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Estudando Tom Zé

On October 5, the belatedly renowned Brazilian avant-pop musician Tom Zé released Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza, his seventh album since 1990 and fifth since 1998. This means that between the ages of 62 and 74, Tom Zé created close to four hours of songs that I expect to play with pleasure when and if I reach 74. Cognizant that whens get iffier in an artist's seventies, Luaka Bop, where five of Zé's albums appeared--the other two are on the Brazilian labels Trama and Irara, the latter a DIY operation named after Zé's hometown in the Bahia backlands--supplied him with a second October 5 release. The box set Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You is built around three remastered vinyl versions of Zé's "Estudando" series--"estudando" meaning "studying," the topics samba in general and the hyperromantic pop samba called pagode as well as bossa nova on the new one. The audio upgrade is striking especially on Zé's first and finest U.S. album, Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé: Massive Hits. Whether improved hi-fi and a few extras are worth $70 list you can judge by perusing this description, which I wrote to the same end that Luaka Bop concocted the box: to get people to notice Tom Zé, an artist worthy of your attention and excitement, your amusement and wonder.

Next to the U.S. and arguably Great Britain, Brazil is home to the richest popular music culture in the world--a culture of extraordinary rhythmic wealth, harmonic savoir-faire, verbal ambition, historical complexity, and intellectual ferment. Were I a fan of the music these factors have produced, I could mount an even more convincing case for Tom Zé. Instead I'll just say that many Tom Zé boosters share my disinterest in samba and its innumerable relatives and derivatives. Where almost all Brazilian pop cultivates a smoothness, Zé is rough, spiky, peculiar, blatantly avant-garde. Yet he never sacrifices melody or ignores groove and is often hooky, as befits a onetime jingle writer who's said that no cultural treasure matches an enduring folk tune. There's no one like him--the vaguely similar Captain Beefheart is a big baby having a tantrum by comparison. Zé is so much kinder, wiser, saner.

For reasons I've understood better since the Zé box inspired me to finally read Caetano Veloso's critical memoir Tropical Truth, Brazilian music doesn't mesh too good with rock and roll. In the U.S. it attracts mostly jazz fans, an affair that began with the circa-1957 invention of bossa nova by Joao Gilberto, who turned samba into a sophisticated "new thing" by complicating its chords, understating its beats, and murmuring its vocals. Veloso adores Gilberto--"popular music is the Brazilian form of expression par excellence," declares this well-read cineaste, and "Joao takes popular music upon himself as the determinant of what truth we might be permitted and could create." In contrast, the pop that Yanks were rocking around the clock in the '50s was "too simple," "unoriginal," with a "whorehouse-edge."

Tropical Truth is Veloso's eyewitness history of Bahia-generated tropicalia, which in the late '60s responded dialectically to bossa nova by reconfiguring the left orthodoxy of the broadly influential Musica Popular Brasileira movement at what it considered a higher level of radical consciousness. But ultimately Veloso's book, which praises many writers and filmmakers as well as musicians, is an argument for all of Brazil as culture and nation--and as such the most accomplished criticism by a pop musician I know. There's juicier writing about musicians from Robert Johnson to Ricky Nelson in Bob Dylan's Chronicles. But Dylan doesn't approach--nor, simple Ricky Nelson fan that he is, aspire to--the theoretical grasp of Veloso, whose empathy and precision had me speeding happily through decriptions of artist after artist I'd never heard of.

By 1965, the restless pop scene Veloso celebrates was a staple of both TV programming and highbrow critique; his first published essay attacked a 1966 book that inveighed against bossa nova's class politics (a whole book! in 1966!). He describes these developments so vividly that I returned with fresh ears to the seminal eccentric Gilberto, who I once considered oversubtle and now enjoy in a contemplative way, and the young rock band Os Mutantes, who I once considered overelaborate and now hear as melodically uncanny adolescent gigglefritzes who hadn't yet gone the way of all prog. Veloso is so effusive and convincing about the musicality of his tropicalia comrade Gilberto Gil, who was imprisoned with him in 1968 and served from 2003 to 2008 as Lula da Silva's minister of culture, that I also heard more on my second pass at Gil's breakaway albums Gilberto Gil (1968, with Os Mutantes) and Expresso 2222 (1972, might as well have been).

Then there's the music of Veloso himself. With Gil I've been a fan in principle since 1982's grooveful Um Banda Um although it took Veloso to teach me that for Gil, a dark-skinned doctor's son who came late to black consciousness, harmony and melody are paramount--that like so many Brazilian musicians he's ultimately a child of Joao Gilberto. Veloso, the proudly Europhile son of a telegraph operator, has always been a trickier read, and I do mean read. His penetrating delicacy as a singer can't be denied by anyone who's caught his cameo in Pedro Almodovar's Talk to Her, but one reason the man is so into it is that he cares about lyrics as a songwriter, an interpreter, and for that matter a critic. Only if so, how does anyone who doesn't understand Portuguese address the oft-heard claim that Veloso is nothing less than the world's premier popular musician?

I've made progress with Veloso by bearing down on 1989's Estrangeiro, produced by Brazilian-raised no wave graduate Arto Lindsay, and 2003's The Best of Caetano Veloso, which leads with Estrangeiro's title song--Veloso's single most compelling track, greatly intensified by a trot in which he situates Paul Gauguin, Cole Porter, and Claude Levi-Strauss on Rio's Guanabara Bay before exploring his own tropical alienation in fact and metaphor. Like every Nonesuch Veloso, The Best of Caetano Veloso provides Portuguese lyrics alongside their translations so you can follow sound and meaning together. But though this is the most we can hope, to me it's never enough, because while printed lyrics are invaluable, the best way to hear music is with your ears. That's why groove musics, usually dance musics, breach language barriers more easily than song musics. There are too many exceptions to this generalization to enumerate or explain, but sonic distinction, vocal character, vocal virtuosity, and nonverbal humor are all common mitigating factors. And where Veloso is the kind of great pop singer who makes up for what he lacks in vocal character with vocal virtuosity and vice versa, Tom Zé has significant strengths in all but vocal virtuosity.

Although Zé was aligned with tropicalia, Charles A. Perrone's 1983 Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song barely mentions him, where Christopher Dunn's 2001 tropicalia study Brutality Garden gives him a chunk of its final chapter. What happened in between was that Luaka Bop headman David Byrne discovered Zé by accident in a Rio de Janeiro LP bin just when Zé was about to give up on his musical career. Zé's father was a street vendor who used a lottery jackpot to start a textile store in Irara, a settlement so pre-modern that Zé saw electricity arrive there as a kid. He had some minor pop success in the '60s, even taking over Veloso and Gil's televised revue Divine Marvelous for a few weeks after they were detained. But he also studied classical music at the University of Bahia with Swiss and German emigres dedicated to dodecaphony, instrument fabrication, and avant-traditional Euro-Brazilian fusion. Usually such connections signal the presence of interesting minds at best and misbegotten wankery the rest of the time. One reason Zé sounds like no one else is that he puts all these ideas into effective practice.

Veloso has said that where bossa nova made unusual chords flow, tropicalia juxtaposed standard-issue major chords oddly. With Zé, it's more like juxtaposing unusual chords so they move smartly, usually in a staccato samba rhythm. He's been inventing instruments since the '70s, including a primitive sampler utilizing taped radio frequencies called the HertZé and a kazoo constructed from the leaves of Sao Paulo's ubiquitous ficus tree. And perhaps because he grew up in a culture considerably more oral and "primitive" than that of most Brazilians, he uses the avant to flavor the trad rather than the other way around.

Reimmersing in Zé's albums was both more revelatory and more pleasurable than such nice-work-if-you-can-get-it can be. They'd all been A's by me, but the only ones that didn't improve as I listened were the first two, which had already become life favorites on a C-90 I took on vacation for years--especially the first, Byrne's cherry-picked improvement on Estudando o Samba, which he turned into Brazil Classics 4. Recorded mostly when Zé was about 40, it mines his beginnings as a guitar-strumming chronicler of Irara--his voice is still supple enough to sweeten his adept tunes, yet never undercuts what Veloso describes as "his ill-humored observations expressed in a rural accent that revealed rather than obscured the classical elegance of his educated and correct Portuguese." Zé's minimalism is out front in such titles as "Ma," "Hein?," "Doi," "Vai," and "To" ("I'm"), with lyrics to match. The eccentric percussion--one effect involves a blender--is always beatwise. But the album sticks in the mind most vividly via the guitar riffs that anchor "Ma," "Nave Maria," and "Augusta, Angelica e Consolacao," the latter two Byrne add-ons. As for how it studies samba, my understanding is so rudimentary that I can only say I know I'd love it even more if I got the references, which I bet are sometimes in the spare beats.

Released in 1992, Brazil Classics 5: The Return of Tom Ze: The Hips of Tradition elaborates a similar approach, although on the surface the traditions are often literary rather than musical--Faulkner, Simon Schama, Stanislaw Lem, many Brazilians. Past 55 by then, Zé enlisted more instrumental and vocal help in delivering his melodies--including the female choruses toward which he'd soon gravitate. His next Luaka Bop release came six years later: a concept album, let's call a spade a spade, entitled Fabrication Defect. At 62, Zé changed his music considerably, and although Massive Hits will always be my first love, I've come to prefer this late phase--its reach-grasp problems are within reason, and its music keeps unfolding. Every time I listen I notice some new melodic curve or harmonic wrinkle, some sly fissure or chuckle in Zé's creaky voice, some humorous turn in the melodicism of his helpmeets, some unlikely sound, some hint of an idea.

What has become my favorite of these albums has plenty of vocals but very few words and is already unavailable every which way but digital even though it was self-released only four years ago. While devoid of Zé the cancionista, the 30-minute, seven-track Danc-Eh-Sa has everything else non-Lusophones love him for: the hooks, the sounds, the beats, the irreverence. But for Zé to put himself out there in such pure form also helps me appreciate what can happen when I can read along. For me, his other Brazil-only release, 2001's enjoyable Jogos de Armar--which comes with a 44-minute bonus disc of riffs, lines, and tracks lifted from the main disc to help others plagiarize him--tends to recede into the conceptual distance with no English-language documentation to anchor it.

The three Luaka Bop albums offer English in abundance, and it adds something. The songs on Fabrication Defect address an explicit theme with Zé's typical array of warmth and irony, asperity and obscurity: that the Third World's "rapidly increasing population" of "'androids'" are afflicted with "inborn 'defects': they think, they dance, they dream." Estudando o Pagode is a scattershot samba operetta about the oppression of women with female choruses all over it and many high points, from the Greek chorus of cartoon characters reciting the Hail Mary at the beginning to "Beatles by the Bushel" at the end. My favorite track, situated "Scene IV--Gay-Lesbian Parade," is called "Elaeu," a very Zéesque conflation of "she" and "I." This album has wheels within wheels. I look for excuses to play it again.

As befits its subject, the new Estudando o Bossa is lighter and more immediate, with nearly every fetching melody shared if not borne by yet another fetching female singer with her own register, timbre, and presence. I know there are melodic and lyrical in-jokes that Brazilians will get and I won't, and I wish someone would explicate--in English. But here there are references I do understand--two songs praising Joao Gilberto, another that has a laugh about "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," namechecked singers who ring a bell. I'll take its pervasive beauty as an old man's reconciliation with a Rio lyricism whose class politics he rejected as a Bahia youth who knew a little about harmony himself. And I'll note that though Veloso brought Zé south and Byrne saved him from returning to Irara to run a gas station, he's long resided not in Rio but a few hundred miles west in industrial Sao Paulo, where he can comfortably remain as spiky as he wants for as long as he likes. Or not, if that's where he chooses to take the new music I trust we'll be hearing soon enough.

Except in the name of its hero, no diacritical marks were exploited in the publication of this essay.

Barnes & Noble Review, November 18, 2010