Writings about Music

Mas que Nada

I've listened to so much great music in 2014, I decided to write about what's on my mind at this moment, which is the original recording of “Mas que Nada” by Jorge Ben Jor, the opening track from his 1963 debut album, Samba Esquema Novo. Immediately swept away by his stunning voice and expressiveness, I was also struck by exquisite vocal melismas, followed by an ascension into the upper vocal stratosphere, both aspects reminiscent of the glorious Indian double violinist, L. Shankar, who frequently sings with these characteristics as part of his momentous raga realizations. Millions have been thrilled by this rather ubiquitous song, “Mas que Nada,” which is certainly in contention for the most beautiful ever composed, but, if you're like me, you never knew who actually composed the music and lyrics, and made the first recording. Not surprisingly, the words are just as soaring and transcendental as the music.

In fact, related to the origins of Indian ragas, the opening words of “Mas que Nada” are said to be about evoking the spirit of the goddess of rivers and floods. What led me to personally discover the refreshing and charged artist, Jorge Ben Jor, was coming across the mesmerizing recording of Antonio Carlos Jobim's song, “Favela,” by Sergio Mendes, from his Swinger From Rio album of 1964. An unbelievably lush and sonorous flute plays the melody on this realization, and since I rarely hear flute playing on the level of India's Hariprasad Chaurasia, I searched and searched until I found it was none other than Hubert Laws (I had not realized he was active that early), who had flown to Brazil for the recording date along with Phil Woods and Art Farmer. Adding to the heavenly tone and improvising of Laws on the 1964 recording of “Favela,” I was stunned to learn that the thrilling sound and extemporizing from the piano, which I also couldn't place, comes from Mendes himself, instantly making him one of my favourite pianists, with a uniquely colored and nuanced style rich in dancing melody and rhythm.

After listening to “Favela,” I heard the very famous recording of “Mas que Nada” by Mendes, which led me to search for the song's composer. Mendes learned the song from its composer and lyricist, Ben Jor, who played guitar in his band. However, during a 1963 tour of America and Mexico, Jorge was denied having his hair cut in a Los Angeles barber shop because of the colour of his skin (his mother was born in Ethiopia), and he responded by immediately taking a flight back to Brazil, thereby leaving Sergio's band as well. I was also taken by an exceptionally earthy and numinous rendering of “Mas que Nada” by Luiz Henrique from a 1967 album titled Best of Bossa Nova .

- Michael Robinson, December 2014, Los Angeles


© 2014 Michael Robinson All rights reserved

Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).


This writing originally appeared in textura, a Canadian music publication.