Guest DJ Seu Jorge's Musical DNA

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Seu Jorge performs onstage during the 2012 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year ceremony honoring Caetano Veloso. (Getty Images)
Seu Jorge performs onstage during the 2012 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year ceremony honoring Caetano Veloso. (Getty Images)

Our guest DJ this week, singer Seu Jorge, says he recognized himself in the character he plays in the Brazilian film City Of God: a bus driver named Mané Galinha who's caught up in violence in 1970s Brazil.

Before he became an internationally acclaimed Brazilian music star, Seu Jorge was a kid growing up in a similar favela to the one portrayed in the film, right outside Rio de Janeiro. His own brother was killed in the ongoing violent confrontations with the police. "I lost my brother. ... My life was really hard," Seu Jorge says. "I didn't have a job over there. ... Education was very, very poor. And it's still like that. The only thing that is different is my choice. ... I think I was a product of luck and hard work."

While the character of Mané Galinha turned to a life of revenge and crime, Seu Jorge chose music and acting. It nonetheless cost him dearly: By his early 20s, he was homeless. But he was also acting in a university playhouse, performing at a bar in northern Rio and playing in bands; his big break came when rapper Marcelo D2 invited him to play drums with the group Planet Hemp. "Marcelo D2, he saved my life," Seu Jorge says.

Seu Jorge became a household name in Brazil in 2001 with the release of his second album, Samba Esporte Fino. It was also his first international album, in which he mixed the disco and funk he'd fallen in love with as a kid with traditional Brazilian sounds.

But then, in 2004, came the role that pushed him into cult-classic status around the world. "One day I'm at my home, and someone calls me. I grab the telephone, but I don't understand any words the guy says to me."

A Tribute To Caetano Veloso
A Tribute To Caetano Veloso

He handed the phone to his wife. It was director Wes Anderson, who was putting together a movie, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. He wanted to know if Seu Jorge could do covers of a handful of David Bowie songs. Seu Jorge said yes, and moved to Italy to start working on the film, in which he plays Pele Dos Santos, a musician who travels with the oceanographic expedition.

He changed the lyrics in translation: "There are so many things of the heart that I cannot understand," he says. The covers are filled with saudade, a form of Brazilian melancholy and homesickness. Seu Jorge says the hostility toward black men he encountered in Italy gave his work its sad tone.

"I suffered a lot of racists in Italy," he says. "When I would go out and go to my home ... I'd need to go to the pharmacy, buy stuff for my kids ... get a cab. Normal things. And people don't look at me like a good person, because I'm black."

The result, however, was stunning. Bowie himself said, "Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with."

Several years later, Seu Jorge says he's no longer melancholy; he's looking forward instead. "I'm trying to follow the same steps as these beautiful icons, Brazilian icons, Caetano [Veloso], Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento's careers."

Paulhino da Vida, Eu sou o samba.
Paulhino da Vida, Eu sou o samba.

He's well on his way.

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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.