Monday, April 26, 2010

A Tábua De Esmeralda

This may be the first in an occasional series of pieces on albums that I consider personal, perennial favorites.

Jorge Ben's 1974 album A Tábua De Esmeralda is a strikingly lovely example of Ben's charismatic singing and trademark fusion of styles. His beloved samba is the touchstone, but there are also strains of soul, rock, funk, and folk present. Tábua exemplifies one of the strengths of the album format: the power to evoke a particular mood over a long period of time--in this case, a kind of relaxed but stimulating bliss--and the album is notably sonically consistent. You might call it homogeneous or monotonous at first glimpse, except Ben's guitar playing is so beguiling and there are so many inspired details in the production and arrangements that the true unifying element in the sound of the record is ornate beauty, and why would you object to that?

A few of the tracks end by dissolving into gentle psychedelia: "O Homen Da Gravata Florida" gradually reverberates into the ether; "Errare Human Est" echoes off into space. While on others, the use of a small string section and chorus provides additional color, especially on "Zumbi", a song that Ben would radically revise as stomping funk for his equally stunning 1976 album África Brasil. The only outlier is "Brother", Ben's soulful testifying ode to Jesus and a rare instance of him singing in English. As is often the case when Brazilians sing in English, the result is a little goofy, but I find Ben's voice endlessly pleasing and the song has enough of the rest of the album's gently insinuating charm to carry it through (also his pronunciation of "music" as "music-y" is rather endearing). Another highlight is the album's final song, "Cinco Minutos (5 Minutos)", which features Ben's memorable falsetto.

Much to my recurring regret, I do not speak or read Portuguese, but I do think it's worth noting that even I can recognize that A Tábua De Esmeralda has some common themes. The title can be translated as The Emerald Tablet, which is the name of a foundational text for medieval alchemists as well as esoteric Christianity more broadly; this tablet is purported to be the work of Hermes Trismegistus, a figure (sometimes considered a deity, sometimes a man) from antiquity who has knowledge of alchemy, astrology, and magic and is name-checked here and on África Brasil. Some of these ideas and references recur in Ben's work, and while the language barrier is ultimately insurmountable for me, I do think even this shallow understanding of the subject matter helps partially explain the enchanting atmosphere on this brilliant album.

Listening notes: If you're in the U.S., you can listen to this on Lala, and Amazon and iTunes (and possibly other digital retailers) also have it for download. If you want a physical copy, Dusty Groove has it in stock, but like most Brazilian CDs these days, it's rather expensive at $22.

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