Getting into new music is a lot like prospecting for gold. (Granted, all I know about the latter is from watching Treasure of the Sierra Madre and reading some Jack London novels twenty-odd years ago, but bear with me here.) You might strike off on your own, intent on discovering everything unaided, but after a while wandering through the wastelands (for music, the FM dial), you're more inclined to start listening to excited rumors from others who have gone before. You may end up spending a lot of time in dark caverns (for music, dive bars) trying to find something undiscovered and valuable. Often, you have to carefully sift through what you already have (in gold mining, the sluice boxes; in music, the albums you downloaded a month or two but only listened to once) to see if you've misestimated its worth. And every so often, you find a nugget of pure gold, something whose value is immediately apparent; you feel a strange mix of exhilaration and fear, because you're glad to have this great new thing, but you don't know whether this new vein will keep paying off or play itself out (which is what happens, say, when you're really into the Rolling Stones and then you start buying their albums from the early 80s).
Given the fact that I've already mined most of the veins in the English-speaking world, I set out for the jungles of Brazil (metaphorically speaking) some time ago based on credible rumors of musical riches there, rumors spread by the likes of Beck and Nirvana. My first map was a Tropicalia compilation album recommended by Spin; a later and far more comprehensive guide was Rolling Stone of Brazil's list of that country's 100 best albums. It's proven fairly reliable so far, and it's led me to a mother lode--Jorge Ben.
This is the third album of his I've bought; after each album, I've worried that nothing else of his would compare. And yet, based on the word of others, and their frustrating inability to come to a consensus on his best albums, I've pressed on, and been rewarded each time. (I feel like I did when I stumbled onto classic-period Stones, or the Kinks, or Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan, or Radiohead--abundantly blessed with an embarrassment of riches far too great to fit in a greatest hits compilation.)
Its brilliance is instantly evident. The horns and drums hook you immediately--it's one of those rare albums that grabs you from the first seconds of the first listen and leaves such a lasting impression that you find yourself reaching for it afterwards, feeling a little incomplete without it. (The nearest equivalent I can think of for instant impact is A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory.) And yet "Mas, Que Nada!" is not just a great first track--it's a harbinger of things to come, a stellar introductory track to a superlative album that launched a musical career as prolific and profoundly awesome as any musician on the planet. The arrangements are subtle but intricate, jazzy and bossa nova-y; Ben's voice flutters about like a beautiful tropical bird, particularly on the title track and "Tim Dom Dom" and "A Tamba."
If you're anything like me, you have a lot of friends who are constantly prospecting for the best music the world has to offer. And if you get this album, you, too, will find yourself jabbering enthusiastically to all who will listen about the treasures contained inside--sounding crazy, perhaps, but knowing you've once again struck gold.