In today’s saturated music landscape, it’s hard to find a voice that is genuinely unique. Brazilian artist Seu Jorge has one of them. Listen to his Bowie covers – recorded in his native Portuguese for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – and the way they ooze emotion. Bowie himself said Jorge took his songs to a new level of beauty.
But Seu Jorge is more than just music. He's appeared in films like City of God and the upcoming biopic of Marxist writer Carlos Marighella. He's a cultural talisman for his country, where he's revered. Not bad for a man who was living on the streets as a teenager.
He spoke to Gilles Peterson about films, Bowie and what Brazil needs now...
On David Bowie
I did an acoustic tribute to him at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017. It was so special. Because I was at the Royal Albert Hall. I’d waited for 28 years for that moment. It’s the most important moment in my music career. It’s the theatre of the Queen. Playing at the Royal Albert Hall, in Bowie’s hometown. Incredible.
I was a kid when I heard Let's Dance for the first time. It was a big hit in Brazil. I didn’t expect it. I grew up with Samba and with Brazilian rhythms, and with American soul music. But when I heard Let's Dance, I heard some soul music. Bowie is always a step ahead of everybody.
Wes Anderson introduced me to all the classic Bowie songs. Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity. I connect with them because Wes introduced me to them. But the first songs I heard were This Is Not America with Pat Metheny, who I’m a huge fan of, and Let's Dance. Let’s Dance is still on my mind and in my body. It’s a great song for dancing.
Another thing that connects me to him is his acting. He’s a wonderful actor. One special movie I really love is The Last Temptation of Christ. He played Pontius Pilate. A small role but a huge one. The best depiction of Pontius Pilate I ever saw on the screen. Bowie... He is just different.
On acting vs music
I would choose acting, because I can be a musician too when I am acting. It’s a different discipline. For the music, I have so many people working to make me shine. But in the movie, I’m just another guy trying to make the film shine. If the movie is good, everything is going to be fine in the end. The most important thing is a beautiful film and a beautiful story. You need to devote so much time to it. There are so many dedicated people. I love music. It saved my life. My guitar saved my life and I have so much gratitude for this. But making movies, wow. That is something. That is really something.
On his latest film, Marighella
This is really important because it’s talking about one guy. He passed away in 1969. He started a fight against the army and against the dictators in Brazil. He’s very important in Brazilian history, and now he has a chance to come out of the box. People hide him, nobody talks about him. It’s a very sad and dark story. So many years of dictators, of the government putting people down, of unrest. Marighella fought against all these things. He worked hard for so many causes. At one point, he decided to write a manual for urban fighting, and that book inspired so many minds to fight against the situation in 1964. So this film is a reminder that this happened. Brazil has changed so much, but this movie can be important today as well. The new generation don’t know what happened in the past. This is what art can do.
On meeting Quincy Jones
I met him in Brazil at carnival. I was with my wife who was pregnant. He was such a cool guy. He kissed my wife’s pregnant belly. I was just in shock. One day I’m driving and with my kids and the song Ai No Corrida comes on. The baby was six. She said what’s this song? Who sings it? I said it’s the same producer as Thriller. He’s called Quincy Jones and he’s very important. I told her he kissed you when you were in your mother’s belly. She was so happy. Time passes and we moved to Los Angeles, and we were at this show, and Quincy was there. And they spoke to one another, and he said something like “Oh come and see your grandpa.” The world made them meet each other.
On Brazil's Olympics and World Cup experiences
I was part of the changeover from London to Rio. I met Annie Lennox, from the Eurythmics. I’m a huge fan. And the guitarist from Queen. At the soundcheck he was asking me “what do you think of the sound? Is it good?” And I thought what the fuck you’re in fucking Queen motherfucker, why you asking me if it’s good? It’s fucking good!
We had a lot of hope after the Olympic Games. They were amazing. The World Cup not so much. Not just because of the performance, but also so much money spent on the stadiums. And now everything we built is empty or destroyed, and it’s sad! I had so much hope, because I thought the new generation could use this stuff. I thought the kids from the favelas could use these places to practise so many sports. But no, it’s destroyed and empty. Because the government don’t do anything, especially in Rio.
On the current state of Brazil
The government have all been arrested - everyone is in jail right now because of the corruption. We now have a minister for justice, who used to be a judge. Sergio Moro. He put a lot of people in jail, and now he’s a minister. And people don’t understand why he’s accepted it. Because he said before he didn’t want to be involved in politics. We don’t know what’s happening. I’m cheering for better days in Brazil, but the president doesn’t know anything. He’s not eloquent, he doesn’t read and he attacks the artists, saying we’re not good for Brazil. He says we don’t deserve to be Brazilian. But still we resist.
On what Brazil needs
A lot of artists are working hard to produce something and fight against this negative vibration. But not just against the government. People around the world cheer for Brazilian people. They love Brazilians. But now we feel ashamed going home. In my opinion, Brazil is a big country that needs to pull together its neighbourhood - Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile - and grow up together. Ignore the Americans a little and work in our own territory. Work hard for South America. I think if I come and promote the real Brazil to the world, that will help.
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