You often hear of certain Christmas records that people say they’d listen to all year round. But this one is in a category all its own, to the point that I’ve been known to play it at summertime rooftop parties if I’m sure nobody there speaks Portuguese—it’s that much of a banger.
In 1978, Jorge Ben was coming off a legendary string of era-defining albums for the Philips label, which he left in a huff after being unhappy with the mastering and cover art of 1976’s mega-classic África Brasil LP, both done in his absence while he was on tour. After the London-recorded one-off Tropical album for Island Records, he signed to the fast-growing Som Livre label (the music branch of the TV Globo network) and kept the funky classics coming, having now also permanently converted to the electric guitar. His debut album for the label, 1978’s A Banda Do Zé Pretinho, proved that he hadn’t lost a step and is quietly one of his funkiest albums, and the holiday season at the end of that year found him riding a wave of momentum.
“Natal Brasileiro (Que Natal É Esse?)” (Brazilian Christmas [What Christmas Is This?]) is Jorge Ben’s only Christmas tune, but he sure made it count. A high-octane samba-funk-disco scorcher, it only indicates its seasonal nature on the intro with a vaguely Christmas-y funk riff augmented by bells that somehow manages to be at once merry and mean. This quickly gives way to a furious up-tempo cuíca-led groove that never lets up as Jorge enumerates the wholesome activities and family fun that make Christmas in Brazil so magical. The band is cooking so hard that some of its members even get name-checked. Make no mistake, this is turbocharged Jorge Ben in overdrive, and its power to rock dance floors is such that, as I noted earlier, the temptation to play it in July will probably prove much too strong to overcome. Any Brazilians present might glance at you and smile or laugh at the fact that you’re playing a Christmas song in summer, but even then they’ll likely understand that you’re only playing it because the groove is so hot.
And if all that isn’t enough to make this 7-inch a must-have, Jorge maintains a similar groove on the flip, a song about surfing in Hawaii called “Waimea 55,000.” Neither of these songs have ever appeared on a Jorge Ben LP, though the A-side was inexplicably included as a bonus track on the 2007 CD reissue of 1986’s Ben Brasil album while the B-side appeared as part of Mr. Bongo’s extensive 7-inch reissue series. The original single also remains surprisingly affordable, but whatever format you choose, it is well worth every single penny.