Tom Zé: Music Student

Each year at the Red Bull Music Academy we bring some of music’s most interesting characters to chat about their careers. One of the most interesting chats that took place at the 2011 Academy was with Brazilian icon Tom Zé, so we asked Mike Powell to go a bit further and explain just what makes this innovator so special.

Tom Zé Lecture

Tom Zé: Two words, two syllables. A hard t flopping onto a nice soft m only to get swept away by z, which with the possible exception of x is both the alphabet’s most playful letter and its most mysterious. “Tom Zé” ends as quickly as it starts: éeh, a shrug, a flick, whatever. Tom Zé: A brief and herky-jerky thing – a tickle, maybe, or a sneeze. If it weren’t the name he was born with it would be a sound in one of his songs.

His music is thorny fruit: Coarse and prickly outside, sweet and fleshy toward the core. If you didn’t have to deal with the skin the flesh wouldn’t seem half as sweet; if the flesh weren’t so sweet you’d probably just leave the thing alone.

Tom Zé - Jimmy, Renda-Se

Or think of it as collage: An image made from the broken fragments of other images. Sounds in Zé’s songs all seem to have been ripped out from somewhere else and pasted in without any effort to look pretty, leaving jagged edges and harsh contrasts. On “Jimmy Renda-se,” from his 2000 album Jogos De Amar, he builds an entire chord progression out of the sound of car horns honking. Toward the middle of Estudando o Pagode, from 2005, the soothing arpeggios of a harp unfold in the wake of a donkey screaming.

But unlike the tape experiments of John Cage or musique concrète, Zé’s music always follows a through line of rhythm and groove. Maybe it’s the car image that works best in the end: A jalopy bucking cheerfully down the road, muffler duct-taped to its skeleton, coathanger for an antenna, honking to the beat. It looks like garbage but still knows how to move.

Tom Zé - Doi

It also follows the pleasure and comforts of melody: Big, glorious, nursery-rhyme melodies sometimes sung by Zé, sometimes by a small chorus of young women, sometimes by what sounds like 50 people holding hands and spinning in the sunlight. For all its abrasive ideas, the core of Zé’s music is the lullaby, round, and gospel song: Simple forms that have a way of reminding us we’re human.

I should point out that Zé sings in Portuguese. I cannot speak Portuguese. But I know that a baby cries when it wants something and laughs when it’s amused. When Zé sings with passionate, mock-heavy vibrato over the sound of a woman’s brain-splitting orgasm on “Vibração de Carne,” I laugh. When he falls into a steady hush on “So,” I become contemplative. And when he coos and sighs the opening words of “Ui!” like someone blowing the fuzz off a dandelion, I know he has asked me to be happy. It wasn’t until years after I fell in love with his albums that I finally read translations of his lyrics. The experience added nothing. It turned out I didn’t need to know what Tom Zé said to know what he meant.

Tom Zé - Ui! (Você Inventa)

In the late ’60s, Zé was a rising star lumped in with Brazil’s Tropicália movement; by the ’70s he was a semi-irrelevant iconoclast; in the ’80s David Byrne “discovered” him working at a relative’s gas station. Over the past twenty years he has made at least ten new records.

His newer music is as good and often better than anything he made in the ’60s and ’70s. It is also more or less the same in terms of content and style. Zé doesn’t bother moving with time; time moves around him. It makes sense that at 76 he continues to get better: He has spent 40 years mastering a game whose rules he wrote and which nobody else seems to want to play. The biggest difference between a song like “Toc” (from 1976) and “Piexe Viva” (from 2000) is that one was somehow recorded before samplers existed.

Tom Zé - Peixe Viva (Iê-Quitíngue)

Zé is a radical at heart. He wants to challenge, to recontextualize, to shake up. He is also paradoxically obsessed with tradition. One of his albums is called Estudando o Samba, another Estudando o Pagode and another Estudando a Bossa: Studying the samba, pagode and the bossa nova. His music doesn’t break from the past, it celebrates it. Then it takes it, chews it up, spits it out onto the table and starts fingerpainting.

Part of it is that Zé is resourceful. He turns bike pumps into percussion instruments and in live performances has been known to sing out of the local phone book. But it’s also about pride in where he comes from. Unlike most of the Tropicálists he started out with, Zé never sounds anything but Brazilian. Rock music seems to have rubbed off on him only insofar as there was a distant time when rock music was funny and a little bit dangerous. Album after album he finds new ways to deconstruct the music he was born with. Speaking at Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid, he described the experience of bossa nova – Brazil's familiar, mellow, unanimously popular version of samba – as "overwhelming,” like “a girlfriend with three pussies.”

Tom Zé - Menina Amanha de Manha

There is a story about Tom Zé I like – a story about how he keeps young in old age, a story about how his music is both weird and for the people. In 2004 or 2005 he brought some rough tracks from Estudando o Pagode to some teenagers to see what they thought. They listened. They commented. They, in Zé’s own words, “recommended substituting melodies, noting when the theme would be difficult to sing at a party.”

There is no question in my mind that nothing from Estudando o Pagode has ever been sung by teenagers at a party, or probably by teenagers in any situation. Zé’s mischievous grace is that at 69 years old, he still cared about what teenagers thought and still assumed – probably rightly – that parties were the same things they’d always been.

By Mike Powell on April 9, 2013

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