Tom Zé

A Brazilian pop iconoclast

K. LEANDER WILLIAMS, 2011

If you were looking for an entry point to the music of Brazilian maverick Tom Zé, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine cash registers. We’re not talking figuratively, as in the overheated commerce of a Gaga or an Adele, but rather literally, as in the ch-ch-ching that’s a cousin to the peck-pick-peck and carriage return of a pre–computer age Smith Corona. Zé’s singular place in Brazilian pop history was pretty much assured once he began expanding the windswept sonics of samba with typewriters, car horns and blenders, even if it took rediscovery by David Byrne in the late ’80s to remind Brazilians that there had always been a punk in their midst.

“I’ve always considered these sounds undomesticated,” Zé says, in Portuguese, of his Carnaval additives, speaking through a translator from his home in São Paulo. “But it’s not as if I’m in danger like a lion tamer might be. They certainly won’t kill me if I can’t tame them.”

Zé’s work has the gestalt of a country boy (he is originally from Irara, a small town in the rural northeast) who has embraced urban sophistication with his fingers crossed. In a taped conversation with Byrne and samba noisemaker Arto Lindsay, included among the extras in last year’s handsome three-LP box set Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, Zé, now 74, remembered that he was in his late teens when electricity came to his town in 1953. “It made it difficult for people to breathe, everyone was in so much awe,” he says. “The size of things seemed different.”

Zé’s rustic roots, as well as his appetite for satiric humor and up-to-the-minute experimentation, would prove useful once he found his way to São Paulo, after studying composition in Salvador. Tapped by rising-star provocateurs Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to join Brazil’s iconoclastic tropicalia movement in the late ’60s, Zé would soon become its most compelling rocker, charting his own course between the airy bossa nova that defined his country for the world and the proglike imported rock that enraged Brazil’s then-repressive military regime.

The past ten years have seen Zé at his most creative, perhaps because he’s been making up for lost time. He’d almost left the music business completely when Byrne came across the 1976 disc Estudando o Samba (“studying the samba”) in a Rio de Janeiro record store and subsequently rebooted Zé’s career, making the album the centerpiece of 1990’s Luaka Bop comp The Best of Tom Zé: Massive Hits, and including it in the new box set. It’s not just appliance-driven percussion that floats the music, either; Zé is adept at contrasting the ragged with the refined, placing his own voice, a hoary hiccup, against hooky pinging guitars and trad-sounding female samba chorales.

By 2001, when Zé recorded his first mature masterpiece, Jogos de Armar (“construction set”), he had developed a relationship with a new label back home (Trama) and toured stateside and the U.K., backed by the Chicago experimental rock act Tortoise; a 45rpm disc of live material is also included in the set. When he returns to New York this week after an 11-year hiatus, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, Zé will be leading his regular touring band.

Brazil, meanwhile, has undergone a surprising political renaissance, though even as there is “now hope,” Zé says, “we have so much fear of the cancer of corruption.” His musical response to it has been even more surprising. The Studies of Tom Zé is rounded out by satiric estudandos of bossa nova and pagode (pronounced “PAH-goh-jee”), styles he’d sidestepped when they were the toast of what’s called música popular Brasileira. Zé doesn’t consider the albums critiques, though the pagode disc, billed as a “feminist operetta” nods at the idiom’s nonchalant sexism—sort of like a response to gangsta hip-hop.

The gorgeous bossa nova study, finished just last year, is where he finally pays tribute to early tropicalista idol João Gilberto, but in his own unique way, of course. Like a rosebush, Zé’s vision of bossa’s iconic gentility has plenty of thorns. “That music has inhabited my psyche for 50 to 60 years,” he says. “Familiar and profound, yet somehow extraterrestrial in my mind. It had to come out, to be dealt with.

copyright Time Out New York, used with permission