The Life Emphatic of Brazilian Singer Seu Jorge
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because from the greatest absence sometimes comes stunningly vibrant presence.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There are certain types of hell you might only find in heaven.
Which is to say that while it’d probably be great to be in Rio de Janeiro, being homeless in Rio would probably not be that great. Days on the beach lose their sheen when they turn into nights on the same, and it was there that Brazilian singer, songwriter and actor Seu Jorge found himself homeless at age 19 in 1989.
He went from singing in the streets to being known for being the singer from the streets.
And it’s not like before then he had been holding it down at the Hilton. No, Jorge grew up in a favela, or ghetto, around Rio, in an area now known as Belford Roxo. It was a no-sidewalk kind of place where kids played amid people walking cows and horses, and in general life was a little more organized than it is in most favelas. Going from there to no home at all — for three years — was rough.
“Being homeless in Rio is not at all like being homeless in the U.S.,” says Brazilian ex-pat and bank executive Sanzio Garcia. “It’s pretty bad. The homeless have no rights or benefits, and there have been rumors that police are actually exterminating them at the behest of business owners.”
Which makes it even more miraculous that true talent outed itself as Jorge began the slow, six-year climb up and out of dire straits, all on the basis of a voice comfortably described as deep, rasping. He went from singing in the streets to being known for being the singer from the streets. He finally got a fair shake in 1998 when he joined a local band named after a Brazilian side dish, Farofa Carioca, and they released Moro No Brasil.
They didn’t sell much, but the heavily marketed group put him in the mix, off the streets, and on his way to ears and eyes around the world. The singer-songwriter went on to make solo records and then expanded to film, in 2002’s great City of God where he was acting and writing the soundtrack.
Two years later, though, everything changed when he was featured with Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. In what is sort of an Anderson-esque pisstake on Jacques Cousteau, Jorge plays Pelé dos Santos, a crew member who, by all appearances, does not speak English and does nothing but sing acoustic versions of David Bowie songs. In Portuguese.
… a voice that perfectly captures what Brazilians mean when they use the word saudade: longing, nostalgia-tinged melancholy.
Soon the world at large discovered that he was not just a Hollywood plot device — he was real. Which precipitated a rush of outrageous fortune. To wit: a fan base that includes Bowie himself, Beck, Thievery Corporation, Jack Johnson and Talib Kweli; solo festival appearances at Bonnaroo; more records; and a headline appearance at the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony.
The now 44-year-old Jorge has performance dates scheduled for late fall in California and New York, along with not one but two albums in the works. And by now, we imagine he’s set up in a pretty nice crib in his home base of São Paulo. Maybe near the beach, but off the beach.
And through it all his voice, a voice that perfectly captures what Brazilians mean when they use the word saudade: longing, nostalgia-tinged melancholy. Oh yes, he’s come a long way, baby.