Jorge Ben






Tropical is a singer/songwriter album by Jorge Duilio Lima Menezes aka Jorge Ben (born 1942). Released on Phillips Records in 1976 and spanning nine unique tracks, it is part of a notable movement of records which absorbed the Latin traditions and whose artists reworked them with the Disco craze, Funk floods and other comparably radical genres. By the look of things it is already clear right from the start that Jorge Ben’s Tropical is neither a vintage Exotica record, nor an echopraxia thereof, but firmly situated in that kind of melting pot known as Fusion. Brazilian composers and artists have always been at the frontmost spot, right in the epicenter of Exotica. From the early 1920’s till the 70’s, a lot of vivacious, flamboyant and exciting music is spawned in and around Brazil.


Tropical is thus a high-budget release, even though the label didn’t want to afford a huge string orchestra for the record. Still, there is a small amount of violinists on board, big enough to add a susurrant streamlet of delight to the arrangement. The strings do not sound realistic or precise, they echo and glow in a sphere of their own. Be that as it may, the realism of the strings is not demanded on such records, for the remaining parts are equally inauthentic, but still vibrant: Jorge Ben’s lead vocals are accompanied by Ann Odell on the synthesizer, João Roberto Vandaluz on the classic and electric piano, with Gustavo Schroeter providing the programmed drums for the feisty tracks. These instances notwithstanding, there is still more than enough room for real instruments, be it Chris Mercer’s lead tenor saxophone and the vivid, but not overly exotic percussion as played by João Batista Pereira. As an archetypically Brazilian take on Fusion, Tropical knows to impress. But which ingredients and tonalities can Exotica fans take from the performance?


When Exotica artists from Hollywood or New York present their visions of Polynesian isles, sunken temples and eruptive volcanos, they have as much in common with the truth – whichever way it might be interpreted – as the Brazilian viewpoint of the Orient. This, however, is Exotica’s magic to many people. Jorge Ben’s Taj Mahal stands in this tradition by covering a few Middle Eastern traits in an otherwise posh-peachy piece of tropicana. The opener enchants with João Roberto Vandaluz’s appended Latin piano and the shrapnel of multilayered Samba drums, both of which build up the atmosphere for Jorge Ben’s vocals. There are shawm-like flutes that appear in the far distance, but they seem mere vestiges of the sun-dappled aura of the world cultural heritage. What Taj Mahal lacks in these regards, it gains in a fantastic liveliness and mercilessly staggering drum patterns. Firing on all cylinders, Jorge Ben chooses a slower downbeat for the following Os Alquimistas Estão Chegando (the alchemists are coming), a polyfaceted kick drum-heavy and curiously hazy piece supercharged with electric piano droplets, Chris Mercer’s tenor saxophone spirals and synthetic strings as delivered by Ann Odell. A quandary of auroral magic and overly vigorous drums, this is one of the artist’s missteps, feeling too arbitrary and lackluster.


Whereas Chove, Chuva (rain) succeeds with its sulfurous asphalt brass pulses, rumbling eruptions and glaring guitars which oscillate between Funk and bonfire warmth and thus make this a curiously bone-dry affair in view of the given title, the nocturnal Georgia is a scintillating sparkler loaded with artificial music box bubbles, magenta-colored Disco-oid faux strings and cleverly surreal saxophone mélanges, making Jorge Ben’s vocals almost piercing by comparison. The processing, amount of reverb and cinematic viewpoint make Georgia a less exotic, but nonetheless languorous affair, with O Namorado Da Viuva (the widow’s boyfriend) not only returning to the tropical theme of the album, but a specifically Caribbean one, as the steel drums of guest musicians The Mellotones are interwoven into aureate rhythm guitars, the chants of a mixed choir and a stressed five-note part of the lyrics. Jungle fifes round off the paradisiac polonaise.


Side B sports the centerpiece of the album, a downright eclectic and shapeshifting gemstone, especially so if the rules of the Easy Listening genre are applied. However, the 70’s are very much about Fusion, a genre name that can mean everything and anything at once, feeling horribly arbitrary to many a critic. My Lady, said centerpiece, however, shows the positive vibe of the fuzzy term in multiplexing solo chants, gringo guitars and a stomping beat whose pompous impetus becomes delicately labyrinthine once the drum thicket increases and starts to sport a fusillade of Samba drums, helicoidal electric piano convulsions and towering brass fanfares amid Jorge Ben’s fiery lyrics. From a transcendental encapsulation to rapidly aggrandizing aureoles: a misstep, bold move or cathartic revelation? While one contemplates the oomph of My Lady, the follow-up Jesus De Praga (Jesus of Prague) unleashes a Disco/Funk synergy with a Pop pattern that is open to scrutiny: lyrics and bridges are equally allotted, a children’s choir adds a pinch of ecclesiasticism to a city atmosphere awash with neon lights, harmonious strings and superbly echoey drums whose metallic surface works well with the silky flow of the arrangement.


Up next is a long-form version of Jorge Ben’s superhit Mas Que Nada, presented here in a slower but dance-compatible physiognomy that still sports the hyperfamous O aria raio, oba oba oba lyrics, now embedded in moony electric pianos and milkily raspy staccato brass blebs, with the finale País Tropical bringing in a cowbell galore, tachycardia rhythms, Honky Tonk piano blisters, a Gospel choir, heavily pumping drums and whatnot. Here, the formula of an overproduced tune does not work in terms of the title and the promised tropical haze. But the drums and wild ride might offer solace in this particular regard.


Tropical is too bold a title, less of a premise than a promise really, the wish to let the listener sense some kind of rain forest. The front artwork, the magnitude of instruments, vocals and omnipresence of the drums all hint at this noble endeavor, and Tropical is most certainly a colorful work. However, it is also situated in a particularly exciting alloy of genres and traditions, be they down to earth, apocryphal, gaseous or glinting. It so happens that the variety of Jorge Ben’s material is torn between the interplay of forces: the transition of the smash hit Mas Que Nada to a slower, more balmy Samba works really well, with the old adage of “you can’t beat the original” still ringing through.


This obvious climax aside, Tropical still boasts with technicolor flashes and the synergy of its counterparts, be it the digital Disco strings and electric piano icicles in Georgia or the long-winded metamorphosis of My Lady from a doldrums diorama to a fluxion of fascination, but the many sinews that lead to this final product do not necessarily lead to nods of agreement of the specific Exotica clientele. However, fans of Sérgio Mendes’ exotic Funk/Fusion deliveries such as País Tropical (1977) which sports Jorge Ben’s eponymous closer, and Lalo Schifrin’s Disco delicatessen of Black Widow (1976) will find many a peculiarity and trait to appear on Jorge Ben’s Tropical as well. It may not be an Exotica album, but as ususal, I consider it exotic enough to appear in the Exotica section of AmbientExotica. As with most of the material released by Phillips, the album is currently not available to buy or stream at a digital music store, but the vinyl is available at a fair price on eBay, GEMM and cohorts.


Exotica Review 351: Jorge Ben – Tropical (1960). Originally published on Jun. 21, 2014 at