Saturday, December 21, 2013

Jorge Benjor's "Mas Que Nada" - 50 Years Later

In May of 2013 I was interviewed about Jorge Benjor's song "Mas Que Nada" by the Japanese television show Song to Soul*, which airs on the BS TBS channel in that country. Each hour-long program profiles a particular song that has achieved status as a classic in Japan. In this case, the show focused on the recording of "Mas Que Nada" by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66, which projected the song globally.

"Mas Que Nada" (Oh, Come On) is a composition that left an indelible cultural mark in many countries, and has become one of the most played Brazilian songs of all time worldwide. Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Al Jarreau, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Trini Lopez, Al Hirt, Ella Fitzgerald and many notable Brazilian artists are among the few hundred musicians who have recorded it. In recent years, it has been the most played song in North America sung entirely in Portuguese, and the Sergio Mendes version was the only all-Portuguese recording to have been a pop hit in the U.S., other than Carmen Miranda's "Mamãe Eu Quero."

Jorge Benjor (Jorge Duílio Lima Meneses) first recorded the song fifty years ago in 1963, after introducing it to enthusiastic bossa nova and jazz audiences at Bottles Bar, in the famed Beco das Garrafas lane of nightclubs in Copacabana. One of those who heard Benjor (then going by the name of Ben) playing there with the Copa Cinco group was a Philips executive and the young singer-songwriter-guitarist was soon signed to a contract. Benjor released "Mas Que Nada," a kinetic samba with hints of maracatu, on his album Samba Esquema Novo for the Philips label. Just prior to that, the song was recorded by the Zé Maria group (with Jorge supplying vocals) for its Tudo Azul album and by the Tamba Trio on Avanço.

The song had Benjor's unique groove, and didn't fit into the realms of either traditional samba or bossa nova. "Mas Que Nada" was a hit and helped launch Benjor's career in Brazil. It achieved iconic status outside of Brazil thanks to the 1966 album Sergio Mendes & Brazil '66, which incorrectly lists the tune as "Mais Que Nada." Mendes had been tinkering with his group and repertoire, trying to find the right combination to achieve success in the U.S. And on this album, recorded for A&M Records, he found it. It featured a light, upbeat blend of Brazilian music and American pop, and Lani Hall's double-tracked vocals (she later sang in unison with Janice Hansen, who joined the group after this recording was finished). The album reached no. 7 on the U.S. pop charts, with a big push from its lead song, "Mas Que Nada."

Mendes's infectious version of "Mas Que Nada" was more celebratory than Benjor's own (which had been arranged by J.T. Meirelles) and closer in spirit to the organ/percussion-heavy Zé Maria recording, with Sergio's driving, jazzy piano and Lani Hall's soaring chorus. While "Mas Que Nada" was only a minor hit, reaching no. 47 on the Billboard pop singles chart, it caught the ears of many other musicians and has stayed in the public consciousness to this day. Sergio recorded it again in 2006, a hip-hop-charged version with the Black Eyed Peas, for the album Timeless. The new version hit no. 1 in Brazil, Holland and Hungary, no. 13 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart, and no. 6 on the U.K. singles chart. The version was included in EA's 2006 FIFA World Cup and NBA Live '07 video games, and in a Nike ad with soccer players from the Brazilian national team. Mendes recorded it again with his wife, singer Gracinha Leporace, for the 2011 animated film Rio.

Starting with "Mas Que Nada" and Samba Esquema Novo, Jorge Benjor carved out a unique musical identity for himself, fusing elements of samba, bossa nova, rock, and funk, not fitting into any one category. He knocked down cultural walls just by being himself, and was able to move freely between different musical factions -- whether it was the bossa nova crowd, the Jovem Guarda pop stars, or various MPB artists. "Pais Tropical," "Fio Maravilha," "Chove Chuva," and "Taj Mahal" are among his other many oft-recorded standards. The Jorge Benjor "swing" has influenced generations of Brazilian musicians, including contemporary romantic pagode samba artists, and is still fresh after all these years, as is "Mas Que Nada."

Here is Jorge Benjor's own 1963 recording of the song:

Sergio Mendes's 1966 version:

And the 2006 Sergio Mendes and Black Eyes Peas recording of "Mas Que Nada":

--Chris McGowan

*There is information in Japanese about the July, 2013 "Mas Que Nada" edition of Song to Soul here: