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From favelas to fame with Seu Jorge

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Bristolatino’s Amelia Graham takes us on a journey through the life of Seu Jorge and his music.

Born in a favela known as Belford Roxo, just north of Rio de Janeiro, Jorge Mário da Silva experienced a tough upbringing characterised by poverty and crime. The hardships of life in Rio’s favelas heavily influenced many of his works, especially because his brother was killed by police aged 16.

Working odd jobs in order to support his family, his musical talent was not noticed until a later age. At the age of 19, while sleeping rough and relying on cleaning the streets for money, his flair for music took off as he was given an old guitar by a stranger. It was with this guitar that Seu Jorge began performing in bars around Rio de Janeiro to make a living. However, it was not only his musical talent that was spotted. Jorge was hired both as a musician and actor by the theatrical group Tuerj.

In the late 1990s he had his first real musical break and was offered a solo recording contract with hip-hop producer Mario Caldato after performing and writing on the debut album Moro No Brasil of Farofa Carioca, a samba pop group. Samba Esporte Fino, his first album, was voted album of the year by Brazilian music critics, and was released internationally, though under the title Carolina.

The album’s tracks are both musically and lyrically varied. The husky tone of his voice really shines, and the backing band provides another dimension, their energy adding to the up-beat nature of the album. The first three songs of this album -particularly the opening track Carolina- grab the listener’s attention and invite them to get up and join him. The compilation of tracks shows the diversity of Seu Jorge’s voice and his song-writing ability. The playful lyrics alongside melodic intonation and hypnotic rhythms give the album a real samba feel.

Cru, his second album released in 2004, has more of a focus on Jorge’s upbringing and the political issues surrounding the favelas. In the track Eu sou favela (I am favela) he poignantly states: A favela é, um problema social” (A favela is a social problem). This song is a lot calmer, and Jorge’s voice comes across very clearly to tell his story of the slums of Rio, where he spent the majority of his childhood. As well as making reference to his background through his music, he also appeared as Knockout Ned in Cidade de Deus, a film that sheds light on street life and daily crime in the favelas. After this success, he went on to act and sing in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou where he covered many of David Bowie’s songs in Portuguese. Bowie praised Jorge saying that if had not performed his songs he would “have never heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.”

Seu Jorge has released many albums over the years and has collaborated with world-famous artists as well as performing at festivals. In spite of this, perhaps his greatest achievement was being asked to sing at the Summer Olympics in 2012. His performance during the closing ceremony in London introduced Rio to the world, and was a clear demonstration of his talent and his journey from an impoverished favela in Rio to worldwide fame.