A crash course on the most famous song from Brazil
By Mtume ya Salaam of Kalamu.com
Even though they don’t play commercials during soccer games (except at halftime, of course), if you watched any significant amount of World Cup this year, you couldn’t avoid seeing Nike’s Brazil soccer team commercial.
Watching Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and the rest of Brazil’s finest juggle that soccer ball like a yo-yo, shooting each other casual no-look passes and bouncing the ball all over the locker room all without ever touching it with their hands, I was mesmerized.
One of the best things about the commercial is that the Brazilian athletes are obviously having fun. In America, it’s considered cool to look pissed off.
That’s all well and good—I’m not going to get into a dissertation about the public persona of the black male athlete in America or any of that blah blah blah. I will say this though: in Brazil, it’s evidently possible to be young, male, black, rich, in the public eye and happy all at the same time.
The music accompanying those smiling, soccer ball-juggling black Brazilians was a very hot cover version of “Mas Que Nada.” I recognized the song right away, but I didn’t know who’d done the remake. When I found out that it was The Black Eyed Peas with Sergio Mendes, I was shocked. Given that the best reaction I’ve ever had to a Black Eyed Peas song is ambivalence, I never imagined that I’d find myself getting hype every time I heard a song of theirs.
In any event, that commercial got me thinking. I remembered my father mentioning Miriam Makeba’s version of “Mas Que Nada” back in August of ’05. Not to mention that every Brazilian compilation I buy seems to include a version of the tune. So I decided to find out a little more about the song’s history.
First things first. Although I’ve repeatedly seen references to “the Sergio Mendes classic ‘Mas Que Nada,’” the composer and original performer of the song is actually Brazilian legend Jorge Ben. In Brazil, Ben’s version is still considered the standard. In America, I would think, more people know Mendes’ version.
Jorge Ben: Wrote and composed the original version
But Ben’s is the original and sounds like it. Both the drummer and the guitarist play in a light-handed, archaic style that was virtually obligatory in 1963, but forty-some years later, simply isn’t heard anymore.
As for Ben’s vocals, if you know any of his music, you’ll recognize him here. The quivering half-yodel thing he does on extended notes; the silver-tongued grace he uses to navigate the Portuguesian jumbles of vowels and sibilants—he sounds both as good and as distinctive as he ever did.
I won’t make the claim that Sergio Mendes’ 1966 version is better than Ben’s original, but it’s certainly more dramatic. Mendes’ decision (I assume it was his) to do Ben’s ‘OOOHHH-OH-OH-OH!’ with a chorus instead of a single voice changes the feel of the song completely.
Add in the rollicking piano line that many (including me) instantly think of whenever they hear the song title, and voila! Classic material. Though not perfect. Somewhere hidden in the groove of Mendes’ “Mais Que Nada” is a poppy, overly-pleasant undertone that suggests Mendes knew (or at least hoped) the song was going to hit big.
I have to say too, I wasn’t surprised when I found out that the lead vocals are performed not by a Brazilian, but by an American singer, Lani Hall, who had to learn the Portuguese lyrics phonetically. Mendes’ cover dropped just three years after Ben’s original and in Brazil, Ben’s version was already well known.
Still, it was Mendes’ version that most non-Brazilians heard first. “Mais Que Nada” (presumambly, the ‘mais’ spelling is to distinguish the Portuguese pronunciation of ‘mas’ from the more familiar Spanish pronunciation) hit big all over the world, making the young pianist and arranger an international star. In America, Mendes’ “Mas Que Nada” became a Top Five Adult Contemporary hit.
In the wake of Ben’s and Mendes’ success with the song, countless Brazilian singers and players have recorded cover versions and we’re including a random sampling here. I make no claims to know which versions are better known or more influential either in America or in Brazil or anywhere else. I’m making these selections based on liking to listen to them and little else.
My favorite two Brazilian versions (other than Ben’s and Mendes’, of course) are by Elza Soares and The Tamba Trio. Rio de Janeiro native Elza Soares has been performing ever since the late ’50s, but she first gained popularity as a bossa nova vocalist.
Soul brothers: Sergio Mendes and Will.I.am of the Black Eyed Peas promote their cover of Mas Que Nada
Soares recorded her cover of “Mas Que Nada” in 1970, but both the horns and Soares’ vocals have the same sophisticated ease that most classic bossa does, a sound that suggests lazing about on sun-drenched porches or sandy beaches. Tamba Trio’s cover is apparently one of the better-known versions.
I like it because it’s different. It distinguishes itself from the pack with a slower pace and with multiple voices on the lead vocal as opposed to just the chorus. There’s also none of the samba-esque swing that many versions use. Tamba’s rhythm is more both more deliberate and consistent, sounding almost like a march.
When it comes to the non-Brazilians, Miriam Makeba’s cover (which Kalamu mentioned several months ago) is easily the most soulful. The faster you play “Mas Que Nada,” the more kitschy it sounds—Makeba’s band gets it right by playing it slow. They dig deep, past the skin, past even the meat—they get right down to the bone, to the skeletal, essential structure of the song.
Makeba hears the African retentions in Ben’s light, pop-inflected rhythms. In this case, ‘Mama Africa’ is an excavator—removing years of flash and pop and glitz to expose the warm, classic glow of the original.
I have to include a couple of jazz versions. Oscar Peterson’s version is exuberance itself. For me, the speed of Peterson’s piano runs mixed with the pounding of the congas is suggestive of New Orleans street music. It’s both funky and virtuostic, wild and wily. The only bad thing I can say about it is—at two-and-a-half minutes in length—it’s way too short.
Mama Afrika: The legendary Miriam Makeba also covered the song
There is also an Al Jarreau version that I like. I don’t love it though, and that’s for the same reason that I don’t love Jarreau as a performer in general. Jarreau’s strengths are well known: he has a unique vocal style, improvisational expertise and a strong sense of melodic creativity. Unfortunately, he has some major deficiencies as well: too frequently he panders to the mainstream consumer, trying to sell records to people who really don’t care about his vocal chops, so long as he sings something they recognize. In this case though, Jarreau’s performance is a winner.
Even after my crash course on the history of “Mas Que Nada” and the various versions of the tune, I was still left with a question. What does the title mean? The answer, it seems, would depend not only on who you ask, but also on what you mean by the word ‘mean.’ Let me explain. Translated literally, “Mas que nada” would appear to mean, “But that’s nothing.” Figuratively, I’ve seen it translated numerous ways, including “No way, man!” “Oh, come on” and “What a nuisance.”
There seems to be some confusion however—particularly among Spanish-speaking fans—because the Spanish phrase “mas que nada” means “more than nothing.” Apparently though, “mas” in Portuguese means “but,” not “more.” (Which may explain why Mendes changed the ‘mas’ to ‘mais.’)
So in this case, the Spanish speakers are wrong. The simplest translation may be the most accurate—a few sources (who seem fluent in Brazilian Portuguese) say that “Mas que nada” is the equivalent of the sarcastic English-language rejoinder, “Yeah, right.”
I’ll leave the final word to Daniel Soares, a Brazilian music fan (meaning a music fan from Brazil, not a fan of Brazilian music) who took the time to not only translate a bit of the lyrics, but also to provide that all-important context. In the comments section of a music blog named The Pop View, Daniel wrote:
Ben means something like:
(Mas que nada) “No Way!”
(Sai da minha frente) “Get out…”
(Eu quero passar) “…And let me pass”
(Pois o samba está animado) “Because the samba is so good”
(O que eu quero é sambar) “And I want to dance the Samba”
This part of the song is like a dialogue. You could imagine two people talking in front of a Brazilian nightclub. If we imagine this way, it is like the first person saying (not in the song, just imaginary): “This place is not good tonight” and the second person answers, “No Way! Get out and let me pass (or, let me in) because the samba is so good and I want to dance the Samba tonight.”
Sources of “Mas Que Nada”:
Jorge Ben – Samba Esqueva Novo
Sergio Mendes (Original Version) – Herb Alpert Presents Sergio Mendes or Greatest Hits of Sergio Mendes.
Mtume ya Salaam is a published writer and an expert on contemporary Black music. He lives in New Orleans, USA and can be reached at email@example.com.
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