JORGE BEN / “Ponta De Lança Africano”
I grew up hearing this one—Jorge Ben’s “Ponta De Lança Africano”—around the house. Even as a kid, I loved it. The African percussion; the all-female chorus; the voice-drum-handclap break midway through; Jorge’s obvious ease and confidence, vocally. It didn’t hurt that the song has an anthemic, sing-a-long quality: it’s the type of record a nine-year-old and his brother and sisters can sing along to even without understanding a word of the lyrics. I thought of it as one of the coolest and classiest liberation songs in my Baba’s collection. (And, believe me, there were lots of them.) Twenty years later I was working for WEA, the distributor for the Warner Bros. family of record labels. One of the Warner Bros. subsidiaries, Luaka Bop, put out a compilation called Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics Vol. 1. I popped in a promo copy, not expecting much. I wasn’t particularly interested in Brazilian music. Hadn’t consciously heard a note of it in years. I recognized none of the song titles and only a few of the artists. As a sales rep., you’re obligated (somewhat) to be at least vaguely familiar with the music you sell, so I figured I’d do just that—give myself some vague familiarity with the music and move on to the next promo. Imagine my surprise when I heard song after song that I knew from my childhood! I didn’t know the individual song titles—still don’t—but I knew almost all of the music. I kept that promo, of course and I don’t remember if it was later that day, a few weeks later, or maybe even a few years later when I eventually got around to reading the liner notes and lyrics. There I got a second surprise: “Ponta De Lanca Africano” (which we thought of as ‘The Ummba-Ummba Song’) isn’t about revolution, it’s about soccer! All this time I’d been thinking that Jorge was urging his people to fight for their rights, when actually, he was urging the point man, a cat by the name of Umbarauma (hence the chorus), to score another goal. “Play ball! Play ball!” he’s singing. “Jump! / Fall! / Get up! / Kick!” I laughed about that for weeks. Actually, I’m still laughing about it. And I still love the song. Bonus tracks (also from the Beleza Tropical compilation): Gilberto Gil - "Xodó (Eu Só Quero Um Xodó)" Caetano Veloso - "Um Canto de Afoxé Para O Bloco de Ilê" —Mtume ya Salaam Plant the seed, savor the fruit I could almost quote the Bible on this one: bring a child up in the way that… and so forth, and so on. My favorite Brazilian artist is Milton Nascimento. I’ve got so much of his music, both old LPs as well as newly re-issued CDs. Some time down the line, we’ll do a Milton week, but for right now I just want to point out that our music is more than entertainment—by now I’m sure most of our regulars know that, but I mean something more than what it is not, I also mean that our music is history, is attitude, is vision, is sustenance. Mtume, you were right both times about Ben’s song. It was about revolution, metaphorically, and it was also literally about soccer. How can that be? It can be because one of the essences of our music is the in-coding/encoding that camouflages the full intent from the wicked surveillance of the slave master. (Or, as is the current case, the Bush-directed intelligence agencies, or to take it further out: some people thought Big Brother was an exaggeration—well, now you know, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you better hurry up and ask somebody about wire taps without a warrant.) Our music always had to serve the purpose of subversion, because only through sly subversion could we survive slavery (both chattel slavery and the neo-slavery phase we currently struggle under). Plus, literally, again, whether you know it or not, you’ve picked up on a movement of Brazilian music that was a cultural weapon against the military dictatorship that ran Brazil for a minute. Coming up out of Bahia (the predominately Black/African area of Brazil) Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were two of the major leaders of that movement, which was called Tropicalismo (or tropicália). Gil was forced into exile. Forty years later, he’s not only back on the scene in Brazil making music, he’s now their national Minister of Culture. And Ben was, remains and undoubtedly will die a strong advocate of the African elements of Brazilian music. All three of these cats were more than entertainers, they were cultural warriors. As for the soccer song, think of it in these terms. Would a song urging Serena to slam them, hit the ball hard, scream as you hit the ball back directly at your opponent, hit harder sung by, say, Mary J. Blige, you think that would just be a song about tennis?!!! That’s some of the context for the soccer song. I believe that’s one of the secret strengths of our music, the best of it: it’s always about struggling to survive, struggling against the odds, struggling to assert our true identity. At moment like this I get really frustrated about being away from home, a home that has been devastated. I want to quote James Baldwin but I don’t even know where my James Baldwin books are. They could be dry in a third-floor storage unit that survived or they could be Katrina-killed on a trash heap somewhere in what used to be a ground-level storage unit before the flood. I can’t say for sure where the books are, and hence, I can’t reach out, pull the book down and get the quote, but, anyway I’m going to loosely (very loosely) paraphrase. Baldwin said we had to learn to use the English language not just to communicate but more specifically our survival demanded that we learn how to warn each other when we were in deathly danger all the while speaking to each other right in front of the slave master and without the slave master being aware of what we were really saying. Of course, Baldwin was much, much more eloquent that that clumsy paraphrase. Another way to put it is like the old folks say: when you moan, the devil don’t know what you talking about. So, Mtume, what you were hearing in the music as a child was the moans and since you weren’t a little devil, you understood clearly what the music was about. —Kalamu ya Salaam I feel you on that one Kalamu wrote: “Would a song urging Serena to slam them, hit the ball hard, scream as you hit the ball back directly at your opponent, hit harder sung by, say, Mary J. Blige, you think that would just be a song about tennis?!!!” All I can say is, I feel you on that one, Baba. Good example. Very good. Even while I was doing the write-up, I remember thinking that it was odd (and perhaps meaningful) that Ben went out of his way to say that the cat was African. (It’s right there in the song title.) Now I know why. —Mtume ya Salaam
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