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The Story of Mas que Nada
by Randy Morse

June 10, 2011Jorge Ben Jor's Mas que Nada is one of the most popular Brazilian songs of all time. Here's the story behind the song, with an explanation and translation of its lyrics, a detailed biography of its composer, background on how it became a worldwide hit, and sample tracks. This material was originally presented as a three-part series on The Best of Brazil radio program, May 12-26, 2004, with a special follow-up presentation on June 23, 2004.

Part I – Jorge Ben Jor

A musical revolution took place in Brazil in the late 1950s and early '60s. The bossa nova movement radically changed Brazilian Popular Music. It was a revolution of young people – most of the musicians in the bossa nova vanguard were in their teens or early 20s. This is the story of one of them and the song that has become emblematic of his work. The artist is Jorge Ben Jor and the song is Mas que Nada.

Jorge Ben Jor. Jorge Ben Jor During the next three weeks, I'll tell you about the composer and his song. And I'll play several of the hundreds of recordings that have been made of the tune. Our story begins with Jorge Ben Jor.

Jorge Duílio Ben Zabella Lima de Menezes was born in Madureira, a working class area of Rio de Janeiro, on March 22, 1942. (One important source gives December 29, 1940 as his birthdate.) Growing up in Rio's Northern Zone, he sang in his church choir and participated in carnaval parades. At home, his family liked to listen to a family friend, the composer Ataulfo Alves; to the king of baião Luiz Gonzaga; and to the crooner Nelson Gonçalves.

Before choosing music, soccer was the career goal of Jorge Menezes and, for a short time, he played with Flamengo, Rio's most popular team. Although his stevedore father, Augusto Menezes, had composed some carnaval songs, he wanted Jorge to become a lawyer. His mother hoped he would become a pediatrician. Ataulfo Alves was an influence leading young Jorge to music.

Jorge got his first guitar at age 18 and began teaching himself to play. McGowan and Pessanha (The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil) describe how he developed his style:
Like many musicians from his generation, [he] started to take his guitar playing seriously only after he heard João Gilberto but found it hard to imitate the complicated bossa nova harmonies. So he developed his own style, playing with only his thumb and forefinger.
In the early 1960s, he began performing in the Copacabana neighborhood's Beco das Garrafas or Bottles Alley – a tiny, dead-end street with small nightclubs that is known as the birthplace of bossa nova. Sergio Mendes, who was a year older, was another regular in the alley's clubs, leading nightly jam sessions.

Jorge adopted the stage name Jorge Ben, which he used for almost 30 years. (Ben was the maiden name of his Ethiopian-born mother, Sílvia Saint Ben Lima.) In 1989, he changed his name to Jorge Benjor. He has had an abiding interest in psychic phenomena, mysticism, and the supernatural. And for years, it was widely reported that he made the name change because his numerologist told him it was a luckier combination of letters. Several years ago, Jorge said the name change had nothing to do with numerology.

Still later, he divided his last name into two words – Ben Jor – because the people who distribute songwriting royalties were confusing him with George Benson, and his payments were misdirected. It's hard to imagine that anyone would confuse the name George with Jorge. Unfortunately, such sloppiness is commonplace. There are many recordings of his hit song Mas que Nada with Jorge Ben Jor's name grossly mispelled in the credits and others with the songwriting credit given exclusively to lyricist Loryn Deane, who wrote one of the English-language versions of the song.

It was in 1963, while performing in Beco das Garrafas, that Jorge Ben was noticed by a producer for Philips Records and was offered a contract. His first single was released in July of that year with Mas que Nada (Oh, Come On) on one side and another of his songs, Por Causa de Você, Menina (Because of You, Girl), on the other. His first album, released later that year, sold 100,000 copies in two months. In those days, his albums were recorded with a jazz band from Beco das Garrafas called Meireles and the Copa 5.

From 1963, here is Jorge Ben singing Mas que Nada. (If you don't see the audio player below, please update your browser. The file might take 30 seconds or more to load, depending on the speed of your internet connection and CPU.)

Mas que Nada became a worldwide hit when it was recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. Here is that story.

Before moving to the United States in 1964, Sergio Mendes was already recognized as a brilliant young jazz pianist and bandleader in Brazil and a member of bossa nova's inner circle. He recorded his first LP for the Philips label at age 20, and the following year – 1962 – jazz greats Kenny Durham, Phil Woods, Hubert Laws, Cannonball Adderley and Herbie Mann all flew to Brazil to record with the 21-year-old pianist and his band.

The next year, Sergio Mendes took his band on a tour of Mexico and the United States. One of group's guitarists and vocalists was the composer of Mas que Nada, 21-year-old Jorge Ben. While in the United States, Ben was filmed in an episode of Mission Impossible. The scene had him singing in a nightclub.

But Jorge Ben left the tour early. They were in Los Angeles for a gig at Shelly's Manne Hole. Ben decided to get a haircut. In his book Chega de Saudade (in translation as Bossa Nova), Ruy Castro tells what happened:
He found a barber shop in Vine Street and went in. It was empty, and the two barbers working there were reading the newspaper, with their scissors and combs tucked into the pockets of their jackets. Jorge nonchalantly sat down in one of the empty chairs, said, Shave and a haircut and waited. The barbers looked at one another, then at the young black man, and then at one another again. Jorge Ben only realized what was going on when one of them hissed at him, out of the corner of his mouth, We're busy. Ben left and went straight to Varig Airlines to buy his return flight home.
Soon, his music also went in a new direction – combining samba with blues, rock, funk, baião and maracatu.

Here's an interesting sidebar. When Sergio Mendes' group took the stage at Shelly's Manne Hole, the other guitarist, Rosinha de Valença, handled the guitar parts by herself. Ruy Castro tells the story in his book:
In the middle of the performance, someone in the first row shouted out: Don't you dare stop! I'll be back in 15 minutes. It was guitarist Barney Kessel. He went running back to his house to get his guitar, and within the promised 15 minutes, was back with it. He played with them for the rest of the night.
Castro's book (pp. 386-7) includes a wonderful photograph of Barney Kessel and alto sax player Bud Shank sitting in with Mendes' band at Shelly's Manne Hole.

Celebration: A Musical Journey CD cover. Celebration Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 CD cover. Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66 Sergio Mendes moved to the U.S. the following year and cut an album with his new band, Brasil '65. A year later, he teamed up with A & M Records co-founder Herb Alpert and re-organized the band, incorporating more pop music elements. The group featured vocalists Karen Philips and Lani Hall (Herb Alpert's wife) singing in Portuguese and English. The band's debut album, entitled Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, rose to the Top Ten on Billboard's pop charts on the strength of their hit arrangement of the song written by Mendes' former guitarist – Jorge Ben's Mas que Nada. Here it is. [Editor: The song is included on Verve's 2011 double album celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sergio Mendes' career: Celebration: A Musical Journey.]

(If you don't see the audio player below, please update your browser. The file might take 30 seconds or more to load, depending on the speed of your internet connection and CPU.)

Throughout the remainder of today's show, I'll play various recordings of Mas que Nada. On next week's show, I'll tell you the inspiration for the song, translate and explain its lyrics, and play several more interpretations.

The Americanization of Ooga Booga CD cover. Hugh Masekela Miriam Makeba –Live CD cover. Miriam Makeba Cruisin' CD cover. Marc Antoine Tenderness CD cover. Al Jarreau In 1965, Hugh Masekela recorded Jorge Ben's Mas que Nada in a live performance at New York City's Village Gate. It was originally released on his album The Americanization of Ooga Booga. Here is Hugh Masekela.

Here is Miriam Makeba's interpretation of Mas que Nada. This is from a live performance at Paris' Le Théâtre Champs Elysees on September 30, 1977.

The next interpretation of Mas que Nada that we will hear is by jazz guitarist Marc Antoine. This is from his 2001 album entitled Cruisin'.

My favorite version of Jorge Ben's Mas que Nada was recorded Al Jarreau on his 1994 album, Tenderness. Here it is.

Part II – Mas que Nada: Inspiration, Lyrics... and a Mystery

We continue now with Part II of our special feature on the song Mas que Nada written by Jorge Ben Jor. In this segment, I'll translate and explain the lyrics. I'll begin with the title.

Mas que Nada is a Brazilian expression that's hard to translate. An English equivalent would be something like: Oh, come on now! or Get off it! or puh-leaz! Jorge Ben said the inspiration for the title came from a friend named Rosinha (Rosy) who lived in Copacabana while he was there and who used the expression all the time. My guess is that the friend was guitarist Rosinha de Valença. Jorge Ben wrote the song while in the Army and, according to one source, it was intended as a homage to happiness.

The lyrics are very simple, but they are suffused with obscure references to Umbanda, a syncretistic religion native to Brazil. Umbanda, which originated in Rio de Janeiro around 1920, blends elements of the African-Brazilian religion Candomblé with Catholicism, spiritualism, and Brazilian patriotism. It's a very popular religion today, especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, with hundreds of thousands of adherents. Many Brazilians practice both Catholicism and Umbanda. Perhaps Jorge Ben Jor is one of them.

The lyrics to Mas que Nada begin with the phrase: Oariá raiô. Obá Obá Obá. As near as I can determine, Jorge Ben intended this as a kind of Umbandan incantation, summoning the spirit of the goddess Obá. From Candomblé, Umbanda assimilated belief in the orixás (the gods and goddesses who rule over various aspects of life). Obá is a warrior goddess who rules over rivers and floods, and she was the third wife of Xangô, the orixá of storms, fire and justice. Obá is sometimes cited as the goddess of love, but that role is nearly always ascribed to Oxum – her rival for Xangô's affections – while Obá represents disillusioned love and unhappy passions. In Portuguese, raio (without the circumflex) is a bolt of lightning or a ray of light.

Before I translate the lyrics to Mas que Nada, there are some terms in the second verse that need explaining. It begins: Este samba que é misto de maracatu (This samba that's a mixture of maracatu). Maracatu is a type of slow African-Brazilian music that originated in Brazil's Northeast. It involves a sort of a pageant/parade, with various characters (including a king and queen) processing to the slow cadence of the drums.

The next line is É samba de preto velho, samba de preto tu (It's a preto velho samba, a preto tu samba.) A preto velho (literally old black man) is a major personage in Umbanda. A Preto Velho is the spirit of an old, black, Brazilian slave. From the perspective of archetypal psychology, he is the archetype of the Wise Old Man. He is both humble and sympathetic to the sufferings of people. He has a good ear for listening and is summoned when one has a need for some simple, yet sage, advice. He is often depicted sitting on a humble stool by a fire, smoking a pipe. Coincidentally, last Thursday, May 13 was the annual festival honoring Preto Velho spirits – Festa de Pretos Velhos.

The term preto tu is more problematic. It translates literally black youtu being the familiar form of the pronoun você. There is practically no information available on this term, and Jorge Ben probably made it up. It's been reported that he was asked its meaning in a 1964 television appearance. He gave an elaborate answer, saying the term is from an old social hierarchy among Africans – preto tu, preto tu tu, and preto tu tu tu – with preto tu being the lowest social class. There is virtually no confirmation of this concept anywhere, so I think he was pulling the leg of the interviewer, who should have dismissed it saying, mas que nada!

Having said all that, I'll take a stab at what Jorge Ben may have meant by the term preto tu. Within the Umbandan context of the song with its reference to the archetype Preto Velho, the best meaning I can attribute to preto tu is your own spirit or soul. I think the proper emphasis is on inner or spiritual because the use of the familiar form tu suggests a greater intimacy than the more formal você. Then again, Jorge Ben may have chosen it simply because preto tu rhymes with maracatu. Perhaps both things are true. It remains a mystery.

In any case, here are the lyrics with a translation:
Oariá raiô
Obá Obá Obá
Oariá raiô
Obá Obá Obá

[An invocation of the orixá Obá?]

Mas que Nada
Sai da minha frente
Eu quero passar
Pois o samba está animado
O que eu quero é sambar.

Oh, come on!
Get out of my way
I want to pass through
Because the samba is animated
What I want is to dance samba.

Este samba
Que é misto de maracatu
É samba de preto velho
Samba de preto tu.

This samba
That's a mixture of maracatu
Is a preto velho samba
A preto tu samba.

Mas que Nada
Um samba como esse tão legal
Você não vai querer
Que eu chegue no final.

Oh, come on!
A samba like this [is] so cool
You won't want me
To come to the end.
Throughout the rest of today's show, I'll play several interpretations of Mas que Nada. This special feature will conclude next week with still more recordings of the song and a follow-up on the career of its composer after writing Mas que Nada.

Count Basie – Volume Two CD cover. Count Basie & Ella Fitzgerald Reflexões CD cover. Paulinho Nogueira Endless Samba CD cover. Maria Farinha Here is Mas que Nada performed by Maria Farinha from her 2001 album Endless Samba.

From his 1999 album Reflexões (Reflections), here is guitarist Paulinho Nogueira with Mas que Nada.

Next, we'll hear another interpretation of Jorge Ben's song Mas que Nada. English lyrics have been written for it. One set is by Loryn Deane and is sometimes given the title, Pow Pow Pow. We'll hear her lyrics sung by Ella Fitzgerald with Count Basie and his orchestra. This is from a live performance in Tilburg, Holland on May 7, 1971.

Best of Bossa Nova CD cover. Luiz Henrique Brasil Nativo CD cover. Lani Hall Soul Español CD cover.. Oscar Peterson Novabossa: Red Hot on Verve CD cover. Tamba Trio From 1967, here is Luiz Henrique with Mas que Nada by Jorge Ben.

Next, I'll play a wonderful interpretation of Mas que Nada by Lani Hall. You might recall that Lani Hall was a member of the group Sergio Mendes & Brasil '66, which scored a huge hit with the song. On this recording, from Lani Hall's 1998 Windham Hill Jazz album, Brasil Nativo (Native Brazil), she slows the tempo way down. It creates a haunting, mystical feeling very different from any other recording I've heard. Here is Lani Hall.

Here is Oscar Peterson's take on Mas que Nada from his 1966 album, Soul Español.

The Tamba Trio first recorded Jorge Ben's Mas que Nada in 1963. It appeared on their second album and was the group's greatest hit ever. Here is that recording.

Part III – Jorge Ben Jor's career after Mas que Nada

It is time now for the final installment of my special feature on Mas que Nada. In this segment, I'll focus on Jorge Ben Jor's career after writing the song.

Mas que Nada has been recorded more than 200 times by a diverse array of artists, including Elis Regina, Trini Lopez, Al Hirt, Walter Wanderley, Lawrence Welk, and the 12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The version recorded by the Tamba Trio was used in a Nike TV commercial that ran during the 1998 World Cup. The recording by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 was in the soundtrack of the movie Austin Powers. Mas que Nada was also on the soundtrack of the film Next Stop Wonderland.

After Mas que Nada, Jorge Ben Jor wrote many more hit songs – Chove Chuva, Zazueira, Se Segura Malandro, Papa Gira, País Tropical, Minha Menina, Que Maravilha, Jorge de Capadócia, Charlie Anjo 45, and Ponta de Lança Africana (Ubabaraúma), to name just a few.

He appeared on all three major Brazilian music television programs of the 1960s: bossa nova's O Fino da Bossa, co-hosted by Elis Regina and Jair Rodrigues, rock 'n' roll's Jovem Guarda hosted by Roberto Carlos and O Pequeno Mundo hosted by Ronnie Von. That was a considerable feat because, at the time, there was a strong rivalry – even animosity – between the different movements. As his official biography points out, An artist who participated in one such program would be immediately forbidden to sing on the others. The only exception was Jorge Ben Jor. And when Tropicália came along with Divino Maravilhoso hosted by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, Jorge was on that program, too. His music was unique, defying categories. He was the first artist to play sambas with an electric guitar.

Reflecting on those days and the tropicália movement, Caetano Veloso writes in his book, Verdade Tropical (Tropical Truth):
Jorge became a symbol, a myth, a master for us. Gil, who had admired him without restraint from the start, took Jorge's musical procedures as one main source of inspiration for his own guitar explorations and arrangements.
Jorge Ben Jor. Jorge Ben Jor today
Photo: © Fábio Zanzeri/AgNews
Because Jorge Ben Jor was not as politically outspoken as many of his contemporaries, he didn't have as much trouble with Brazil's military dictatorship, which jailed both Veloso and Gil, who later went into exile. Nevertheless, the government censors did suspect that the lyrics of his hit song País Tropical (Tropical Country) contained a message in secret code. It's pretty funny when you consider the lyrics:
I live in a tropical country
Blessed by God
And beautiful by nature
(but oh what beauty!)
In February there's carnaval
I've got a VW bug and a guitar
I'm a Flamengo fan
I've got a black girl called Teresa
I'm a young boy of average intelligence (oh yeah)
But even so, I'm so happy.
Some of his other songs were investigated, too. Artists such as Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento had their concerts shut down for their political lyrics. In contrast, according to All Music Guide's John Dougan, a 1971 performance by Jorge Ben was stopped in mid-song because the censors felt [his] backup singers were dancing too suggestively.

Jorge, who changed his last name to Ben Jor in 1989, has a following especially in Europe and Japan but fans around the world. He has released 33 albums and has sold more records in his [five-decade long] career than any other living Brazilian pop artist. He has written more than 700 songs and is noted for the excitement of his concerts. In the words of McGowan and Pessanha:
Jorge's best concerts are like tribal celebrations in which the entire audience dances almost to the point of a trance.... The band often features two drum sets and three or more percussionists. Colorful, energetic, and highly syncopated, Benjor's music creates a festive atmosphere.... On New Year's Day 1994, he drew more than three million people to a free concert on Copacabana Beach.
His songs have been recorded by a huge range of musicians including Tamba Trio, Pery Ribeiro, Walter Wanderley, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzie Gillespie, Júlio Iglesias, Al Jarreau, Trini Lopez, José Feliciano, Elis Regina, Elza Soares, Paulinho Nogueira, Maria Creuza, Tania Maria, Wilson Simonal, Os Mutantes, Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia, Claudette Soares, Moraes Moreira, Zé Ramalho, Leila Pinheiro, Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, Elba Ramalho, Fernanda Abreu, Sandra de Sá, Leci Brandão, Daniela Mercury, Ivete Sangalo, Os Paralamas do Sucesso, Skank, Lulu Santos, Sepultura, Marisa Monte, Ana Carolina, and many more around the world.

It all started in 1963 with his first song, Mas que Nada.

Crooner CD cover. Milton Nascimento This Way In CD cover. Ronnie Aldrich Benção Bossa Nova CD cover. Leila Pinheiro Throughout the remainder of today's show, I'll play seven more recordings of Mas que Nada by different artists. I'll begin with Leila Pinheiro singing Mas que Nada in a medley with two of his other early hits – Que Maravilha and Chove Chuva. Here is Leila Pinheiro.

From about 1970, here is an instrumental version of Mas que Nada, recorded by Ronnie Aldrich.

Milton Nascimento recorded Mas que Nada on his 1999 album Crooner. Here it is.

Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac CD cover. Dizzy Gillespie Rio Strut CD cover. Ithamara Koorax Next, we will hear Dizzy Gillespie performing Jorge Ben's Mas que Nada. This was recorded live in Los Angeles in May 1967. It's on Gillespie's album, Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac. Here is Dizzy Gillespie.

Here is Jorge Ben's Mas que Nada recorded live in London by singer Ithamara Koorax with drummer Dom Um Romão. With Koorax's high-pitched squeals and the DJ's turntable scratches, I think this performance is way over the top. See if you agree.

Pérolas Negras CD cover. Leo Gandelman Chill: Brazil 2 CD cover. Jorge Ben & Zé Maria Brazilian sax player Leo Gandelman recorded Mas que Nada on his 1997 album Pérolas Negras (Black Pearls). Here it is.

I have a final recording of Mas que Nada for this special feature on the song. The singer is the song's composer, Jorge Ben Jor, with Zé Maria on the organ. I hope you've enjoyed this special feature. Here is Mas que Nada.

Part IV – Update: Mystery of Preto Tu is Solved

I have an update on the special feature I presented last month on Jorge Ben Jor's Mas que Nada. One of the lines in the song is this:
Este samba que é misto de maracatu
É samba de preto velho, samba de preto tu.

(This samba that's a mixture of maracatu
Is a preto velho samba, a preto tu samba)
You may recall that the meaning of the term preto tu was not clear; extensive web searches had turned up no references to the term.

Earlier this month, I asked for help from an Internet friend, Brazilian music expert Daniella Thompson. (Daniella writes the blog Daniella Thompson on Brazil.) She didn't know what the term meant either, and her own research turned up nothing. So she sent an e-mail to Brazilian singer and composer Nei Lopes, asking if he knew. (Lopes is also a music historian. He writes a blog at Meu Lote – Nei Lopes.) Daniella said, If he can't answer this question, no one can. Here is my synopsis of what Nei Lopes wrote:
The expression preto tu is a reference to the Bantu people (from the region of Angola, the Congo, Gabon, and around Mozambique) who were brought as slaves to Brazil. They were considered inferior to the West Africans, termed Sudanese, who were also enslaved. The West Africans had developed superior civilizations, many influenced by Islam, and many of the West Africans were literate in Arabic. This latter group came to be called preto sim sinhô in contrast to the preto tu. The terms became stereotypes. A preto tu was supposedly stupid, coarse and wild. A preto sim sinhô was regarded as better educated and more cultured.
(Note that the word sinhô is a variant of the word senhor, meaning mister, master or sir. Brazilian slaves used the word sinhô when speaking to the slaveholder, so sim sinhô is yes master or yes sir.)

Toquinho: Greatest Hits CD cover. Toquinho At last we have the definitive meaning of preto tu, thanks to Nei Lopes through the assistance of Daniella Thompson. Tu is a shortening of Bantu.

In Mas que Nada, I think Jorge Bem probably intended samba de preto tu to carry the pejorative meaning of preto tu, but turned its meaning to make it a source of pride – This is a preto velho samba, a preto tu samba. You may recall that Jorge Ben's mother was Ethiopian. She may have been a Bantu, but I don't know. In any case, the tenor of the song is proud and happy:
Este samba que é misto de maracatu
É samba de preto velho, samba de preto tu.

(This samba that's a mixture of maracatu
is a preto velho samba, a Bantu samba)
Here is a recording of Toquinho singing Mas que Nada. As it happens, in this version, Toquinho doesn't sing the phrase samba de preto tu. Here is Toquinho with Mas que Nada.