To close the Hollywood Bowl’s World Festival 2000 series, El Salvador’s Daniela Mercury electrified the crowd with her nonstop energy and pizzazz, and Rio de Janiero’s Jorge Ben Jor pulled out several gems from his imposing song catalog. Carnaval vibes pervaded the whole evening.
Ben Jor came in on the big Brazilian wave of the 1960s, his songs popularized by the likes of Sergio Mendes, Hugh Masekela and Herb Alpert — and it was great to encounter older tunes like “Zazueira” with a relaxed groove, “Pais Tropical” with a pumping ska rhythm and “Mas Que Nada” segueing into and out of “Constant Rain.”
Ben Jor, and Mercury, too, gets a lot of his inspiration from North America. Besides sporting bright, vibrant vocals, he’s a strong rhythm guitarist, pulling James Brown, the Memphis Stax soul groove, jazz-light stylings, even the Rolling Stones into a tasty black bean/soul food stew. At times, his set seemed Brazilian only by virtue of the language, but his fine band could also turn on the pure samba with a wild percussion-only jam.
Mercury was making her Los Angeles debut — and the slim, beautiful, athletic, clear-voiced singer-dancer worked feverishly to ignite a fire in this vast, intimidating amphitheater, with only a brief break to change outfits over the 82-minute stretch.
Her music has been tagged samba reggae, but only in a handful of numbers (“Nobre Vagabundo,” in particular) could one detect a reggae element in the guitar and rhythm section. Samba there is, to be sure, but the emphasis is mostly on the big battering drums (they looked like oversized tom-toms) churning out what sounds like a complex, high-powered Bahian translation of American dance pop.
Whatever the label for her sound, Mercury is a totally captivating performer, smashing the language barrier with her flashy moves and vocals, with a large corps of musicians and dancers clad in fluorescent-colored outfits fueling the fire. When she wants to, she can also reach back in time and captivate us with a cool, bossa nova-like ballad (“Sou Voce”). If Mercury ever decided to take the plunge and go into American pop all the way, she could be as big as Britney Spears.