Tom Zé Info

The Chicago Tribune
May 16, 1999
by Greg Kot

This weekend, members of the Chicago band Tortoise, one of the leading lights of the avant-rock underground, are wrapping up rehearsals with Tom Zé, a 62-year-old musician who speaks only Portuguese and hails from Brazil. When Tortoise backs up Zé on his first tour of North America, including a stop Friday at the Park West, it will mark more than just the long-overdue U.S. debut of one of the world’s great musical innovators. The tour also will punctuate what can only be described as a Brazilian subversion — as opposed to invasion — of the North American pop consciousness, which has been going on for nearly a decade. It’s a slow but widening recognition of the profound innovations occurring in Brazil since “The Girl From Ipanema” started playing in an elevator or dentist’s office near you.

“We’re flattered and super-excited” to work with Zé, says Tortoise’s John McEntire. “We’ve been listening to Brazilian music for years, and I think people in general are listening to different things now and ready to take that leap.”

If so, the time has never been more ripe. Besides Zé’s inaugural visit, Caetano Veloso, arguably the greatest of all the Brazilian singer-songwriters of the last 30 years, will be making his first national tour, with a stop July 13 at Ravinia. In addition, seminal Brazilian albums by the legendary Os Mutantes, who were pursued in vain by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as an opening act for his band’s South American tour, are being reissued in North Amercia by the Omplatten label in New York.

At the recent South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, one of the must-attend events was an early evening party at a downtown dance club with former Talking Heads singer David Byrne, who for two hours played the role of deejay-as-international-tour guide, spinning records from his private collection of avant-pop Brazilian music. Byrne’s Luaka Bop label has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for the latest Brazilian wave. In a few weeks, Luaka Bop will issue an Os Mutantes compilation, Everything is Possible. Last year the label put out the latest in a series of multi-artist anthologies documenting the music of Brazil, Beleza Tropical 2. The first in that series, Beleza Tropical was released in 1989 and served as many indie-rockers’ introduction to the pioneers — Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and others — of the more radical Brazilian music that followed bossa nova.

“The music wasn’t available in this country for a long time except as imports, or sometimes not at all,” says Tortoise’s Doug McCombs. “But now it’s like discovering that all these people were doing really adventurous music that is not like the traditional Brazilian stuff we’re used to hearing.” McEntire echoes the comment. “I remember hearing the first Gal Costa record six or seven years ago and thinking, What is this? It was totally contemporary yet more than 20 years old, and it was much different than what I expected Brazilian pop to sound like.”

McCombs and McEntire were not alone in their once-narrow perception of Brazil pop. Ever since the quiet tropical storm stirred up by “Desafinado” and “The Girl From Ipanema” in the early ’60s, the music of Brazil has meant mostly one thing to North Americans: a tranquil vision of sophistication and sensuality on sun-dappled beaches. In other words, an airline or travel agency commercial. Lounge music. A fantasy. And, also, a distortion. The genius of Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote the bossa novas that put Brazil on the North American musical map, was recogniZéd by performers such as Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra, who devoted entire albums to his ground-breaking blend of cool jazz harmonics, minor-chord pop songs and simmering native rhythm. But his music was just a beginning for Brazil in the global marketplace.

“When bossa nova was exported, it made a statement that was never forgotten, and among serious musicians it was regarded as serious music — and that was a big change for us,” says Veloso, a singer-songwriter of Bob Dylan-like proportion in Brazil, who speaks fluent, British-accented English but composes almost exclusively in his native Portuguese. “But it also became a sort of craZé, a fashion, a superficial way of making commercial music. After that, the vitality and richness of Brazilian popular music could have been forgotten. But bossa nova was not an exception, just a continuation of a very rich tradition that continues to this day.”

That ever-expanding tradition, in all its complexity, is drawing a new wave of North American musicians. Last year, Beck had a hit single with the Brazilian-flavored “Tropicalia”; hip indie-rock bands such as Tortoise, the High Llamas and Stereolab have been exploring tropical grooves and textures on their albums for years, and prominent artists from Byrne and Paul Simon to Arto Lindsay and Peter Gabriel have been building bridges between New York and Sao Paulo, London and Rio in their roles as tastemakers, talent scouts, producers and record-company moguls. If Simon’s albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints filtered Brazilian rhythm through his pop sensibility for Western consumption, Byrne made the more difficult leap of presenting the music in its original form through a series of compilations on Luaka Bop. “When I first heard Tom Zé’s records 10 or 12 years ago, I thought here was a guy who would fit right in with the downtown experimental crowd I grew up with, who grew up listening to the avant-garde and to pop and were combining them in their own music,” Byrne says. “I thought he would fit right in with anyone in New York, Chicago or London making this kind of music, so why not put it out? Yet it has a Brazilian flavor in the melodies, the grooves and the gentleness of the voice, the sensibility, which is a refreshing change from some of the more obscure and aggressive tendencies of the Western avant-garde. Tom’s vision of doing things avant-garde is like a big `yes.’ And that whole movement he was from was like, `Yes, I’ll have some of this and some of that, and some of that, too.’ ”

Zé was one of the cornerstones of a late ’60s movement known as Tropicalia that immediately followed the breakthrough of bossa nova. He was a classically trained composer whose music incorporated sanding machines and drills, found sounds and surreal poetry as well as guitars and drums. “I was unable to make normal music and thought I had no professional future,” says Zé, through a translator. “I challenged myself to do anything possible with a guitar in my hand to make people pay attention. I didn’t know what to call what I was doing. Then I started working with the people who would create (Tropicalia), and this un-music, this anti-music, gave me a context in which to create.”

This was consciously subversive music, introducing electric guitars, rock influences and studio experimentation to Brazilian pop, while at the same time maintaining the high standards of sophistication set by bossa nova. Groups like Os Mutantes appeared at concerts dressed in plastic or shiny reflective costumes that caused nearly as much of a scandal as the band’s psychotropical music.

“We took pleasure in knowing that we struck a nerve,” says the band’s guitarist, Sergio Dias Baptista, in an e-mail interview from Brazil. “The idea was to destroy all formulas... We hated all that was established, and we mocked all.”

The lyrics were poetic, playful and politically subversive, the music as daring as the most adventurous art-rock from the West while remaining unreservedly Brazilian in its rhythmic pulse, its melodic lilt. “Panis Et Circensis (Bread and Circuses),” the opening track on Os Mutantes’ first album, is a tour de force; written by Veloso and Gil and produced by Rogerio Duprat, who is Tropicalia’s answer to George Martin, the song is a statement about sound that rivals the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” or the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” But it’s also shot through with sarcastic lyrics that evoke Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” about “those people in the dining room” hopelessly out of touch with the new Brazil.

Whereas bossa nova was embraced by virtually all Brazilians, Tropicalia tore the country apart: Leftists denounced it as a sellout to North American pop; Rightists saw it as a threat to the social order. Veloso and Gil, the prime architects of the movement, were jailed and eventually kicked out of the country for their troublemaking by the military government.

Veloso and Gil returned from two-year exile in 1972 as heroes, and their music changed, leaving behind some of Tropicalia’s more blatant rock-inspired sensationalism. But the underlying impulse of Tropicalia — confronting a Brazil in transition between Third World tradition and Western modernity — remains. In Veloso’s classic 1989 song “O Estrangeiro (The Stranger),” he addressed this theme again, more ambivalent than ever about his beautiful yet deeply troubled homeland, and paraphrasing Dylan at the close to sum up the post-bossa-nova era: “Some may like a soft Brazilian singer/But I’ve given up
all attempts at perfection.”

The new Brazilian music lives in these contradictions, in the way it celebrates opposites by combining them. On one level it is comforting and exotic, but look deeper and this deceptively gentle music seethes with unsettling emotions and sounds. Little wonder that a new generation of North American musicians is drawing inspiration from it.

“I love the strangeness of Brazil, its failure, its difficulties, because it points to something else,” Veloso says. “I love its racial configurations — it’s so miscegenated — it creates lots of confusions, and I love the myth of racial democracy and the problems that it brings about. I love this complexity and I believe that Brazil could bring, through its popular music, a new note to the feeling of being in the world.”


Brazil’s music, like its people, is a hybrid, a blend of Portuguese, African and Indian influences. Tropicalia is the sound that bloomed from that diversity in the late ’60s, a bold, experimental music that explodes quaint fantasies about the land of the bossa nova. What follows is a brief guide to the music of that era and beyond.

Tropicalia 30 Anos (Mercury/Polygram, 1998): A five-CD box set that packages the essential music from the late ’60s uprising led by Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes. Their debut albums are as key to their time in Latin America as Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds were to rock in the West.

Gilberto Gil, Rafavela (Warner Music Brazil, 1977): The Tropicalia pioneer filters the music of Nigeria into a funk masterpiece.

Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical (Luaka Bop, 1989): The David Byrne-compiled overview that got the Tropicalia ball rolling in North America.

Caetano Veloso, Estrangeiro (Nonesuch, 1989), Without Handkerchief Without Document: The Best of Caetano Veloso (Verve/Polygram, 1990), Livro (Nonesuch, 1999): A gentle voice, poetic lyrics that are both acerbic and allusive, stunning arrangements. Veloso is among the giants of 20th Century music.

Tom Zé, Brazil Classics 4: The Music of Tom Zé (Luaka Bop, 1990), Fabrication Defect (Luaka Bop, 1998): Zé was the forgotten genius of Tropicalia until Byrne rediscovered him. The 1990 compilation of Zé’s early experimental pop suggests a more playful Frank Zappa, while Fabrication Defect blends lustrous melodies with funhouse effects, including the inimitable sound of Zé rubbing a balloon on a tooth to create an infectious groove.

Marisa Monte, Rose and Charcoal (Capital, 1994): A cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” and a collaboration with Laurie Anderson invite Westerners into the singer’s seductive take on the post-Tropicalia sound of Musica Popular Brasileira.

Carlinhos Brown, Omelete Man (Metro Blue/Capitol, 1999): Thirty years later, the spirit of Tropicalia is carried on in this visionary, genre-spanning work. One of this year’s best albums.

Os Mutantes, Everything is Possible (Luaka Bop, 1999): A new anthology of Tropicalia’s wildest children; one of the first psychedelic era’s finest bands.

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