Seu Jorge: Favourite of the favelas

Seu Jorge escaped from Rio's shanty towns to become a movie actor and a musician. He tells Phil Meadley his story
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The Independent Culture

Jorge Mario da Silva had a tough upbringing Rio de Janeiro. He worked from the age of 10 repairing tyres to help bring food to the family table, but he aspired to be a musician after watching his dad play percussion. After a string of odd jobs he decided to try to make a living singing in bars around Rio.

But, in 1990, his younger brother Vitorio was fatally wounded in a bungled robbery at a local bakery. Jorge's life disintegrated and he ended up on the streets of Rio, homeless, penniless, and hungry. Life looked extremely bleak. "It's crazy... Jesus Christ... it's not like the movies. It's really bad," Jorge says. He should know, having starred as Knockout Ned in Fernando Meirelles Cidade de Deus (City of God). "Getting out of a favela is a big deal. Gangsters are so powerful. Drug trafficking is rife, and no one has jobs."

"Seu" (it means "Mister") Jorge was lucky. Having lived on the streets for years, one evening at a nightclub he was invited by the respected clarinettist Paulo Moura to audition for a musical. Jorge was told that he had a talent for music and acting. He clocked up more than 20 plays for Rio's state university theatre company. His first instrument was the clarinet, given to him by Moura. It wasn't until years later that he saved up enough money to buy an acoustic guitar - producing a sound that has become his trademark in recent years.

His first band, Farofa Carioca, was formed in 1993, and was a direct result of Jorge's theatrical experiences. Their shows were a colourful melange of actors, musicians, trapeze artists, and jugglers. They became the hottest ticket in Rio, and Jorge, the frontman, became a figure on Rio's vibrant music scene. The band's 1998 debut (and swansong) "Moro No Brazil" ("I live in Brazil") was a hit in Brazil, Portugal and Japan.

Jorge's first solo outing, Samba Esporte Fino (renamed Carolina in this country) was co-produced by the Beastie Boys collaborator Mario Caldato, and its suave retro-Seventies samba-rock production, and Jorge's trademark husky vocal style, established it as a Brazilian classic.

He landed the role of Knockout Ned after being asked to be in a film called Madame Sata (Madam Satan), which was loosely based around the life of a cross-dressing folk hero, Joao Francisco dos Santos. Jorge says he had difficulty relating to the storyline. "Walter Salles was co-producer on both films, and I heard that Fernando Meirelles was having big problems with his casting," Jorge says. "He needed one guy for a special role, and he was thinking of me, but I was already involved with Madame Sata. But the director said he didn't want to use me any more because of my lack of commitment. Four days later Meirelles called me up.He was very persuasive, and after reading the script I decided take the part."

Asked if he feels more of an actor than a musician, he replies; "I feel like Elvis Presley or David Bowie when I act. It's just another expression, even though it's a different technique. I prefer doing little bits of everything from music, to cinema, to theatre."

Jorge's new album, Cru, is a more pared-down and introspective affair than his previous solo outing. Ditching the big horn sections, it also sees him reinterpret songs by Elvis Presley and Serge Gainsbourg. Recorded with the Paris-based Latin DJ Gringo Da Parada, Jorge sees this as his European album. "My friend Jerome Pigeon wanted me to do a record with him for four years, and I was really into the idea because I like these French guys and their understanding of Brazilian music. So I wanted Europe to be a priority for this album because people are so much more open-minded there. In Brazil everyone is waiting to hear this disc, but I think the songs and the concept is a little bit different to what most Brazilians listen to."

As the European music community gets ready to embrace Jorge's music through a number of live dates (including the Royal Festival Hall tonight), he isn't resting on his acting laurels either. Having just been in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and having penned half the film's soundtrack with Portuguese covers of David Bowie classics, he's about to embark on a film with the star of the film Central Station, Fernanda Montenegro. "Where I came from, most people don't live happily ever after," he says. "It's lucky to have a good finish. For me, I don't want to stop because I've had this luck, and I have a good woman, kids, and an opportunity to work, and I don't want to waste it."

Seu Jorge plays the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, tonight. 'Cru' is out now on Beleza Records