Estudande O Pagode: Na Opereta Segregamulher E Amor
Tom Zé ? An operetta? Really?
There are those who might wonder how this outsider wizard of Brazilian song, whose contributions to tropicalia and everything after have gleefully poked at and toyed with and mangled tradition, might pull off such a grandiose thing. Zé resides far from cultural “acceptance”, after all. He’s a song insurgent. A teller of short and wonderful tales, some kissed with a magic realism and others a dada sense of juxtapositional delight. A key endearing trait of his texts is their unhingedness: Zé isn’t known for selling one big idea through verse after repetitive verse. He skips around, starts stories in the middle. A connected work with a defined narrative arc, like an operetta, hasn’t, to this point, been part of his playbook.
And yet here comes the richly imagined and surprisingly unified Estudando O Pagode, an intricate series of portraits and conversations that could align into an evening’s entertainment, a staged theatrical event. It’s already big in France, where the critic for Le Figaro calls it a “loving and compassionate apology…16 stories (and 16 styles of pagode) of strong, courageous, mythical women.” It’s already netted a Latin Grammy nomination. And it’s caused many who thought they knew Tom Zé to think again: One review raved at the way Estudando weaves together popular proverbs and homage-like references to towering feats of Brazilian song and profound observations on men and women. “Tom Zé is juggling brilliantly with all the tools of modernity.”
The mercurial bard of Sao Paulo, who was born in 1936, has no plans for a theatrical presentation of his own. But he’s open to the idea if others are interested. Were he to mount such a production, he indicates, the look of it would be austere – as he says, “poor theater”, in the manner of Polish theatrical minimalist Jerzy Grotowski, with little scenery and men dressed as beggars to symbolizé “their situation in relation to women given how badly they have treated them for so many centuries.”
That treatment is at the center of the “story” of Estudando, a sprawling series of vignettes that use a wide-ranging multi-cultural mythology of Zé’s making to chronicle the repression of women throughout history. Each is set to a variant of pagode, which began as an improvised style among samba masters and is currently enjoying a rebirth in Brazilian street culture.
“I chose pagode because it’s a very popular music despised by the middle class,” Zé told a French magazine, explaining that pagode once refered to informal meetings of samba songwriters sharing and improvising together. The lyrics addressed daily matters with double entendre and sarcasm. Now, Zé says, the meaning of pagode has changed. “It’s a dance music, a poor style, very popular in the lower classes. The lyrics are very macho-istic. In the pagode the woman is treated like meat. One of the biggest hits was the bottle dance: There’s a bottle on the ground, above which a woman shades and bends down as if to sit on the bottleneck. This music segregates women. By studying this musical genre, I wanted to show the way women are treated.”
The subject is not one Zé, a voracious reader who’s drawn inspiration from history once or twice, arrived at casually. Several years ago, he began to read about instances where one society exerted power over others – Nazi Germany, the slavetraders who shipped Africans to North America, etc. He discovered that there was much written about the enslavement of men, but comparatively little about women in similar circumstances. This led to the realization that all women everywhere have, in a sense, been oppressed. And that led him to a study of masculine and feminine power, and then to the cultural historian Riane Eisler, whose book The Chalice and the Sword: Our History, Our Future, is cited by Zé as an influence. (Among the others is Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, to whom Estudando is dedicated, and Juca de Oliveira’s play Any Alley Cat Has a Healthier Sexuality Than We Do.)
To develop his theme, Zé went back, way back, to feudal Europe and the rise of nomadic pastoralism. “There’s a connection between territory as property and women as property as well,” Zé explains. His big idea: “Slavery and the slaughter of animals for subsistence is also at the root of the idea of women as procreative or as technology for sexual reproduction. As a man’s property, a woman’s sexuality must be controlled so that it may serve the “owner.”
It’s a heavy topic. But don’t expect hectoring heaviosity. Because Zé , subversive genius, is exploring these ideas through songs as infectious as any in his rich catalog. Estudando hinges on a diabolical contrast: In this tableaux, the blitheness of Brazilian song from the bossa forward collides with talk-sung accounts of the meanness of men, and the headstrong harshness of male-dominated culture. The result is a glimpse inside the at once sanguine and unsettled Brazilian soul, poised on the outside and churning up, maybe burning up, within.
Musically, the work has many of the elements Zé has used for years – electronic blips cut into odd shapes, chainsaws, and a new homemade instrument he fashioned from rolling the leaves of the ficus tree, and then carefully blowing air into them. There are moments of characteristic Zé pastiche – Estudando opens with a fractured rendition of “Ave Maria” punctuated by a woman yelling “Bastard”, which Zé explains this way: “I create clashes to open up gaps in time.” There are other passionate outbursts – several times the music is offset by a woman’s extended orgasmic cries, or a braying donkey – but then come utterly wrenching plaintive melodies, cast from the embers of the bossa nova (Vinicius de Moraes is namechecked, and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi” serves as indicidental music for one scene). In Zé’s storytelling the context changes often – among the settings are the Garden of Eden, a theater in Brazil, a Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade at the Vatican – and so, inevitably, do the moods.
To keep up with this swirl, the voices have to change as well. At times, Zé appears as the strapping young Maneco Tatit or the middle-class reactionary Dr. Burgone; his female counterparts (the alto Luciana Mello and soprano Suzana Salles) also assume several characters. Salles plays women whose names are derived from those of popular singers – Monica Sun Muse (a reference to Monica Salmaso) and Rebeca do Mato (Rebeca da Mata).
Estudando opens at a trial. We hear a chorus of real-live praying women, who were recruited from a poor neighborhood of Sao Paulo and are known for spending their days in prayer. Following the solemn “Ave Maria”, there comes an opposing “chorus of accusers” who proclaim that “Women are evil.” Having established these polarities, Zé then begins to give them nuance: The first “witness” is Rebeca do Mato, who embodies the woman’s predisposition to caring: “If you come with a good vibe,” she tells Tatit, “I’ll take you into my lap, give you bread and porridge. But if you come with a club, bring it on cause I’ll have sticks and stones.”
From there, Estudando moves to the garden of Aphrodite, where a pagode group is playing and Tatit is swooning as he offers a love proposal. First he’s rebuffed, but then, in the aria “I Want To Think”, Mello, as the object of his affection Beth Calla-os-Mares, tells him she’ll consider his case – after she gets him thinking about man’s cruelty to women. This sets up much of the remainder of the work: Starting on slave ships, Zé – in the role of “women’s advocate” because, as he says, “they need one” – talks of the injustices visited upon women through history. Sometimes the “action” plays out in a mythological setting, sometimes it’s as an exchange between various groups (the Cinema Novo Chorus, the Chorus of Concrete Poetry) who have been oppressed; a surreal scene at the United Nations Security Council includes a debate about segregating women from pagode. Similarly, the airing of grievances takes on many forms: In the riveting “Two Opinions”, Zé as Tatit blames the pagode for all manner of offensive male behavior. The women present indulge him, but as the song evolves, they lament that this explanation amounts to “the same old same old.”
The cycle ends with several songs that advocate the ideas of partnership – rather than a power imbalance or dominance – that turn up in the writings of Eisler and the psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl. There is no clear resolution or neon-lit happy ending, only the recognition by both genders that nobody is made of iron. The closing song “Beatles by the Bushel” finds Tatit advocating love, and cautioning his brothers that “in destroying the woman, you’ll be left without support.” This initially pleases the latest love interest Teresa, but then, just before the curtain, she snaps at Tatit’s contention that “love is bile and honey.” She gets the last word: “Honey? What honey you bum! Let me show you some of the cruelties that befell women throughout the centuries. Listen up, let’s see.”
To develop the songs of Estudando, Zé followed a typically unorthodox regimen: He’d write a sketch and some lyrics, and then “test” the piece out on two 15-year-old kids of his acquaintence, Fernando Dell’Uomo and Pedro Luis, before presenting it to his wife Neusa. “When I was working on a song, I would give it to them so that they could comment on the rhythm and literary context”, Zé explains. Sometimes they reacted to the song as a whole – approving or rejecting it outright. Those they liked Zé then shared with Neusa. When consensus was reached on the initial outline, Zé would then go back and fill in the details. Then he’d share it again. “At this point, they would recommend substituting terms of address, types of approaches, the way of going about things. Many times they recommended substituting melodies, noting when the theme would be difficult to sing at a party.”
The process sometimes encompassed several volleys. “For one of these songs – the one called “Quero Pensar/I Want to Think” – “I fixed the composition four or five times over the Easter holiday until they and Neusa approved it.”
Tom Zé has described his work this way: “I don’t make art, I make spoken and sung journalism.” He’s been making this unusually compelling type of journalism for decades, and though the work hasn’t always been pop-chart-popular, he’s managed to build an impressive catalog, and in the process influence scores of other artists. Born in the Bahia hinterlands, he grew up listening to the cocos of Jackson do Pandeiro and the forros of Luiz Gonzaga. He studied at the Music College of Bahia, hung out at the CPC, a cultural center that was part of the resistance during the military dictatorship. In 1963, he crossed paths with Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso at actress Maria Muniz’ weekly musical get togethers in Salvador. These meetings sealed his fate: The following year Zé appeared in a musical directed by Veloso (Nos Por Exemplo No. 2), and began writing songs for the Velha Bossa Nova Show, which led to a chance to record singles for RCA. By 1965 he’d recorded “Maria do Colegio da Bahia”, and placed another original song on the Veloso/Gil Tropicalia album (“Parque Industrial”).
The success of the tropicalia movement propelled him, and though his work was less accessible (and much less successful) than that of his cohorts, Zé recorded regularly – his self-titled album came out in 1972, followed by Todos os Olhos, the 1976 Estudando o Samba (the new work’s title is an intentional look back at that earlier genre study, which came at a time when samba was out of favor), and, in 1977, Correio da Estacao do Bras. Though these were acclaimed by some critics in Brazil, they didn’t sell. Discouraged by his dwindling prospects, Zé performed sporadically, and then dropped out of sight for much of the ’80s, at one time asking for a job at his nephew’s gas station. Still, his records survived: When David Byrne visited Brazil in 1989, he bought Estudando o Samba, and then sought everything by Zé he could find. The two met, and eventually Zé became the first artist signed to Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records.
This began the second coming of Zé. The initial U.S. release was a compilation of Zé’s early work, The Best of Tom Zé (1991); among his all-time best, though, is the 1998 Fabrication Defect, which Rolling Stone magazine called one of the most important of the ’90s. Both it and Estudando o Pagode share a trait so basic it must be DNA – Zé’s inclination to not simply veer away from convention, but completely shatter the familiar into something profound.
Zé once described his artistic mission this way: “I remember seeing at the Biennial of Sao Paulo in 1969 an artwork representing a broken frame. That same year, in a soccer game, a player named Cesar de Palmeiras celebrated a goal with the fans instead of his team members. That had never happened before. Those two things inspired me, and a lot of my work tries to reproduce that discovery: Breaking the frame.”
| 1. Ave Dor Maria
2. Estúpido Rapaz
3. Proposta de Amor
4. Quero Pensar (A Mulher de Bath)
5. Mulher Navio Negreiro
6. Pagode-Enredo Dos Tempos Do Medo
7. Canção de Nora (Casa de Bonecas)
8. O Amor é Um Rock
| 9. Duas Opinioes
11. Vibração Da Carne
12. Para lá Do Pará
13. Prazer Carnal
14. Teatro (Dom Quixote)
15. A Volta Do Trem das Onze (8.5 Milhões de km²)
16. Beatles a Granel
April 11, 2006
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