Zumbi

Lyrics from “Zumbi” by Jorge Ben

Album: A Tábua de Esmeralda (1974)

Angola, Congo, Benguela

Monjolo, Cabinda, Mina

Quiloa, Rebolo

Here where the men are

There’s a big auction

They say that in the auction,

There’s  a princess for sale

Who came, together with her subjects

Chained on an oxcart

I want to see, I want to see, I want to see

Angola, Congo, Benguela

Monjolo, Cabinda, Mina

Quiloa, Rebolo

Here where the men are

To one side, sugarcane

To the other side, the coffee plantation

In the middle, seated gentlemen

Watching the cotton crop, so white

Being picked by black hands

I want to see, I want to see, I want to see

When Zumbi arrives

What will happen

Zumbi is a warlord

A lord of demands

When Zumbi arrives, Zumbi

Is the one who gives orders

I want to see, I want to see, I want to see

–Interpretation–

Jorge Ben (now known as Jorge Ben Jor) was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1942.  His first major hit was “Mas que nada,” a catchy samba-pop song released in 1963 and subsequently re-recorded around the globe.  With his fusion of samba, bossa nova, rock, rhythm and blues and African American soul music, Jorge Ben did not easily fit in with either the MPB or the Jovem Guarda movements that dominated the Brazilian music scene at the time. He tried to reconcile this by declaring in a song that he came from “the jovem-samba” (“eu sou da jovem-samba”). It didn’t work; the name jovem-samba didn’t catch on (later, samba-rock would stick), and  Caetano Veloso says Jorge Ben was “ostracized by the more prestigious figures” of Brazil’s music and arts scene at the time.  Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who were playing together in Bahia in the early to mid 1960s,  had a deep reverence for Jorge Ben.  Caetano even recounts a time when Gil declared that he would “never again sing any of his own songs because there was a new guy by the name of Jorge Ben who did everything Gil thought he himself ought to be doing”; Caetano found this posture to be a bit exaggerated, and appreciated that it did not last long (though Gil did play one concert of entirely Jorge Ben songs).   A few years later, in 1968, Jorge Ben aligned himself with the tropicalist movement led by Gil and Veloso. Today, Jorge Ben is known as the “father of samba-rock,” a genre whose origins are traced to his 1967 album, Bidu-Silêncio no Brooklin (Brooklin is the name of a neighborhood in São Paulo), which he recorded with the Brazilian rock band The Fevers.

What set Jorge Ben apart at the time, and earned such admiration from Gil and others, was not only his unique musical style but his artistic stance: Veloso describes him as “not only the first great black composer since bossa nova…[but] also and most importantly the first to make that blackness the determining stylistic element… Jorge Ben brought a tone of black consciousness to Brazilian pop music.”

The song “Zumbi” exemplifies this incorporation of black consciousness in Jorge Ben’s songs.

Jorge Ben celebrated black nobility and female beauty in his songs. In Zumbi, he speaks of an African princess, chained to an oxcart; nobility and beauty are immediately associated with the African woman. The names at the beginning of the song are places in Angola. Zumbi refers to Zumbi dos Palmares (b. 1655 — d. 1695), the last leader of the Quilombo of Palmares.  Quilombos were runaway slave settlements, similar to maroon societies in the southern United States or palenques in Cuba. Palmares was the most well-known of Brazil’s quilombos:  in present-day Alagoas state, Palmares was really a community of  ten quilombos, with a total estimated population of 20,000 in 1671.  Runaway slaves initially settled there sometime around 1580, and the settlement eventually attracted not only a steady stream of runaways from the region’s sugar plantations, but also fugitives of other races, including white women accused of witchcraft. The quilombo’s population boomed during Dutch invasions of Brazil’s northeast (1624 – 1654). Overseers on plantations were distracted, allowing more runaways, and in addition, the Portuguese offered freedom to slaves who fought the Dutch; many slaves took advantage of the chance to leave the plantation, deserted the war effort, and fled to Palmares.

Slave masters led frequent expeditions to try to break up Palmares and recapture runaway slaves. During one such mission, a baby from the quilombo was given to the priest of Porto Calvo. Baptized Francisco, the child grew up learning Portuguese and Latin, until he ran away at fifteen to return to Palmares. He took the name Zumbi, which most likely came from the Bantu word Nzumbi, meaning warrior or religious leader.

Zumbi led the quilombo’s resistance until the Portuguese destroyed the settlement with a massive military invasion in February 1694.  Zumbi survived the attacks and fled, but was captured and killed on November 20, 1695. Indignant, the Portuguese put Zumbi’s head on a post on display in Recife, Brazil, in an effort to quiet rumors of his immortality.  Nonetheless,  the myth surrounding Zumbi only grew after his death. To this day he remains the most powerful symbolic figure of  Afro-Brazilian heritage, and November 20 — the day of his death — was designated Black Awareness Day in Brazil.

In this song, when Ben says “When Zumbi arrives,” he draws upon the  Umbanda religion: he is literally stating that Zumbi’s spirit is going to descend to Earth. Umbanda mixes elements of African religions like Candomblé, indigenous lore, Catholicism, and Spiritism, and maintains that spirits descend and inhabit our bodies, or are reincarnated.

Jorge Ben rarely gives interviews. When he gives interviews, he identifies himself as a Catholic; however, a number of his songs have clear references to the Umbanda religion.

Post by Victoria Broadus (About)

3 thoughts on “Zumbi”

  1. Hi there! I’m actually writing a paper for my Brazilian ethnomusicology course about this song as well as a few other songs you have in your blog (which is fantastic, btw!). I was wondering if you would be able to share some of your sources with me? Many thanks!

    1. Hi! Thanks, I’m glad you’re able to use the blog. In more recent posts I list main sources at the bottom of the page. With older posts like Zumbi, I link within the text to all of the sources.

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