THE FAVELA BLUESAlong with the caipirinha and the film City of God (in which he played Knockout Ned), singer-actor Seu Jorge is the latest Brazilian export to permeate American culture by capturing the pulse of an entire nation into an easily digestible medium - in this case, a 10-song CD. Cru (Wrasse Records), Jorge's American debut, is a cultural earful, steeped in elements of traditional samba and laid out as casually as a balmy Brazilian breeze.
He might sing in Portuguese, but the raw emotion and sultry rhythms of Seu Jorge's samba-style pop transcends any cultural divide.
Born into a poor community in Rio de Janeiro, albeit one not as poverty-stricken as the slums (known as favelas) portrayed in City of God, the 35-year-old Jorge has escaped the social exile imposed by upper-class Brazilians to become one himself. A self-taught guitarist and actor, Jorge shot to stardom in Brazil when his debut solo album, Samba Esporte Fino (produced by fellow Brazilian and Beastie Boys producer Mario Caldato), became the country's album of the year in 1999. And then Jorge met Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles.
Unlike most of the actors in Meirelles's worldwide smash City of God, Jorge had performed in several plays when he was cast as Knockout Ned in the brutally violent, wide-eyed, very real depiction of life in one of Rio's largest favelas. That role led to a gig in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In addition to acting in the film, Jorge recorded a handful of Portuguese versions of David Bowie classics for its soundtrack.
Jorge's lyrics, like those of his musical forefathers Milton Nascimento and Gilberto Gil, can run left of center into a political whirlwind colored by the sultry rhythms of samba-style pop, but they do so without campaign hyperbole; the music does most of the talking. Though Jorge sings mostly in Portuguese, Cru does include an English cover of "Don't" (made famous by Elvis Presley).
Whether he's singing about his native country's socioeconomic injustices ("Eu Sou Favela") or the lighter subject of love ("Tive Razão"), Jorge makes music a stripped-down affair that transcends language, a raw journey (cru, in fact, means "raw" in Portuguese) into one of the sexiest cultures on the planet, even if the subject matter is anything but. "I call my music the favela blues, where I put together all the emotions of the blues with the reality of life inside a favela," says Jorge.
If the album's opening tropicalia twang - courtesy of the ukulele-like Portuguese cavaquinho - doesn't transport you south faster than you can down another caipirinha, something is terribly wrong.