Published on Friday, February 13 2015
On all the levels of communicating that music can do, emotional buoyancy is probably the most effervescent – and maybe the most glorious – of them all. With lyrics, you can follow a narrative or wander with their signs; a groove, the body can move and communicate with a different type of meaningful-exploration. However, when an album just comes to envelop you in its own intangibility to the point of understanding it as a real and concrete feeling, you pay attention. It doesn’t matter what is actually said, how instruments are played or parts executed. It bleeds over into a world where the intention shines through, thus becoming a damn good listen.
So, when it comes to the Brazilian Jorge Ben Jor and his incredible album A Tábua de Esmeralda (The Emerald Tablet), it seems obvious to point out that – for me at least – this record has these hard-to-describe qualities in spades. Ben Jor is not unknown by any stretch, nor is this record, but that is all still relative to your geo-positioning. Quite a great deal of writing exists on him already: from his prolific output, to him suing Rod Stew-Art for nabbing the chorus for “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” from his “Taj Mahal” (off of the equally brilliant, brazilian/african rhythmical-hybrid Ãfrica Brasil). What I find appealing about this album from the angle of writing about it is its place both in the chronology/ethos of Tropicália specifically (and MPB in general), as well as Mr. Ben Jor’s body of work.
A Tábua de Esmeralda has the wonderful exploratory elements of his Tropicália comrades (Gil, Gal, Veloso, etc.) and their oeuvre, and the “genre” is hands down one of the most interesting creative endeavors in my opinion, the “anthropofagia” being an oddly-perfect precursor to globalism for better and for worse. However, A Tábua de Esmeralda stays closer to conventionality, sonically speaking. Ben Jor seems wonderfully comfortable as a populist to a degree (having an album almost entirely dedicated to hermetic mysticism alongside jams that become soccer-stadium rattlers is a rare career-feat indeed). It’s rooted in Brazil, is Brazilian, but reaches beyond itself, depersonalizing the listener (regardless of their understanding of Portuguese) and allows for a healthy dose of – well – fun.
And plain and simple, this record is fun. It conjures up languid images of hammocks and a healthy buzz, the bed of a lover, or the quieter moments with yourself as you ponder what to have for breakfast. There is playful banter tucked in the background of songs. All the while, the actual “content” of the album is exploring emotional, political and spiritual paths rarely traveled down with such dexterity. Jorge Ben Jor, without a trace of irony, embraces love and life, pain and suffering, and ponders through mythologies as old as the Upanishads: what it means to be alive and – more importantly – living. Alchemists, literal in their description, are eventually located within the heart of the self, Hermes Trismegisto acting as a handy guide, then seen and sung about in instances of stillness (“Cinco Minutos”), the stars in tandem with human folly (“Errare Humanum Est”), and a narrator tortured by malicious thoughts couched in a deep desire for their lover (“Menina Mulher Da Pele Preta”).
From what I can tell, these are all themes that permeate Jorge Ben Jor’s songs at different times and on different albums. However, in my opinion, A Tábua de Esmeralda reaches a particular distillation that is poised and balanced in a way quite unlike any other album of his. And in the midst of an album soaked in love and spiritual exploration, there’s a song solely dedicated to the shit-flipping admiration of a neck tie. C’mon. A Tábua de Esmeralda is such a grand synthesis of clarity and levity, it’s almost alchemistic in scope.
Jorge Ben Jor – Menina Mulher da Pele Preta
Jorge Ben Jor – Zumbi