The Brazilian Tragicomedy Of Tom Zé

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Music Features Tom Ze
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On a stiflingly hot Brazilian summer afternoon, I’m in the São Paulo apartment of a man whom the international press has called a cultural cannibal,

a revolutionary anarchist, a mad scientist, a rebel master and a Brazilian madman. “Europe calls me ‘dada,’ the United States calls me ‘odd,’ ‘weirdo,’ and all these names which mean misguided,” says Tom Zé, grinning wryly when asked about his iconoclasm. “There is an exacerbated attempt to classify everything in sight. They have to fit me somewhere, don’t they?”

His answer, I confess, makes me feel a bit silly, but I couldn’t have avoided the question. Not while sitting in front of this vigorous 70-year-old man, whose recorded output reflects his abundant energy. Physically and musically, Zé is still in great shape: he’s animated, agile and verbally formidable. His face shows no signs of fatigue, even after 40 years in the trenches of a singular musical style so daring and fearless that, in 1960s Brazil, not even the cannibalistic Tropicália movement understood him.

Persistently experimental, from the beginning of his career Zé has established a restless tradition of manipulating elements from Brazilian music and international pop and rock. A voracious provocateur, in his lyrics Zé resorts to nonsense, biting wit and a very peculiar sense of humor. His good-natured nonconformity can be exemplified in “Complexo de Épico” (“Epic Complex”), from the album Todos os Olhos (All The Eyes, 1973), where he mocks the blasé aura of his contemporaries:

Every Brazilian composer
suffers from a complex
Why then this darn habit
this concern of speaking so seriously
of being so serious, of playing
so seriously, of loving so seriously?
Oh, dear God, go do that in hell!

Despite an unavoidable association with Tropicália—the ’60s Brazilian music/cultural movement that arose as a reaction against social and political apathy as well as shallow pop pabulum (and was heavily censured by the right-wing dictatorship as a result)—Zé distances himself from the label today, despite appearing on the cover of Tropicalia album/manifesto Ou Panis et Circensis with the movement’s leaders, and despite serving two jail terms for his art. “During Tropicalismo I practically didn’t make any music. It wasn’t a very productive phase for me. I did what I did, but I wasn’t part of it when it started to become serious,” he says.

During the ’70s, when the Brazilian dictatorship was tough as ever and the Tropicalia movement ended, Zé proceeded with his kaleidoscopic experiments, feeding his “voracious curiosity,” he says. While his contemporaries from Brazil’s Bahia region—Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso—smoothed out their sounds to become the leading lights of MPB (Brazilian Popular Music), Zé followed a musical path that was daring and increasingly uncommercial.

“They were consistently making music within the mainstream, within beauty,” he explains. “I was making a sort of madness that was not called music. I was making ugly music, which was starting to be more and more interesting. I wasn’t making contemplative music, I was throwing line and bait to the audience’s cognition.”

In 1973 Zé released Todos os Olhos, a challenging record that quickly went out of print. But it was the bold deconstruction of traditional samba in Estudando o Samba (Studying Samba, 1975) that put him in the spotlight once and for all. During the ’80s, Zé had found refuge in São Paulo’s university community—supporting himself playing improvised shows and working odd jobs—when ex-Talking Head David Byrne, by then the owner of the Luaka Bop label, discovered him in 1988. Ironically, the record that had seemingly ended Zé’s commercial career was the same one that caught Byrne’s attention. “[Byrne] heard [the record] and found the music that was there, which everyone in Brazil pretended had never existed. He released [The Best of Tom Zé: Massive Hits, 1990] in the United States, and it was a great public and sales success, and then it was also successful in Europe. And then Brazil, very much against its will, had to put up with me. David Byrne is an irresponsible apostate, heretic, agnostic foreigner, coming here and causing all this damage to Brazil by digging me up. I was dead!” says Zé, without a trace of bitterness.

Now, 30 years after Estudando o Samba, Zé is releasing Estudando o Pagode (Studying Pagode), an extended operetta parody of the record that put him on the map. It’s a dense, ambitious fusion of big ideas and insider references. With nods to Bach, Antonio Carlos Jobim and others, Zé uses 16 songs and three acts to tell of the oppression of women in Western civilization. All this is accompanied by an exploration of pagode, a populist subgenre of samba. It could’ve been an overwrought mess; instead it’s a delicious, intelligent, high-spirited ?nal product from the fertile mind of Tropicália’s black sheep.

A little upset by some U.S. articles that have treated the theme as if it has no contemporary relevance, Zé warns: “Let them know that if they have already dealt with the women’s issue, I advise them not to release the record in the U.S.A. It is nonsense.” Zé also insists that the record doesn’t deal with “feminist issues,” per se. “I don’t want to pose as a politically correct guy in order to seem kind. That’s not it. It’s not a feminist record; it’s a masculinist record. What I ask men is: ‘is it really worth keeping on mistreating women, considering all the damage it causes?’ If a man ends up with a suspicious, uncomfortable partner, she won’t show him the sacred secret of deep intimacy, for he is a potential enemy. He helped instill hell in her. Tell the Americans that, so they won’t think I am talking about a different world.”

In order to construct this ambitious project, Zé enlisted many young Brazilian artists. But it’s not only young Brazilians who love Zé’s music. American artists are also in the sway of the “Brazilian madman”; Tortoise (who has toured with Zé), The High Llamas, Sean Lennon and Amon Tobin are but a few.

“Boy, this is an amazing thing,” Zé says. “Every time there are more and more young people. What makes me be so in-touch with them is the fact that I don’t sell songs. What I sell is something called rebellion—something the generation of people in their 13 to 30s need.”

Even though Luaka Bop has compiled Zé’s first works in Best of Tom Zé: Massive Hits, it’s still worth searching import bins for the complete records.

Grande Liquidacáo (1968) The man from Bahia may be uncomfortable with the Tropicália label, but his first record is one of the movement’s best examples. All the ingredients are there: rock ‘n’ roll, psychedelic music and Brazilian popular music. It includes the classics “São São Paulo,” “Parque Industrial” and the British-Invasion-esque “Namorinho de Portão.”

Todos os Olhos (1973) Here is where Zé started developing a side of his personality that was more challenging and experimental, beginning with the cover: at first glance an eye, but actually a marble in an anal orifice. Under the nose of Brazil’s dictatorship, Zé unleashed his most irreverent, mocking record yet.

Estudando o Samba (1975) This is the album that made David Byrne’s jaw drop. And it merits the reaction, documenting Zé’s most fertile and creative period. Zé makes the traditional samba and bossa-nova formats sound fresh and unusual.

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