(Please note: This is a paper presented at the 1st intl. conference on Contemporary Esotericism, Stockholm University, August 27-29, 2012. Copyright belongs to the author. Do not quote or distribute without the author’s explicit permission.)
Jorge Ben Jor and Raul Seixas: Two Brazilian Esotericist pop-musicians in the 1970s
By Francisco Santos Silva
When we think of Brazil we think mostly of a deeply Catholic country, particularly as the tendency is to include Brazil in the general category of America south of the United States. So it might come as a surprise to observe that only 65% of Brazlians identify themselves as Catholic, with another 22% being members of Protestant churches, mostly Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal churches. The 2000 census included 44 different religions in its multiple choice options. In these, there was the option for “Esoteric Traditions”, which although having only 58.500 people describing themselves as being primarily esotericists is still more than all Muslims and Hindus put together in Brazil. We need to take notice of the fact that this number takes into account only those who choose to tick the option “esoteric traditions” as the main religious affiliation, not taking into account those who would describe themselves as members of other religions while having esotericist elements in their worldview. This syncretism between other religions and esotericism is particularly acute among self-described followers of the afro-brazilian religions Candomblé and Umbanda (half a million) and Kardecist and other spiritists (2.5 million). We can also add to these several entheogenic religions such as Santo Daime, Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of Dawn) and Union of the Plant which mix ritual around the partaking of ayahuasca with Kardecism, ancient egyptian symbols, flying saucers and Afro-Brazilian religions. Beyond these minority religions the whole of Brazilian religious life is marked by syncretism, a majority of Catholics and Pentecostals will also resort to Afro-Brazilian religions or Spiritism, and will have elements of esoteric traditions as part of their religious worldview. Belief and religion in Brazil is nothing if not fluid, and this is borne out by their religious rituals, both fiction and non-fiction literature and music.
In this paper I will focus on the last of these expressions, music, and I will further tighten the focus on Jorge Ben and Raul Seixas in the 1970s. Two particularly famous musicians in their homeland and abroad which perfectly exemplify this Brazilian syncretism in their music, through the use of esoteric symbolism, in Jorge Ben’s case as a Catholic and in Seixas’ case as a Thelemite. Another interesting factor that this paper bears out is how esoteric themes were a way to pass politically sensitive messages during a time of repressive dictatorship in Brazil; this is true particularly in the case of Seixas, as we will see later. When we, in Europe, think of Esoterically themed music we will often imagine one of two scenarios: either some iteration on the heavier side of Metal (black, death etc.) or something which would be filed under the New Age section. In the case of these musicians the music is very definitely Brazilian, Ben using samba and African rhythms in upbeat songs, and Seixas using a tropical flavoured rock. This is Western Esotericism in the tropics.
Jorge Ben, or Jorge Ben Jor, (having changed his name so as not to be mistaken for George Benson in the international market, even though he has claimed the name change was for numerological reasons), was born in 1942, and like many other young men in Brazil wanted to become a football player when he grew up. However, he starts off singing in a church choir and in carnival samba street bands and in 1963 his recorded career starts in earnest. It starts with what would be the greatest hit of his career, “Mas Que Nada” a song which he recorded as a single then, and which has been covered by such diverse artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Jarreau, Herb Halpert, Coldplay and, most famously, The Black Eyed Peas. Not only is the song popular, he actually creates a whole new musical style with it, the so-called Samba-Rock, achieving transversal appeal with music which appeals both to more conservative Bossa Nova lovers and a younger, more rock oriented, generation. Another one of his famous tracks is “Taj Mahal”, which was plagiarised by Rod Stewart in “Do You Think I’m Sexy” – Jorge Ben took Stewart to court, won and donated all future royalties of Stewart’s song to UNICEF.
After his initial success, Jorge Ben started producing more experimental and hermetic (in both senses) albums in the 1970s. His lyrics at this time are often concerned with both Alchemical and Hermetic themes and in no album is this more clear than “A Tábua de Esmeralda” (The Emerald Tablet) from 1974. This album starts off with the track “Os Alquimistas estão Chegando” (The Alchemists are Coming), an upbeat Samba-Rock track describing alchemical processes (tritutation, fixation, destilation and coagulation), alchemical paraphernalia, and ways of behaving (respecting hours and days for preforming actions, keeping away from the world, and avoiding contact with “sordid people”). The track is immediately followed by “O Homem da Gravata Florida” (The Man with the Flowery Tie) which even if it does not have overt esoteric content has been identified by Jorge Ben as being about Paracelsus. Futher on we have “O Namorado da Víuva” (the Widow’s Boyfriend), the main character of which Jorge Ben has identified as Nicolas Flamel, and as the album wraps up we get the song “Hermes Trismegisto e sua Celeste Tábua de Esmeralda” (Hermes Trismegistus and his Celestial Emerald Tablet), where after a short intro explaining the backstory of the Tablet, Jorge Ben goes into an tropical-infused upbeat reading of the Tablet’s text as the song’s lyrics. From then on, Alchemical and Hermetic themes would never be far from his songs; in 1979’s “Salve Simpatia” (Hail Niceness) the references get more obscure as in “Oculatus Abis”, a reference to the last plate of Mutus Liber, a 17th century French alchemical text, by Isaac Baulot (a near anagram of Oculatus Abis). The lyrics of the song are an allegorical interpretation of the plate, speaking of stars and the idea that Gods were alien Astronauts. By 2004 Jorge Ben would still be writing songs with titles such as “O Rei é Rosa Cruz” (The King is Rose-Cross).
Later in this paper we will see how Raul Seixas, the other musician we will be talking about, used esoteric themes as a form of political dissent; however, it is difficult to find the same subtext in the work of Jorge Ben. Ben’s references to esotericism, and particularly alchemy, are for him a work tool more than a way for him to take political or social positions. In 1974, the year in which his work took a turn to the esoteric with the aforementioned “Tábua de Esmeralda” album, he stated about his own work:
“Most songs are alchemical, but always as a musical philosophy. I want my music to bring peace of mind and tranquility to those who listen to it.”
He goes on to state that:
“I have a lot of respect and admiration for the work of an alchemist, as he dedicated his whole life to studying and searching [for knowledge] with a faith and preserverence which are not comparable to anything else. Since the LP “As Rosas Eram Todas Amarelas” [All the Roses were Yellow, actually from the album Ben from 1972 which contained that track], there is already a reflexion of the study and attempt to apply all this to my music. Personaly there was a great change in my life and I feel profoundly happy with myself. Alchemical texts are extremely complex, but I interpret them as I go along, according to my understanding, feeling, and well-being.”
What Ben seems to admire most in alchemy and hermetism (note that he does not distinguish one from the other, claiming that the Emerald Tablet was the founding text of alchemy) is not a particularly supernatural element of it, and in fact, Ben remains a devout Catholic, St. Thomas Aquinas and Angels recurr frequently in his lyrics, side by side with the Hermetic themes. However, as we have seen before these religious identities are possessed of a fluidity in Brazilian culture which might seem strange to European eyes. What Ben most admires is the idea of absolute dedication to an art, to the idea of relentless work to achieve an end, and thinks that by applying alchemical methods to his song-writing some of that same sense of faith, preserverence and search for a kind of enlightenment might rub off on the music itself. So for Ben, Alchemy is a compositional tool, he studies alchemical and hermetic texts to get ideas for songs, he admires the work of the Alchemists themselves and their way of life as he interprets it, but never seems to develop the ideas further into social or political change or even as a personal, complex belief system. In this he is in complete contrast to the second musician we will focus on, Raul Seixas.
Raul Seixas was born in 1945 in S. Salvador da Bahia, the hotspot for Afro-Caribeean religions in Brazil, and much as Ben joined Rock music with Samba, Seixas did the same for Baião (traditional music from Bahia). Seixas is known in Brazil as the “Father of Brazilian Rock” and famous enough to have a parade in his honor every year in downtown São Paulo and around the country. It is necessary to put Seixas’ music in a political context as well due to the content of his songs; Brazil was under a repressive military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, and his music and esoteric influences can be seen as a direct challenge and reaction to this same dictatorship. Seixas joined Marcelo Motta’s OTO with his co-songwriter Paulo Coelho, taking into hands the mission of creating a new society which he entitled “Sociedade Alternativa” (Alternative Society) based on the ideals in Crowley’s Liber OZ. Therefore, many of his songs are concerned with this subject, to the point of having a fully sung version of Liber OZ in Portuguese in one of his later albums.
Seixas starts using esoteric and particularly thelemite themes in his music right from the start of this solo career. His first album shows what is to come, entitled “Krig-Ha Bandolo!”, a name taken from popular Tarzan comics meaning “Beware, here comes the enemy”; it evoked the controversial nature of the singer not only due to the title, but also with a cover depicting a bare-chested Seixas with a modified Ankh drawn on his hand, which would become the symbol of the alternative society which he was to start promoting with the launch of the album. It contained songs such as “Ouro de Tolo”, fool’s gold, which used the analogy of pyrite used to fool the ignorant into thinking it was gold, as a direct attack to the empty promisses of the ruling dictatorship. Even though the content of this album was not directly esoteric, except for the use of the modified Ankh on the cover, the same cannot be said for the live shows which accompanied the music. In his first tour, Seixas, with the help of people such as Paulo Coelho, who would later become a multi-million copy bestselling author, distributed among his audience comic book pamphlets describing the creation of a new society, his “sociedade alternativa” based on his involvment in thelema and particularly on Crowley’s libertarian Liber Oz. The influences are clear and the short manifesto consisted of the following text:
We salute you Mary. We salute you Joseph. And we salute brazilian artists who had the silence of the rest of the world when their work and bodies were censured, mutilated and made to disappear.
1- Space is free. All have the right to occupy their space.
2- Time is free. All have to live in their own time, and fulfil promisses, hopes and traps.
3- Harvest is free. All have the right to harvest and feed of the wheat of creation.
4- The seed is free. All have the right to sow their ideas without any coersion from the Intelligentsia or Stupidentsia.
5- There is no longer an artist class. We all are able to plant and harvest. We will all show the world our capability to create.
6- All of us means writers, housewives, bosses and servants, clandestines and the square, sages and madmen.
7- And the great miracle will no longer be to be able to walk on clouds or over water. The great miracle will be the fact that all day, from morning to night, we will be capable of walking on Earth.
Last salute of the 11th Manifesto
Success to those who read and keep this manifesto. Because we are capable. All of us, we all are capable.
Together with the distribution of these liberal manifestos, Seixas would also recite Liber Oz on stage. It is no surprise then that in less than a year all copies of the manifesto were rounded up by the federal police and burned, and Seixas was imprisioned, tortured and later “invited” to leave the country, being exiled to the US, while his co-writer, Paulo Coelho was actually imprisioned for “writing subersive song lyrics”. This did not, however, seem to in any way hinder Seixas’ thelemite and liberal ideas. The following year, in 1974, the same year of Ben’s “Emerald Tablet” album, Seixas second recording comes out. Named Gita, as a tribute to the Bhaghavad Gita, it again bears the modified Ankh on the cover, this time in the shape of a sigil with the words “Alternative Society” written in it, also in his usually provocative way, Seixas is dressed as a guerrila warrior, with a red guitar and red lettering in an allusion to his left-wing politics. This album contains a track entitled “Sociedade Alternativa” or Alternative Society, with lyrics quoting from Crowley’s Book of the Law. But the connection is actually made explicit in the last verse of the song which goes:
The number 666 is called Aleister Crowley.
Long Live! Long Live!
Long Live! The Alternative Society.
Do what thou wilt
shall be the whole of the law
Long Live, Long Live
Long Live! The Alternative Society
The law of Thelema
Long Live, Long Live
Long Live! The Alternative Society
The law of the strong
that is our law
and the joy of the world
Long Live, Long Live
Long Live! The Alternative Society
The song is peppered with shouts of “Long live the New Aeon” and “every man and every woman is a star”, and promoting the freedom of doing such things as taking a shower with your hat on. Again in the political context of the time, this is nothing if not a provocation to the dictatorship, particualrly after Seixas’ exile. This is the same alternative society that Seixas had been promoting in the pamphlets which got him exiled to the States. This album was so successful in Brazil, however, that he was allowed back into the country after it was released, being his best selling album and at the time selling 600,000 copies. If anyone had any doubts of Seixas philosophical allegiances, his next album in 1975 is called Novo Aeon (New Aeon), staying on message: the creation of a new Brazilian society based on Thelemic principles. To Seixas then, Esotericism, and particularly Thelema is a way to escape an oppresive political situation, to substitute it with what he imagines is its opposite, a society based on free will and ultimate liberalism.
A peculiar thing about the Brazilian context of these musicians is that unlike western artists which are open about their esoteric interests to the extent of those interests dominating their output, as it did in these artists, neither Ben or Seixas are in anyway niche or obscure – these are multi-million copies bestselling artists working in popular music idioms in their country, the particular religious fluidity of Brazilian culture does not find esoteric themes strange or to be avoided, they are just another belief in an exceedingly complex tapestry. In Jorge Ben and Raul Seixas, we find two artists which share a country, Brazil, an art, music, and a time, the mid 70s. They also share a love for the esoteric which is applied to their art in a very straightforward manner; we are not talking of obscure symbolism, or hidden references, the esoteric sources are present plainly in the lyrics, interviews and actions of the artists. However we also find a big difference in the way in which esotericism is applied to art. For Jorge Ben, esoteric ideas are tools for the refinement of music, literally musical alchemy, a way that he found to make his art better and more infused with musical power, while for Seixas esoteric ideas are revolutionary, anti-establisment, and through them he proposes a new world order.