players for Almaz from the supremely talented northeast Brazilian group, Nacao Zumbi. Their mangue beat makes Nacao Zumbi sound Brazilian, but they also rock out. And appropriately for Seu Jorge, those chops mean they’re always prepared for their bandleader’s iconoclastic tendencies.
Take the Brazilian samba-soul standard “Saudosa Bahia,” originally performed in the ‘60s by Noriel Vilela. Jorge and Almaz steer it into lo-fi fuzz rock territory.
“Saudosa Bahia” joins other covers on the CD: “The Model” by Kraftwerk, Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” and Roy Ayers’ “Everybody Loves the Sunshine.” More than ever, Jorge emerges as a curator and interpreter of great songs that move him. He’s an entertainer, and believes in the virtue of being an all-around great entertainer.
“I love Frank Sinatra,” Jorge tells me without guile. “He’s a complete entertainer: singer, actor, dancer.”
Seu Jorge says if he embraces the comprehensive meaning of entertainer, it’s partly because he still carries the hopeless residue of growing up in the favela. Jorge says he feels a responsibility to be a role model for the friends he left behind, to show them how to represent Brazil and Brazilian music. Given Brazil’s growing profile on the world stage, Seu Jorge takes that responsibility more seriously than ever.
But he also spoke about another friend he left behind, in a permanent way. Jorge’s brother Vittorio was shot and killed in a drug-gang shootout when they were teenagers. It triggered a downward spiral for the family: Jorge got hooked on drugs and the family ended up in the streets. It also marked the beginnings of Jorge’s interest in the music and singing that changed his life.
In the movie “City of God,” Seu Jorge acts out an alternative reality. What if he had turned to violence, instead of music? As the character Knockout Ned, he loses his fictitious brother in the movie to a drug dealer’s bullet. Knockout Ned seeks revenge. He doesn’t turn the other cheek and make music.
Jorge explained to me that he understands the path his character took, even though he rejected it himself in real life. The pain of losing a brother is the same. “That sad part is my story,”he says. I’ll think forever of the sad memories. I never forget my brother. For me he’s still here.”
And so is Seu Jorge, as vital as ever and still evolving.
At the Royale in Boston, the Almaz band included:
Vocals: Seu Jorge
Percussion: Gustavo da Lua
Guitar: Lucio Maia
Bass: Antonio Pinto