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Brazilian musician and actor Seu Jorge has often taken the road less traveled, even when most other people in his shoes would choose an easier path of instant gratification. Fans of the cult classic film City of God will recognize Jorge for his portrayal of the character Knockout Ned. Sadly, Jorge holds something in common with the fictional Ned — street violence killed his brother.
But instead of turning to revenge as Ned did, Jorge chose a more positive path. While still running the streets, he learned to play guitar and harness his vocal chops, and in turn became one of the most revered Brazilian musicians of the past decade.
Born Jorge Mário da Silva in the favela Belford Roxo of Rio de Janeiro, the 40-year-old singer has released four solo albums. They range in sound from the soulful samba of his first LP, Samba Esporte Fino, to the acoustic rock of Cru, to the critically acclaimed Portuguese David Bowie covers on the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. (Jorge also portrayed the guitar-playing deckhand, Pele dos Santos, in the film.)
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However, it's his latest record, Seu Jorge & Almaz, that brings him this Friday to the Fillmore Miami Beach on the first stop of his summer tour. The album takes yet another musical tack, although again it tackles covers. The 12 tracks rework songs by Brazilian mainstays such as Jorge Ben and Noriel Vilela as well as artists including Michael Jackson, Kraftwerk, and Roy Ayers.
Jorge adds his unique gravelly voice to the psychedelic stylings of Almaz, a loosely formed group made up of drummer Pupillo and guitarist Lucio Maia — originally of the band Nação Zumbi — along with bassist/composer Antonio Pinto. "This is the music we love, the music we grew up on," Jorge explains. "We didn't worry about the lyrics; we just made the music having fun."
Produced by Beastie Boys engineer and longtime friend Mario C. (Mario Caldato Jr.) and released on Stonesthrow subsidiary Now-Again, Seu Jorge & Almaz seems to be another new introduction to Jorge for music lovers worldwide. The crowd-pleasing scope of the project wasn't intentional at the outset, though. "We all had come together to record a song for Walter Salles's film Linha de Passé and had such a good time, so we recorded more music, maybe 16 or 17 songs right after, which became the album," Jorge says. "We want to show that Brazilian music is more open, not just drums and bass."
On the album's first single, a take on the Roy Ayers classic "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," the group hits a home run with Jorge's dark, laid-back vocals riding spacey synths and electric strings that bring to mind a hazy, late-summer Rio afternoon. The B-side, a cover of Martinho da Vila and João de Aquino's "Cirandar," is a more stripped-down samba groove met with well-placed psychedelic effects and cuica sounds.
Each track on the album seems to represent a different influence of the group, with the result a fresh, unmistakably Brazilian-rooted interpretation. "Growing up with music in Brazil — especially black people — everybody grew up with American music: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Chic," Jorge recalls. "Most of the people, especially the poor people, don't get an opportunity to read a book, and the music replaces this. Music is very important in Brazil. Samba, it's like a food for us."
He is quick to reference Brazilian artists including Caetano Veloso, João Gilberto, Jorge Ben, and Gilberto Gil as influences, but looming above them all, for Jorge, is the late King of Pop. "To be honest, my big, big idol is Michael Jackson because he's done so many things: singing, acting, dancing," he says. "I never imagined I could make music and act at the same time, but now I have the opportunity, and I would like to thank Michael and other American artists like Gene Kelly for the inspiration."
The inspiration really struck some 20 years ago, during a sad time in his life. After his brother was killed, his mother had to sell his home to raise money to survive, and Jorge found himself on the street. He picked up the guitar and soon was playing anyplace that would have him, even for free. "Music was fun — emotions, talking about the city, the people. It was never about the money," he says. "I still have the same feelings now."
With his first band, Farofa Carioca, Jorge wrote most of the music for the group's debut album, 1998's Moro no Brasil (I Live in Brazil), and subsequently appeared in a Brazilian music documentary by the same name. This led to his introduction to the film industry after a few years in musical theater, and eventually that breakout role as the cool bus-driver-turned-avenging-brother in City of God. Since then, Jorge has gone on to play roles in a handful of movies, including the British prison break feature The Escapist, and Casa de Areia, a film about white Portuguese settlers who try to move in on a "quilombo"— a runaway slave community in which Jorge plays the quilombo's leader.