Editor’s Note: My first foray into writing about Brazilian music was a multi-part comment on Robert Christgau’s now-defunct MSN Expert Witness blog in December 2012. The comments section had evolved into a community of Xgau lovers who talked about all kinds of music. Inspired by Cam Patterson’s Brazil Project, I decided to write up the impressions I had developed regarding Jorge Ben Jor over the previous couple of years. I initially planned to reprint that here with minor edits, but while my rankings have largely held up, the organization needed work: there were better ways to conceptualize Ben’s career development. So a significant rework was required. You can read the original posts here, thanks to Tom Hull. (Go down to Dec. 8.) Also, I should note that I graded based on Christgau’s grading system. Brazil Beat’s is a little different. Finally, I originally did this as a multi-part post. All the parts are now combined here.
According to most sources, Jorge Duílio Ben Zabella Lima de Menezes, a.k.a. Jorge Ben a.k.a. Jorge Ben Jor, was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 22, 1942. His father was a stevedore, his mother part-Ethiopian, and the de Menezes household was full of music, including that of some professionals his parents knew. Ben grew up singing in the church choir, but his first love was football, and he actually played briefly for the Rio team Clube de Regatas do Flamengo. But when professional football didn’t work out, Ben fell back on music.
Like many aspiring Brazilian guitarists in the late ’50s, Ben aimed to emulate João Gilberto’s tricky bossa nova style. Much like Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry, albeit with higher class aspirations, Gilberto, with Tom Jobim, had revolutionized Brazilian music in the late 1950s. But Ben, like legion others, found Gilberto’s style difficult to pull off. Instead of settling for a second rate imitation, he developed his own harder hitting approach. Gilberto’s style was rhythmic, too, but quick and agile, busily dancing around the beat. Ben’s was insistent and driving in comparison.
Ben began performing in clubs in the Copacabana area of Rio where he was discovered by a producer for the Phillips record label. Signed to a contract Ben released his first single “Mas, Que Nada!” backed with “Por Causa de Você, Menina”. You can read a fascinating summary of the significance of the A side here, but I want to note a couple of things. First, “Mas, Que Nada!” belongs on a list of the best and most influential songs of the 1960s every bit as much as “Satisfaction” or “Cold Sweat” or “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Not only was it a massive success for Ben, but it became one of the most covered songs from the decade. Sure, some of those covers are awful, but you can say the same thing about Stones or Beatles songs, too. Second, from the beginning three key aspects of Ben’s art are present: his interest in mysticism as explored in Umbanda’s fusion of Afro-Brazilian Candomblé with Catholicism and patriotism; that guitar sound, which is every bit as inimitable as Gilberto’s was; and his sweet voice with its touch of ache and longing.
Following that single, Ben released his first album, the cannily named Samba Esquema Novo: New Scheme Samba. If Ben couldn’t be a Gilberto disciple and proper bossa nova star, he’d just invent his own music, which is exactly what he did by fusing samba to his guitar style. Overstating Ben’s significance to Brazilian music is difficult to do. (Rolling Stone Brasil rated him as the fifth greatest Brazilian musical artist of all time.) As Cam Patterson notes, Ben is critical in the transformation of bossa nova into MPB, and he’s also the “perfect foil” to Tom Zé‘s genius deconstruction of Brazilian music.
But that kind of judgment makes best sense in retrospect. If you follow Ben’s career as it develops rather than looking back on his achievements as whole, a different picture emerges, especially if we isolate his ’60s albums from his titanic ’70s peak. What jumps out—and what is hidden if you look at the totality of his career—is how stylistically opportunistic the early Ben was. Like Chuck Berry he didn’t set out to make art, but to make hit records. Where previously I heard Ben’s first four samba jazz albums as a piece and O Bidú as a transition to his peak period, I now hear it differently. Through 1969’s self-titled album, Ben was trying to find the style to match the guitar he keeps at the center of his music as well as one that would sell records to sustain his career.
Yet that opportunism never feels forced or cheap. In fact, it made Ben a kind of focal point around which Brazilian music in the 1960s evolved. Rather than simply riding trends, Ben adapted them to his needs and developed his signature style in the process. More impressively, Brazilian music followed his lead: re-emphasizing samba, turning jovem guarda rock and roll toward tropicália and helping to establish the future of Brazilian music. In the opportunistic movements of Ben in the ’60s you can hear the founding of the música popular brasileira that dominated national music for the next few decades and is still important.
You can see Ben’s unifying and directional role in the music television shows that were central to the 1960s national scene: a bossa nova show, O Fino da Bossa, co-hosted by Elis Regina and Jair Rodrigues; Jovem Guarda, a Brazilian rock and roll show co-hosted by Roberto Carlos and Erasmo Carlos; and O Pequeno Mundo, a rock show hosted by Ronnie Von that became associated with tropicália. (The tropicalistas eventually got their own show, Divino Maravilhoso hosted by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa.) These three shows and their hosts were bitter rivals. Appearing on one show meant you were effectively blacklisted from the others. Unless you happened to be Jorge Ben. (He did temporarily burn bridges with the bossas when he first appeared on Jovem Guarda.) Old guard bossas, young guard rock and rollers, and art rebel tropicalistas all saw Ben as a fellow traveler. Apparently, he was the only artist to appear on all four shows, and the victory wasn’t merely symbolic. His performances across the shows trace the development of Brazilian popular music in the 1960s.
Yet only with 1970’s Força Bruta does Ben fully arrive at his classic sound, and he spent the rest of the decade exploring the samba-funk-rock he basically invented even as he adapted it to changing styles—check out the disco-y feel of 1979’s Salve Simpatia. With the transition to the ’80s, Ben was definitely in post-peak mode, but unlike so many of his ’60s/’70s compatriots, he resisted the turn to schlock even as he updated his sound for a new decade. (Seriously, just listen to how bad Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil or especially Gal Costa could get during that time.) Dádiva might have a new wavy feel with some too-slick sax, but it also had some of the funkiest music of his career, and if he’s a latecomer to ’80s world music trends on 1989’s Benjor, he still managed to make it sound vital. Indeed, even if his albums weren’t quite at his ’70s peak he continued to put out compelling ones throughout the decade and only slows down in the ’90s, which in my book puts him ahead of the Stones and most other ’60s heroes.
It’s at this point that the retrospective judgments Patterson makes are so valuable. While breaking down Ben’s career as it develops grounds it, the overview highlights the massive achievement that Patterson rightly notes it is. Not counting compilations or live albums, Ben has released, by my count, 29 albums. If you keep reading, you will see how highly I think of most of those, but I’ll just state now that his consistency combined with his high points makes him one of the best musicians in the latter half of the 20th century. He holds his own against Franco, Fela Kuti, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Prince, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Caetano Veloso or Willie Nelson. If he’s not James Brown, Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis, well who is? Yet you rarely see him mentioned in such company. One reason, perhaps the major one, may be something Milo Miles mentioned in a comment at Christgau’s blog when I first posted on Ben: he never had a proper American record deal. But whatever the cause, consider these posts my small attempt to rectify that aesthetic injustice.
Both for this blog over the past year and elsewhere this decade, I have heard some terrific music, Brazilian and otherwise. Life list albums I expect to enjoy until the day I’m dead or deaf. But my favorite new-to-me album this decade without a doubt is Jorge Ben’s 1969 self-titled album, which I got for Christmas in 2010. I’d owned África Brasil since the late 1990s and picked up a Som Livre years compilation in the early ’00s, but this was the album that really opened up Ben for me. So began a nearly two-year project of tracking down his studio albums, many of which were not in print or available for download at the time. (I ordered several from Japan, so I have the oddity of Brazilian music compact discs with Japanese text on the spines in an American household.) That led to the original post at Christgau’s site, but the Ben love has never let up. No matter how much I listen to the Clube da Encruza or DonaZica or Hamilton or Vijay Iyer or Fela Kuti or whatever has tickled my ears this decade, Ben doesn’t slip into the background. Even as I immersed again for this series, it was not a chore. If you are a believer, then you need no convincing, but if not, what are you waiting for?
(I’ve tried to cite my sources above, but I want to mention two in particular: the Jorge Ben Jor bio at The Best of Brazil and a career overview at Revive-Music. I’m grateful for their help in contextualizing Ben and will continue to draw on them throughout this series. Check them out yourself.)
Following his hit debut single, Jorge Ben released his first album, Samba Esquema Novo (1963). Unable to imitate João Gilberto’s bossa nova guitar style as effectively as he wished, Ben found his own way forward by going back to samba and pushing it in newer, harder, funkier directions thereby earning his album title. Yet it’s still a far cry from the funky samba-rock he’ll pioneer in the 1970s. Bossa nova’s upscale, modernist ambitions are still dominant, so Ben accommodates with a classy vibe. Most tracks are built around Ben’s strum—light, yet with a direct percussive intensity lacking in Gilberto’s fancier (and great) style—and his sweet voice with its hints of ache and euphoria (that ecstatic falsetto). The sound is filled out by backing appropriate for a jazzy lounge setting: a horn or two, piano, bass and drums, but it never sounds cheesy or dated. Ben’s writing is sharp and to the point: most songs are less that three minutes, and he probably didn’t write as strongly over a whole album again until the end of the decade. Unfortunately, over the next 18 months, Phillips didn’t give him the space to write as it squeezed three more albums out of him in that short time (not that the hit seeking Ben probably minded).
He continued solidly on Sacundin Ben Samba (1964), which beefed up the sound without overwhelming Ben’s guitar or voice. As on the debut, Ben wrote most of the songs (all but two), and several, the black pride “Capoeira” and the carnival lament “Carnaval Triste” in particular, are among his strongest early songs. If it’s not as distinct or stirring as the debut, Ben shows a little more diversity in style. But the rush to release albums began to catch up with him on this third effort, Ben É Samba Bom (1964), which is a definite slump. There are still a few sharp songs (“Gabriela”, “Bicho do Mato”), but even they are drowned in arrangements that sink the album. Gone is the deft, minimal backing of the debut. Instead we get blaring horns, piano pushed toward the front of the mix and Ben trying to shout above it all. Perhaps more worrying, Ben’s reliance on outside songwriters increased. The single cover on the debut was followed by two on the sophomore album and exploded to four of the 12 on the third. Ben’s songs sound tireder and he’s leaning on outside help more. Let’s just say he didn’t earn the title on this one. He won’t make an album this bad again until at least 1977 if not the late ’90s.
Commercial fortunes continued to decline and may have made Phillips, and Ben, desperate. Rather than refocusing, they rushed out another album, 1965’s Big Ben. While an improvement on Ben É Samba Bom, it still paled next to his first two albums. But despite the step down quality-wise, you can hear Ben growing and reaching out as a songwriter. This results in some transitional songs, such as “Jorge Well”, that, even if they don’t always work, point toward his more rock-oriented future. The beat is more direct, less swing-y. The backing band plays with Ben’s guitar more rather than just filling out his sound. But at the same time, six of the 12 are written by someone else. Perhaps Ben was exhausted.
Sales still weren’t living up to his early promise and despite some intriguing hints of new directions in his songwriting, the need to bring in other songwriters to fill out an album might have indicated Ben was a rather typical pop star who peaked early and flamed out quickly, so when his contract ended, Phillips let him go. With his career seemingly drying up, Ben latched onto an offer from his friend Sergio Mendes to work in his band in America. Ben didn’t enjoy being away from Brazil, and an encounter with a racist barber in Los Angeles sealed his determination to go home. (Fun fact: he appeared in an episode of Mission Impossible as part of a band in a club during his American sojourn.) But Ben’s brief period with Mendes bore fruit when the latter had a huge hit with a cover of “Mas, Que Nada!”. This success helped reignite Ben’s solo career.
Seeking a new start, Ben moved to São Paulo where his childhood friends Roberto Carlos and Erasmo Carlos (no relation) were heading up the jovem guarda (young guard) movement. The Carloses were the leaders of Brazil’s first real rock and roll scene. Unlike the later tropicalistas, the jovem guarda was largely dismissed as teeny bopper music and didn’t threaten bossa nova’s dominance. But Ben sensed opportunity. Picking up on the hints of change from Big Ben, he threw himself full-on into a jovem guarda style album, yet one that retained his distinctive sound: that guitar, voice and samba roots. Signing to a small label in São Paulo, Ben released O Bidú: Silêncio No Brooklin (1967). Backed by the Fevers, Ben wasn’t shy about his new ambitions, naming one song “Jovem Samba”. If he wasn’t going to be the new king for the bossa nova crowd, he’d just take over Brazilian rock and roll instead.
Commercially, the album was a disaster. Aesthetically the album is a sort of missing link. You can still still hear some of Ben’s early style, and he’s not yet at the funky samba-rock he will arrive at. The Fevers are not as strong as future backing bands. And unfortunately, the CD/download versions available have a thin sound which apparently wasn’t the case with the original vinyl. But the results are still very good. More importantly, the album was a key inspiration for the tropicália movement during which Ben would finally establish himself as a first rank Brazilian musical artist.
Despite the lack of economic success with O Bidú, Ben doubled down on his new sound. Working the São Paulo club scene, honing his songwriting and making the connections that would provide him collaborators for the next several years, Ben stayed away from the recording studio except for a few singles, including “A Minha Menina”, which was later made famous by Os Mutantes. To my knowledge it hasn’t been released on CD. You can hear it here. On this song you can hear Ben’s talent finally starting to flower fully.
While Ben was working to revive his career, Brazilian music underwent a revolution as important as the one Gilberto had unleashed with Chega de Saudade in 1959: tropicália. Led by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso with crucial assists from Os Mutantes and Gal Costa, these politicized artists responded both to the repressive military regime established in a 1964 coup and to the insularity of the bossa old guard who rejected anything drawn from non-Brazilian influences. In 1968 Gil and Veloso each released their second albums (after debuting with more traditional bossa ones) and those two teamed up with the above allies plus Tom Zé, Nara Leão (one of the few bossa stars sympathetic to the upstarts), poet Torquato Neto and others for the seminal Tropicália: ou Panis et Circenis, which might best be understood as a combination of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band‘s sonic humanism with Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols burn-it-down agenda.
Ben was not a tropicalista. They admired him, worked with him, covered his songs and promoted his career. But Ben lacked their political or artistic zeal. I’ll say more about Ben’s lyrical content later, but where Veloso and Gil were keen to confront the government as well as the conservative bossas, Ben was just a guy who loved making music and took it very seriously, more genius formalist than genius revolutionary pop star. Where Veloso and Gil were banished, and even a young bossa star like Chico Buraque struggled against the censors, Ben was never really in trouble with the government. (Once he had a show shut down because the female dancers moved a bit too provocatively.) That’s not to say he was a shill for the dictatorship or that his art was as devoid of politics as his critics (and sometimes he) insisted. More on that later, but I want to establish, contrary to what you might see on compilations or hear from other writers, that Ben was not a part of this movement.
But Ben was still a keen opportunist with ambitions of popular success. So in the midst of the tropicália revolution, Ben re-signed with the Phillips label (thanks to a promise from Veloso and Gil to the label to promote Ben’s comeback among their fans) and put out a tropicália album in 1969, even following the tropicalista convention of naming the album after himself. As with his earlier opportunistic moves, the music doesn’t sound cheap or forced. Indeed, the tropicalistas welcomed it. Composer/arranger Rogerio Duprat (along with José Briamonte), who arranged on Tropicália, joined Ben. More important than Ben’s commercial instincts, however, was his improved songwriting. Two years of focus had paid off with the strongest set of songs in his career. In addition to classics like “País Tropical” (which Barack Obama quoted on a trip to Brazil), “Que Pena” and “Take It Easy My Brother Charles”, Ben packs the album with undeniable song after undeniable song: the favela Robin Hood tale of “Charles, Anjo 45”, the Forever Changes-goes-samba “Descobri Que Eu Sou Um Anjo”, the psychedelic ecstasy of “Barbarella”, the haunting “Domingas”. Several of the album’s songs Ben had allowed other artists to cover before his album came out, and the hits they had with them helped set up his own success as Ben’s versions became the standard. Duprat and Briamonte’s arrangements provide a wildness that’s not the norm in Ben’s normally carefully controlled music. He found a new backing band, Trio Mocoto, who could help deliver the sounds in his head. And most importantly, Ben’s guitar style and singing matured into the classic sound. The guitar—acoustic only at this point—cuts and ricochets and hits so hard you think he’s going to knock your speakers over. As a rhythm guitarist, we’re talking Nile Rodgers, Chuck Berry or Keith Richard kind of skills here. As a singer, while Ben’s not in Veloso’s or Marisa Monte’s league as a singer, he’s perfected that sweet, slightly aching soulful croon that is his hallmark.
For the album as a whole, it’s still not quite Ben’s classic sound. The tropicália flourishes ensure that. But it’s the breakthrough he’d been hinting at since his debut album. In the year of In a Silent Way and The Velvet Underground and Let It Bleed, Ben might top them all. (Well, okay, probably not In a Silent Way.) In the sense that this album is his best, and it is, it’s all downhill from here. Really, it was opening salvo in a run that surely ranks among the greatest in the album era. But that’s in the next decade.
Despite some commercial success in the ’60s, at times Ben seemed more admired by his peers than loved by the public. Heading into the ’70s, his career was secure. His stylistic swerves and trend jumps were over as he established himself as a pillar of Brazilian pop music. The songwriting that jelled with Jorge Ben would keep him going strong for another couple of decades. And he would knock off a run of albums that would leave most contemporaries in the dust. Of course, he didn’t know that yet. So with the stakes still high, Ben released what might be the defining album of his career: 1970’s Força Bruta. It defines him not because it was his best, or even his best of the decade, but because this is where his classic sound emerges fully. The tropicália flourishes are stripped away, and Ben perfects the samba-funk-rock fusion he’d been exploring for the last five years.
But after the highs of Jorge Ben, disappointment was nearly inevitable. With its slower pace and chilled grooves, Força Bruta doesn’t exactly grab you. That the first two songs, “Oba, Lá Vem Ela” and “Zé Canjica”, sound similar enough to hint at monotony hurts, too. Yet I underrated this album when I first posted five years ago because I couldn’t hear past my expectations of Jorge Ben Vol. 2. Ben rarely lets loose. He has a few examples of when he relaxes his sense of discipline—Jorge Ben, of course, but also África Brasil and his collaboration with Gilberto Gil—but most of the time he’s careful and controlled. If that sounds like an insult, let me direct you to some classic Motown records. Perhaps one reason Ben’s art aged so well is that dedication to craft, and it’s on full display on Força Bruta. Track after track, melodies unspool over rock solid rhythms driven as much by his guitar as João Parahyba’s and Nereu Gargalo’s percussion. If you are looking for an American analogue, think Bill Withers, who similarly deployed acoustic guitar in such a compellingly funky manner, albeit without the samba. Ben would top Força Bruta several times, but that says more about his triumphs than it does any weakness in his album. More than anything he’d recorded before, this album demonstrated who he was and would be artistically.
Not wasting his hot streak, Ben continued his release-a-year strategy and quickly followed up with Negro é Lindo. One of the standard knocks against Ben is that for all his musical talent, his lyrics are weak. It’s true that he wasn’t as political as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil or Chico Buarque. It’s also true that Ben’s words and interests may not dazzle English or, er, Portuguese majors expecting poems or short stories attached to their tunes. But Ben’s lyrics are not simply vocal filler either. Football (i.e., soccer) fans can rejoice. Probably no musician has devoted as many songs to that sport as ex-player, lifelong fan Ben has—”Filho Maravilha (Fio Maravilha)”, “Cadê o Penalty?”, “Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)” to name a few. He’s also had a longstanding interest in mystical topics: references to alchemy and Hermes Trismegisto, namedropping the Brazilian orixas (the gods of the Afro-Brazilian religions), as well as Christian references. These lyrics aren’t bad per se, and some complaints may reveal more about the critics’ lack of interest than anything about Ben’s abilities.
What’s more Ben can be political. The translation for Negro é Lindo, in case you didn’t figure it out, is “black and beautiful”. The title track embraces the black power movement for Brazil, albeit with Ben’s more sanguine outlook. He also salutes Cassius Clay, a.k.a. Muhammad Ali, who matters as much for his politics as his pugilism. “Paz e Arroz” (Peace and Rice) from Ben reminds of a couple of political necessities that people need sometimes before they can get the love they need even more. His Charles songs follow a character from the favela and his descendant who claim their humanity despite the difficulties society puts in the way over Jorge Ben and Força Bruta. “Xica da Silva”, from África Brasil, celebrates a black slave who rose to wealth and power. While Ben’s politics never got him in trouble with the authorities they way Veloso, Gil or Buarque did, neither did he ignore the movements for human liberation that were such an important part of the last half of the 20th century. I’m not claiming Ben was actually Dylan in disguise, but he wasn’t an empty formalist. What he was in that ’60s/’70s context was a black artist whose blackness wasn’t the point of his art, but neither was it irrelevant. Veloso observed (I believe in Tropical Truth) that blackness was a part of Ben’s attraction as an artist in a country that had its own racial problems. Just by being black and being willing to draw upon the stories, religions and legends of black Brazilians, Ben was a political figure.
Negro é Lindo led off with a tribute to Os Mutantes’ Rita Lee, immediately picking up the pace from Força Bruta. But he slows down again on the second track “Porque é Proibido Pisar na Grama”, except this times he’s got killer melodies. Indeed, Negro é Lindo is one of his stronger albums melodically. All four ballads don’t just sustain, but engage, especially on the gorgeous title track. Elsewhere rhythm reigns. The riffs in “Cassius Marcelo Clay” honor the hard-hitting boxer. Even better is “Zula”, which floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. The tightly coiled rhythm in “Comanche” finds release in the keyboards that accompany and duel with the trumpet. “Maria Domingas”, dedicated to his wife (who was still his wife as of the late 1990s at least), splits the difference between pretty and propulsive.
Track for track, it’s nearly as strong as Jorge Ben except for one important detail: the string arrangements. Done by cult artist Arthur Verocai, they nearly drown the songs. Where Rogerio Duprat and José Briamonte amplified Ben’s songs on the self-titled album, Verocai detracts. Duprat and Briamonte favored the wild and weird, Verocai the conventionally lush. Give Ben’s songs a chance, however, and they’ll overcome the limitation. In the end, Verocai’s strings are, at worst, a background annoyance. Sometimes they even aid the song as they are supposed to.
With Negro é Lindo, Ben’s collaboration with Trio Mocoto came to an end. So far I’ve had no luck figuring out who backs him in the two albums that came next, but both continued his winning streak. Veloso has declared the first, Ben, his favorite album by Ben. According one source, it’s among the most beloved of Ben’s albums, but it’s also not among the five albums listed on Rolling Stone Brasil’s best 100 Brazilian albums list. (Easier to skim version is here.) Either way, it’s a strong album, if not as transcendent as several others. With Trio Mocoto gone, Ben revamps his sound slightly. The sound is stripped down with fewer and more subtle string arrangements. The acoustic guitar is sometimes decorated with psychedelic effects. It also contains one of his biggest hits, “Filho Maravilha (Fio Maravilha)”, as well as the first version of another, “Taj Mahal”. If it doesn’t rank among his best, that’s a bit like saying Beggars Banquet or Lovesexy aren’t the best albums by their creators. Throughout, the songs maintain the high standards Ben has set for the decade.
In 1973, Ben took a break from his release rush and marked his 10-year anniversary as a recording artist with 10 Anos Depois. Seven tracks, plus one snippet, all but that exception being medleys. While not terrible, none of the versions will make you forget the originals. The sole advantage for long-term fans is that a few singles and rare tracks pop up, but even those are in medley form. A proper best of rescuing some of his non-album tracks would have been preferable.
Ben’s next album, A Tábua de Esmeralda, which many, Ben included, would rank as his best album, is his richest sonically since Jorge Ben. Musically and lyrically, it’s devoted largely to his mystical interests, specifically alchemy. Appropriate to an album steeped in mysticism, Ben and producer Paulinho Tapajós leaven the sound with hints of folky psychedelia that create a sense of awe and wonder. In “Zumbi” Ben recounts the horrors of the slave trade while imagining Zumbi dos Palamares, a part historic/part mythic warrior figure from Brazil’s past who fought against slavery, returning to exact vengeance on behalf of the oppressed. The serene melody belies the violent undercurrent of the lyrics, but it also captures the hope of those yearning for freedom. He follows that up with “Brother”, a paean to Jesus that carries its own eschatological edge. Two tracks later he meditates on Hermes Trismegisto’s heavenly Emerald Tablet over a melody that works as static reverie. It’s a strange mix that fits Ben perfectly.
Solta o Pavão has the misfortune of being wedged between two of his finest solo albums and released in the same year as a terrific collaboration album. Solta also features, as best as I can tell, Ben’s first regular backing band since Trio Mocoto: Admiral Jorge V. Thematically the album’s a mix of his typical interest: sports, mysticism, music and love. “Assim Falou Santo Tomaz de Aquino” (Thus Said Saint Thomas Aquinas) is a meditation on the incarnation of the Jesus that surely vies for the most theologically ambitious Christian pop song ever. “Zagueiro” praises a football player. In “Para Ouvir no Rádio (Luciana)”, he promises his love to write a hit that will be so big she can’t help but hear it. In many ways, Solta is the apotheosis of everything he’s been doing since Jorge Ben. If he’s not breaking new ground, he’s revisiting his strengths so well the end result impresses nearly as much as the three great albums that surround it.
Ben next took a brief break from his solo work to team up with longtime friend Gilberto Gil. While both Gil and Ben were deeply rhythmic artists their approaches were very different. Gil’s twisty, chewy rhythms contrasted with Ben’s more straightforward grooves. Although the two had worked together previously, the differences in their styles might have clashed over an entire album. Yet their 1975 collaboration, Gil & Jorge: Ogum, Xangô, is a gorgeous record that shows the best of both artists. (The album is sometimes marketed simply as Gil & Jorge, although the 1975 Brazilian release by that shortened name reduced the original two disc set to a single disc with edited versions of the songs). Gil had stretched out on occasion, but rarely with compelling results, while Ben preferred to keep his cuts compact and focused. So when they got in the studio and simply jammed, you’d rightly be skeptical of the results. Yet over nine tracks—four over 10 minutes, another four over six—the two shine. Ben’s more straightforward guitar grounds the collaboration, but Gil isn’t simply subsumed into his colleague’s sound. On vocals, they don’t so much duet as converse. Although loose and flowing, the two push each other to take chances while staying focused and keeping their sprawling grooves from descending into formlessness.
Familiarity with the originals isn’t necessary, but it helps you appreciate how they stretch each other. “Nêga” was a tight and poppy on Gilberto Gil (1970), but here it flows seductively. “Taj Mahal” is extended toward blissful eternity. Gil relaxes the tensed groove on “Essa É Pra Tocar No Rádio” so that it rolls punchily rather than pops frenetically. If the songs aren’t better than the originals—and that ‘if’ is definitely in play—they showcase two artists at the peak of their game getting out of their comfort zone and making compelling music from the challenge.
Ben’s run from O Bidú culminated so perfectly on Solta o Pavão and the collaboration with Gil that one could imagine him coasting on his successes from there on out and still being welcomed into the pantheon. But he wasn’t done challenging himself or his listeners. África Brasil is one of those albums I wish I could have heard upon release in its proper sonic and historical context. It’s not quite Dylan going electric—if Ben had a Judas moment it was probably O Bidú—but it’s a big shift. Ben abandons the acoustic guitar, pretty much permanently, and fleshes out the sound of his backing band with extra percussion, keyboards and guitar. The string sections that had been a part of his music since Jorge Ben are gone as Ben has the band lean more into funk. The massed band is a juggernaut, but it also creates a wildness that had been missing from perfectionist Ben’s solo music since Jorge Ben. Compare the reworked “África Brasil (Zumbi)” or “Hermes Trismegisto Escreveu” to their A Tábua de Esmeralda counterparts. The former is transformed from a hopeful yearning for liberation into a riotous celebration of black power; the latter from reverent folk hymn into a punchy, driving funk behemoth.
Ben announced his new sonic game immediately on the album with the dynamic riff in “Ponta de Lança Africano (Umbabarauma)”, and from there he just piles it on. Percussion, riffs, horns and keyboards swirl together in celebration of both musical cultures in the album’s title. Ben wasn’t the only Brazilian artist exploring his country’s musical roots in Africa. In various ways, not least his embrace of Afro-Brazilian religions, he had been doing so since his first single. But here he achieves a synthesis that, to my knowledge, has never been equaled in Brazilian music. Gilberto Gil came close on Refavela, but even that wonderful album falls short of Ben’s achievement here. As his best known album internationally, many people swear by this one. All I can say is that while I still prefer Jorge Ben, I’m just glad I don’t have to live on one of those desert islands where I’d have to make a choice.
(The version of “Taj Mahal” here provided one of Ben’s more interesting moments on the world stage. If you think the song sounds familiar, but can’t quite place it, put on Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy”. Bingo. In his autobiography Stewart admitted to unconscious plagiarism, but intentions aside, Ben sued. The two settled amicably with Stewart donating the royalties from the hit to UNICEF.)
At this point, many summaries of Ben’s career begin to wind down. The author will make a note that Ben continued to record with diminishing results for many years. So, for instance, on the English-language Wikipedia for Ben, you can find individual entries for each of his albums all the way through África Brasil, and then naught. (That’s not true of Portuguese-language Wikipedia, however, even though the entries tend to get shorter with the later albums.) In the sense that nothing he does after África Brasil will be as good, it’s true that it’s all downhill. But, since I favor Jorge Ben, I could say the same about his stellar ’70s work. What is true is that, leaving aside the tenth anniversary marker, his albums from Jorge Ben through África Brasil constitute a run he’ll never equal. But, two points: at eight albums that flirt with perfection (and a couple that achieve it), it’s a run few people will ever equal; and he comes closer to equaling his best work than most critics recognize.
Unfortunately, the next album undercuts that argument. With the success of África Brasil and the winding down of his contract with Phillips, Ben teamed with Island for a brief, and unfruitful, push into the international markets. First up was the merely adequate compilation Samba Nova, which selected haphazardly from the Phillips albums. Then was the truly disastrous Tropical. (Both were released only on the international markets by Island in 1976. Phillips did issue Tropical in Brazil in 1977.) Composed of nine tracks, which included three new songs and six remakes, the albums is a complete misfire. The bass-heavy mix overwhelms the band’s sound. The string sections, which had been used effectively on previous albums, returned with syrupy, schlock results. The new songs aren’t bad, and “Jesus de Praga” will be rescued on his next album, but the arrangements do their best to convince you otherwise. Worse are the remakes. The two from his debut, “Mas, Que Nada!” and “Chove Chuva”, are turned from spry samba jazz delights into thudding rock monstrosities. His fourth version of “Taj Mahal” in five years extends the song to make room for a dead-end drum solo. “Os Alquimistas Estao Chegando Os Alquimistas” is sapped of its energy. And so on. Like 10 Anos Depois, this isn’t a proper album, so you could make the argument that his winning streak stays intact. But either way, it ranks as his worst release yet.
But the dip proved to be a blip. Retreating to his commercial stronghold after the international flop, Ben regrouped with one of his funkiest efforts: A Banda Do Zé Prethino. This album marked two important changes for Ben: it’s his first with the Som Livre label, and Admiral Jorge V was replaced with his latest, and seemingly final, regular backing band, which gave the album its name. The album leads with the title track that serves as a mission statement: “A Banda do Zé Pretinho chegou/Para animar a festa”: the Band of Ze Pretinho arrived to liven up the party. In many ways, this picks up right where Solta o Pavão left off, but with the acknowledgement that Ben’s sound has changed—specifically the guitar is now electric—thanks to África Brasil.
That change livens up an approach that, though terrific, was threatening to become rote. As good as Solta o Pavão was, one reason it doesn’t rate as high as A Tábua de Esmeralda is that it felt as if Ben were repeating himself. Although his lyrical content doesn’t get enough credit, he remains primarily a musical formalist, so when the formula ossifies, you just get diminishing marginal returns. A Banda Do Zé Prethino revitalizes. Those electric instruments add an extra kick to the funk and, with producer Paulinho Tapajós, who had produced the albums from Ben until Solta o Pavão, back on board, Ben revisits his strengths without simply recycling them.
Ben closed out the decade doing what a lot of funk/soul musicians did in the last half of the ’70s: figuring out how to respond to disco. Fortunately, he was too smart or stubborn to go all in, so that, instead of aping trends he might not fit well, he simply added some flourishes to keep up with the times rather than change his music wholesale. Salve Simpatia leads with a tight, driving dance groove (“Boiadeiro”). It turns out to be a song about cowboys, and not the Village People kind. So Ben produced what might be the only cattle drive disco funk track. And, perhaps, on “Waldomiro Pena” the only one about a journalist. Guta Graça Mello’s production focuses the arrangements on the band with some supplemental horns. (String sections are gone once again.) Except on the back half of side two, he maintains a steady, mid-tempo beat perfect for the disco four-on-the-floor with a bit of tropical/Rio carnival panache thrown in.
I list my grades for all his albums at the end of a post, but it’s worth doing the ’70s the now because I want to say something about Ben’s decade.
- Força Bruta (1970), Grade: B+
- Negro é Lindo (1971), Grade: A
- Ben (1972), Grade: B+
- 10 Anos Depois (1973), Grade: C+
- A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), Grade: A
- Solta o Pavão (1975), Grade: A-
- Gil & Jorge: Ogum, Xangô (1975), Grade: A-
- África Brasil (1976), Grade: A+
- Tropical (1976/77), Grade: D+
- A Banda Do Zé Prethino (1978), Grade: A-
- Salve Simpatia (1979), Grade: B+
At the end of the 1970s, Robert Christgau listed the top artists of the decade (in order): Neil Young, Al Green, George Clinton, Van Morrison, Randy Newman, Steely Dan, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Rolling Stones. I’m sure he might do the list differently now, perhaps adding Franco or Fela Kuti, James Brown or Miles Davis, maybe Willie Nelson. But if you look at those Ben albums above, he belongs there, too. (If I translated my grades into Xgau’s scale, everyone but the anniversary disc and the international dud would rate an A- or higher. Not, of course, that he would agree with my grades. In Rolling Stone terms, we’re talking a bunch of four star and higher albums.) Ben certainly had a stronger decade than Gilberto Gil, who had a pretty good one, and, although I need to hear more of Veloso’s work from the ’70s, I think he beats Caetano, too, based on what I’ve heard. I made my case for Ben as one of the great musical artists in the last half of the 20th century in the introduction, but it’s worth singling out his ’70s run, which is simply outstanding. Were Young, Green and Clinton (or Davis and Brown) better? Probably. But it’s close. With several others on Christgau’s list, it’s no contest. Ben wins.
That ’70s run is also of a piece. The sound he sets in place with Força Bruta is basically the one on A Banda Do Zé Prethino. There are plenty of variations to keep it from getting boring, but Ben entered the decade finally having figured out who he was artistically, and he explored that style for all it was worth on excellent album after excellent album. As Ben goes into the ’80s, quality does drop, although not as precipitously as some argue, but that has more to do with the scale of his achievements in the 1970s than it does with the weakness of his later work.
The 1980s and Beyond
Reality is more complicated than neat summaries, but the claim that MPB skid off the road into schlocky quicksand in the 1980s isn’t without merit. Just like too many of their American and English counterparts, middle age complacency and ’80s sonics proved to be a distressing combination for many of Brazil’s musical titans. But Jorge Ben proved a happy exception. He made nods to current trends—syndrums, new wave and disco touches, even a crass, if effective, ‘world music’ album—but his songwriting stayed solid and his commitment to rhythm grounded throughout the decade. Only in the ’90s did Ben, by then called Jorge Ben Jor, show signs of definite decline.
Ben led the decade off with Alô, Alô, Como Vai?, a frenetic dance record that extended the ideas from Salve Simpatia with less success. Most of the first side gets by on momentum rather than songs, but it does get over. The duet “Georgia e Jorge” misfires due to the vocals of Lucinha Lins, but the rest works well enough. The second half slows things down and, again, works, but mainly as retreads of better ideas rather than development. Then he closes the album with the funky “Olha a Pipa”, which shows as much life as anything he did in his later years.
The next two albums sound strangely out of order. Future musical archaeologists trying to reconstruct release dates with a lack of recording data might switch the two. The later album, Dádiva, sounds like a natural conclusion to the dance influences explored on Salve Simpatia and Alô, Alô, while the earlier album, Bem-Vinda Amizade, sets up the more guitar-oriented sound of his final two Som Livre albums.
Bem-Vinda downplays the dance elements and puts more emphasis upon Ben’s guitar than its two predecessors did. He plays in a higher, sometimes almost trebly tone. It’s not as intense as his ’70s work, but its gentler sound hides some tough playing. The riffs might be quiet for electric guitar, but the way he foreshortens many of them adds a punch that belies the surface gentility. The album leads with with a sweet, lilting samba march whose music matches its nature mystic title: “O Dia Que o Sol Declarou o Seu Amor Pela Terra” (The Day the Sun Declared His Love the Earth). “Era uma Vez um Aposentado Marinheiro” (Once Upon a Time) rides a laid back funk riff as a Ben sings about a sailor seeking retirement on a island paradise. “Katarina, Katarina” adds some yearning to that funk as he pines for his departed lover. And so it goes: “Luiz Wagner Guitarreiro”, “Ela Mora Em Mato Grosso Fronteira Com o Paraguai”. “Para Que Digladier”. All have a relaxed, gentle-yet-tough groove, and all get across. None of these 10 songs stand out among Ben’s best work, but no duds either. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable success that doesn’t equal his better albums, but is a fun reminder of how deep his catalog runs.
Ben then took an unusually long break from recording. Since 1969 he had released 14 studio albums in 13 years. The gap between Bem-Vinda and Dádiva was the first sign he was slowing down. In his late 30s at this point, Ben may simply have been taking more time to enjoy his success, or age may have begun to dampen the fire a bit. Whatever the reason for the break, it seems to have helped as his songwriting and performance sound invigorated. Beneath the glitzy ’80s sonics is the sturdiest groove of his later years.
Dádiva kicks off with a duet with Ben’s longtime friend, Brazilian soul singer Tim Maia. After opening with Maia’s atonal wail, Ben’s fiercest funk since África Brasil kicks in. As with that album, as well as his two dance-oriented albums, the guitar is mostly subsumed within the groove, but Ben breaks in with some hot solos here and there. The next two songs proceed in the mid-tempo funk mode that had become his norm, but with a little more punch than usual. The sax on “Dádiva Dada” has an icky early ’80s feel, but doesn’t derail the song. The first side of the album ends in one of those medleys of past hits that had marked 10 Anos Depois, yet where those had tended pro forma, here Ben has some spark. It helps that two of the songs, “País Tropical” and “Filho Maravilha” are significantly different than the originals with the sound updated for his current mode. The lead track in that medley, “Taj Mahal”, is simply one of his strongest.
Second side starts with a solid samba funk number, “A Loba Comeu o Canário” before stumbling with the trifling “Ana Tropicana”. The side takes off with “Energia Bom Bom”. By James Brown’s or P-Funk’s standards, Ben’s funk can sound a little stiff until you get used to his merging of it with samba. But on “Energia” he digs into a deep, funky groove that could have been stolen from early ’80s George Clinton. From there he heads into two full-on late Ben classics: funky “Rio Babilônia” with its punching synth horns and the carnival samba freak out “No Reino Encantado do Amor”. My disc has a bonus track, “Waimea 55,000” which could have replaced “Ana Tropicana” perfectly on the original album.
Ben’s next album, Sonsual, returned to the guitar emphasis of Bem-Vinda. Half the album rates as filler or even dud. “Os Cavaleiros Do Rei Arthur” falls into the goop that trapped so much ’80s mainstream MPB, while “Little Brother” and “Obsessão, Meu Amor” lean in the direction. But the other half sparkles. Ben’s riffs are sharp and cutting. “Bizantia, Bizância”, with string arrangements worthy of “Descobri Que Eu Sou Um Anjo” from Jorge Ben and an accelerated samba forcebeat, threatens to break apart thrillingly. On “Abenção Mamãe, Abenção Papai” funky piano and guitar ride what could be a maracatu beat. “Senhor Dona da Casa”, “Irene Cara Mia” and “Pelos Verdes Mares” deftly dance across tight samba beats, while the closer, “A Terra do Filho do Homen” commemorates the Holy Land with slinky, funky guitar. Six exciting tunes and three decent filler tracks, overcome three duds/near duds for a solid album.
Ben Brasil closes out the Som Livre years in impressively competent terms. Not a duff track on the album, but nothing really rises above pretty good either. Ben’s groove is intact and his guitar really locks in strongly with the beats. From a minor artist, it might have been a career album, but next to Ben’s best work it doesn’t quite measure up even when it’s a perfectly enjoyable listen. As old fogie music goes, it sure beats Steve Winwood’s concurrently released Back in the High Life, but not Paul Simon’s Graceland. (My streaming service has a bonus track that’s not on my CD: “Natal Brasileiro”, which might have been the strongest track on the album if it had been included originally.)
By the end of his Som Livre run, Ben was finally sounding a little tired. He was still making better music than most of his ’60s peers (in Brazil or anywhere), but the formal smarts that kept him fresh seemed to be dulling. The three year gap between Ben Brasil and his next album—the longest span between studio albums he had ever had to that point—only underscored the fear that he was spent. In addition, Ben made news when changed his name to Ben Jor. Initially attributed to his interests in numerology, he later claimed different kinds of numbers were at stake: royalty payments. Apparently, some of Ben’s royalties had directed to George Benson by accident. Whatever the reason, Ben Jor made his debut, appropriately enough, on a new label (Warner Brothers) with 1989’s Benjor.
If you start with Jorge Ben and go straight to Ben Brasil, there is a noticeable difference. But if you start with that 1969 album and move sequentially through all the albums to that 1986 release the change is organic so that it sounds like a whole. Even the jump from jazzy Big Ben (1965) to jovem rock-oriented O Bidú (1967) has continuities. Benjor sounds like something else completely. But, in a way, Ben Jor returns to his roots. As I argued above, in the ’60s Ben Jor was a bit of a stylistic opportunist chasing trends in pursuit of commercial success. Perhaps aware that he was approaching a dead end, he jumped off his pillar and sought new sonic relevance. From its album cover to its perky horn charts to its King Sunny Adé cameo, Benjor is where the artist makes a ‘world’ music move. The quote marks are because, by the definitions of American culture, Ben Jor had always been ‘world’. But world music was not simply non-(North) American (or European or Australian) music. It was a style that appealed to and was marketed to educated, urban Western audiences. Maybe Ben just wanted a piece of the action.
However crass the move might initially seem, the album is his best since África Brasil. Ben Jor sounds fully revitalized. You can still hear his trademark guitar, but he’s writing songs that have no antecedents in his discography: “Mama África” may not be Adé, but it’s closer to his juju groove than to samba; the R&B of “Norma Jean” might not sound world to an American, but it would to a Brazilian; and he makes a credible, if belated, reggae move on “Homen de Negocios”. He hasn’t completely abandoned his samba funk, but it’s only part of the most varied pastiche of his recording career. His singing, too, is sharper than it had been since the 1970s. Ben Jor had shown some of his old vitality throughout the ’80s, but here he gets it across for an entire album. Rather than signalling new heights, however, Benjor turned out to be a final flickering of the flame. He still had good music in him, but he would never release another great album.
The three year gap between albums turned into a four year gap the next time, perhaps another sign that Ben Jor was entering the diminishing marginal returns stage of his career—which, to be fair, most of his contemporaries had entered years before he did. He did have some successful singles in the interim, but he again broke his record for breaks between new studio albums. The unimaginatively titled 23—his 23rd album, get it?—is a bit of a head scratcher. On their own, most of these straight funk workouts sound just fine, but back to back they tend to blur into each other, with the album as a whole sounding underwhelming. The highlight is the lead track, “Alcohol”, but before you hoist one to party along, remember that Ben Jor’s love of mysticism seemed underscore a pretty abstemious life for a pop star, and that the lyrics of the chorus (“Alcohol só para desinfetar”) translate as “alcohol only to disinfect”. It’s a fun track even if it is a teetotaling one.
The Warners contract ended after only two studio albums, but the label rounded up some singles and remixes for World Dance. It leads with three terrific singles—the rocking “Pisada de Elefante”, the major hit “W/Brasil” and the calmly funky “Dzarm”—before heading into tolerable remixes of classic songs for three tracks. Then it feature remixes from three of the better songs from 23 before closing out with a mix of remixes of newer and older tracks. World Dance isn’t a great album, but it’s stronger than 23, and at least two of those three singles that lead it off count as major Ben Jor tracks.
(An album called Unreleased Sessions was issued in 2001 with identical cover art to World Dance and with more, inferior remixes. Avoid this one.)
Ben Jor moved on to Sony/Epic for Homo Sapiens. The lead track is laced with grungy guitar, perhaps his nod to current trends. The rest of the album sounds like a halfway point between his later Som Livre records and 23‘s funk. Ben Jor is on fine form throughout. His guitar is more out front than it had been since the Som Livre records, and his playing shows no signs of diminishing. His voice is also in solid shape. If the songwriting isn’t breaking new ground anymore, it also hasn’t fallen off the cliff.
With his next album, Ben Jor hopped on another trend of the ’90s: tribute albums. Except here he’s the one honored and, instead of just letting others cover him, he teams up with some of the hottest young artists in Brazil. I have a confession to make before I write any more about this album. Everything I’ve reviewed in this series I’ve revisited before writing it up. Except this album. So…this pan is from five year old memory, not recent listening.
Músicas Para Tocar em Elevador is the worst album of Ben Jor’s recording career. It’s useless. None of its cover versions enlighten you to the greatness of the original. None come close to equaling much less surpassing the originals. The performances are flat and disconnected. A little research suggested why. When the album was being prepared, Ben Jor was supposed to work with the guest artists himself in the studio. One of the first sessions was to be with Brazilian phenom Marisa Monte. Except when she showed for the session, Ben Jor was nowhere to be found. She dropped out of the record. Perhaps in penance or maybe in a bid to win her back, Ben Jor didn’t record with any of the other artists for the album, but did his work alone and let producers combine the separately recorded sessions. It shows. I spent nearly two years collecting physical copies of all of Ben Jor’s studio albums, a significant investment of time and money. So even the bad ones I treasure on some level. Except this one, the sole one of those albums I eventually got rid of. Which is why I’m panning it from memory. It doesn’t deserve another chance.
(If you want an autumnal reflection on his career that celebrates it while unpacking the songs differently, try the Acústico MTV concert that’s collected both on DVD and a two-disc set. You can watch it here.)
Perhaps embarrassed, perhaps spent, Ben Jor then disappeared from the recording studio for nearly seven years. When he came back to release what has turned out to be his final record of new material, the results were hardly encouraging. Reactivus Amor Est is a mess. It’s not the worst album of his career only because that tribute album. The bass-heavy mix is muddy. The ‘songs’ are rhythm tracks that often don’t qualify as grooves much less songs. Usually when Ben Jor’s tracks fail, you can hear a potential gem in the midst of a bad arrangement, but in this case he seems to have forgotten how to write. Like a footballer who played a season or two too long, he no longer had it.
The good news is that Som Livre did a vault dive in 2007 for Recuerdos de Asunción 443. Sadly, the CD includes almost no recording information, so you don’t know what albums theses songs didn’t make. In most cases, you can hear why they stayed in the can, and a few superior outtakes have been released as bonus tracks on reissues of his other Som Livre albums. But it’s a better testament to his genius than those final two studio albums. And it is kind of fun to guess when the songs were recorded.
Since then Ben has continued to tour, albeit less frequently in recent years. He has released a couple of singles, the depressing “Kilimanjaro” in 2014, the not so bad “São Valentin” in 2018 and a fun if redundant session with Gilberto Gil on a Roberta Sá album in 2019. But basically his recording career has been effectively over since 2004.
For Ben Jor’s birthday in 2017, I made of list of my favorite 10 albums by him. That list more or less holds (especially toward the top), although I really should have included his debut, Samba Esquema Novo. But if you’ve read to this point you realize I’d argue there are more than 10 Ben Jor albums worth hearing. Except for that dramatic collapse at the end, he maintained an impressively high standard of recording for thirty years. Many of my favorite artists cannot boast of that.
Although he’s no longer an active recording artist, reports I’ve read says that his shows are still strong. I’ve been lucky enough to see some great artists live, including Marisa Monte, but not Ben Jor. (Although I found out while researching this series that I was just a couple hours away from a show in 2004. I had no idea!). If someone with extra cash wants to buy your humble Brazil Beat scribe a present, an airline ticket to Brazil and a Ben show would be greatly appreciated. But since that’s not going to happen, how about you just give his records a chance. Discovering Ben’s catalog this decade has been a listening high point. It’s easy as you get older to just stick with what you heard growing up. But that gets boring. So break out of your routine a bit and dive in. If samba-funk-rock appeals to you in the least—and if it doesn’t, what are you doing here?—you won’t regret it.
- Samba Esquema Novo (1963), Grade: A-
- Sacundin Ben Samba (1964), Grade: B+
- Ben É Samba Bom (1964), Grade: C-
- Big Ben (1965), Grade: C+
- O Bidú: Silêncio No Brooklin (1967), Grade: B+
- Jorge Ben (1969), Grade: A+
- Força Bruta (1970), Grade: B+
- Negro é Lindo (1971), Grade: A
- Ben (1972), Grade: B+
- 10 Anos Depois (1973), Grade: C+
- A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974), Grade: A
- Gil & Jorge: Ogum, Xangô (1975), Grade: A-
- Solta o Pavão (1975), Grade: A-
- África Brasil (1976), Grade: A+
- Tropical (1976/77), Grade: D+
- A Banda Do Zé Prethino (1978), Grade: A-
- Salve Simpatia (1979), Grade: B+
- Alô, Alô, Como Vai? (1980), Grade: B-
- Bem-Vinda Amizade (1981), Grade: B+
- Dádiva (1983), Grade: A-
- Sonsual (1984), Grade: B+
- Ben Brasil (1986), Grade: B
- Benjor (1989), Grade: A-
- 23 (1993), Grade: C+
- World Dance (1995), Grade: B-
- Homo Sapiens (1995), Grade: B+
- Músicas Para Tocar em Elevador (1997), Grade: F
- Unreleased Sessions (2001), Grade: D
- Reactivus Amor Est (2004), Grade: D
- Recuerdos de Asunción 443 (2007), Grade: B-