Tom Zé – Estudando o Pagode

Estudando o Pagode (Na Opereta Segregamulher e Amor)

Tom ZéEstudando o Pagode (Na Opereta Segregamulher e Amor) Trama 748-2 (2005)


Often described as a feminist operetta, Zé insists that Estudando o Pagode is not one.  But he is merely explaining things so he can confuse you.  If feminism is defined as the radical theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, then this is absolutely a feminist work.  The album was dedicated to philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)), Isabella Faro de Oliveira, scientist Charles Darwin, ethologist/zoologist Konrad Lorenz and science journalist (and evolutionary psychology advocate) Robert Wright.  The psychoanalyst Maria Rita Kehl is cited repeatedly in the libretto.  A central concern is how the relationship between men and women is crafted in societies premised on domination and how hierarchies evolve and reproduce themselves, often in disguised and hidden ways.  In an interview, Zé said,

“I would like to clarify a bit the general attitude of this album, an operetta about the woman situation.

“It is not a feminist work. Though it is not a machoist CD, it is, at least, ‘masculinist’: It calls man’s attention to the huge disadvantage he has created in his present relationship with women.

“A woman, nowadays, is slightly suspicious and cannot permit herself the easy-going kind of well-being of companionship that allows going from affection to a caress.

“Women have incorporated a feeling of mistrust towards men. She is always tense, worried, confronted with a potential enemy, an attitude created due to the psychological context of his situation in the society.”

This is a work meant for men, to convince them they have mistreated women throughout history to hold greater power.  It is to convince men to see the world from a point of inclusive difference, not from a perspective of chauvinism.  (Regarding the elimination of racism, Judith H. Katz wrote White Awareness from a similar premise: racism is a problem caused by white people and white people are responsible for ending it, not the victims of racism).

What Zé is really driving at is that this is not music premised on so-called “identity politics“.  What does “identity politics” mean?  In short, it is about building political power by looking at the world through identity, namely, by building groups having a common identity such as the same gender and then exerting the collective power of the group identity to achieve political ends, particularly from the perspective of so-called “minority influence” but also through coalitions.  This is something promoted by the likes of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and it has become one of the dominant aspects of neoliberalism — manifested through “inclusive” policies like multiculturalism.

French philosopher Alain Badiou is one of the most renowned opponents of “identity politics”.  Badiou has said, “What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity?  This is what I believe love to be.”  If there is a way to relay the premise of Estudando o Pagode short of actually hearing it, this would be it.  As acknowledged in the liner notes, following a lengthy quote/summary of Riane Eisler‘s book The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future (1987), Zé wants to push for utopian (gender) egalitarianism (using the past to break with Gordian knot of the present with a form of argument that Walter Benjamin advanced: using the past to argue for a different future).

This music is also, thankfully, not really “opera” in terms of the manner of singing — it isn’t even bel canto popular music influenced by operatic forms of singing.  American writer Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) attended a performance of Richard Wagner‘s opera Parsifal and wrote a piece “Mark Twain at Bayreuth” in Chicago’s Daily Tribune newspaper, published December 6, 1891.  He summed up a common reaction to experiencing a Wagner opera:

“The entire overture, long as it was, was played to a dark house with the curtain down. It was exquisite; it was delicious. But straightway thereafter, or course, came the singing, and it does seem to me that nothing can make a Wagner opera absolutely perfect and satisfactory to the untutored but to leave out the vocal parts. I wish I could see a Wagner opera done in pantomime once.  ***  Singing! It does seem the wrong name to apply to it. Strictly described, it is a practicing of difficult and unpleasant intervals, mainly. An ignorant person gets tired of listening to gymnastic intervals in the long run, no matter how pleasant they may be.”

The overriding reason that opera is sung in such an unnatural way is to emphasize distinction among its listeners and partisans.  In other words, the very unnatural way about it, in relation to normal speaking voices, makes it esoteric and not readily appreciated.  It takes time and effort (and resources) to cultivate an understanding of its objectives, and therefore involves a degree of “conspicuous waste” (to use Thorstein Veblen‘s term) that distinguishes the wealthy — who have time and money to cultivate obscure tastes — from the “rabble” — who don’t.  Also, the “great person” aspect of operatic singing emphasizes that the feats of vocalization achieved by trained singers are not possible for everyone.  This promotes inequality, and reinforces a sense that inequality is natural and just.

If the concept of a feminist (or masculinist) operetta still seems unappealing, know that this music is wonderfully quirky and idiosyncratic.  Tom Zé is one of those endearing weirdos who can put a smile on the face of even the most bitter cynics.

This is the second of the (perhaps still-counting) trilogy of Zé’s “studies” (estudandos) of musical forms.  The way he approaches these studies is reminiscent of Conlon Narcarrow, a major musical influence.  Nancarrow composed (and recorded) “Studies for Player Piano,” punching holes in player piano rolls in way that produced music impossible for a single human performer to play.  Sometimes he prepared the player pianos by rigging the piano hammers with leather or metal to produce different timbres, and synchronized multiple player pianos for performances in unison.  Nancarrow’s works are intellectually curious and profound, while also being playful and having an affinity for popular musical forms like boogie-woogie (see his Study No. 3a for example, which, in the best possible way, sounds a bit like four pianists improvising on a James P. Johnson tune, simultaneously, as fast as they can play).

Zé uses a lot of different musical techniques here, drawn from many different quarters.  The opening “Ave Dor Maria” features a processed, computer-like voice, reminiscent of Prince & The Revolution‘s “1999” (“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you…”).  The song draws on hip-hop and has a sturdy electric guitar-led rhythm.  Many of the songs utilize electronically programmed sounds, for beats or just for noisy effects.  “Teatro (Dom Quixote)” throws in anachronistic horns.

There is melody too.  The Second Act in particular draws on pleasant lyrical statements, on “Eleau,” “Prazer Carnal” and songs around them.

Speaking about his talents — or lack of talent — he said,

“I am a very bad composer, a very bad singer, a very bad instrumentalist, but the text is the most important thing of everything. Because I am so bad, that is the reason I am here. I am always going to the edges where nobody wants to go and try to work it out.”

The studies albums are the most explicit in describing a process of working through problems at the edges of possibility.  Syncretism has always been a part of Zé’s music.  Yet here there are as many — or more — different types of music in one place as anywhere in his back catalog, and the mashups are both as dramatically incongruous and creatively provocative as they can be.  This is also incredibly playful music.  The themes may be intellectual, but the performances are approached almost like stand-up comedy.  Tom Zé has always embraced compositions with disparate elements moving not in unison, but together, independently.  There is much of that here:  staccato guitar riffs and whistles, slowly moving washes of noise, tuneless glissandi caused by blowing on ficus leaves.  There is a pervasive tension between lead and backing voices.  They jostle.  Zé calls these approaches “induced harmony” and likens them to “incipient practices” like he used as a child performing in the Brazilian folk genre of música sertaneja, and like the intuitive sociopolitical life strategies of ordinary people.

The story of the operetta is summarized on the back of the album.  It vaguely resembles another strange psychoanalytic epic, El Topo.  But don’t approach this thinking that following the libretto is crucial.  It isn’t.  The music is worthwhile on its own, even if you do not speak Portuguese.

Miles Davis – Birdland 1951

Birdland 1951

Miles DavisBirdland 1951 Blue Note 7243 5 41779 2 7 (2004)


Very good performances from Miles’ bop days, but these were recorded in “primitive” fashion from radio broadcasts.  Casual listeners should avoid this in favor of something with better than bootleg quality sound.  Committed Davis fans will really dig the performances though, and can probably look past the fidelity issues.

Tom Zé – Tropicália lixo lógico

Tropicália lixo lógico

Tom ZéTropicália lixo lógico Passarinho PASSCD0001 (2012)


The late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, “I believe that if the sociology I propose differs in any significant way from the other sociologies of the past and of the present, it is above all in that it continually turns back onto itself the weapons it produces.”  A similarly reflexive position is taken in certain psychoanalytic/philosophical discourses (dealing with “permanent self-questioning”).  Tom Zé’s self-released album Tropicália lixo lógico (crude English translation: “Tropicália Logical Waste”) kind of follows a similar approach to music.

Zé is a kind of musical analyst (most likely a logical-intuitive introvert, just like cinema’s Jean-Luc Godard).  This album draws on Zé’s past in the late 1960s Tropicália movement, without being beholden to it.  This is a fairly mellow collection of music, much like his prior studio album Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza.  He is ironically using bits of popular music, some old, some newer.  What is different here is that unlike recent efforts his appropriations are in a way more crude, less nuanced.  This is kind of the point!  What made Zé’s misadventures in Tropicália decades ago so unique is that they dissolved many of the contradictions of straight-up cynicism.  When he appropriated bits of mass culture he didn’t do so just to cheaply trade on a kind of guilty-pleasure enjoyment in kitsch but to elevate the appropriation in relation to the content, honoring the sources without becoming beholden to them.  That last part was always the key.  When rudimentary cynics like Frank Zappa do things like this, they tend to prove in the end that they are really beholden to the past and can at most recall it to reinforce its underpinnings (and try to show off in the process).  Zé, on the other hand, robs the past of its coercive force, opening up the future to other possibilities.  He’s doing that again here.  But this man is in his late 70s!

Tropicália lixo lógico is an excellently produced album.  Much like Jogos de armar (Faça Você Mesmo), this is as conventional and approachable a production style as you will find anywhere from Zé, while also retaining the man’s essential weirdness and edginess.  There are hints toward indie rock, bossa nova, and so forth, with fewer and softer angular rhythms than on his most experimental recordings.  But he still has tricks up his sleeve.  One of his best devices is to cut off many of the songs.  Rather than fade out, or reach some kind of clear resolution, many of the songs are cut off mid-verse and the next song abruptly begins.  Consider this a litmus test.  If something like that sounds absurd to you, perhaps it is time to move along.  If the idea of cutting off the ends of the songs to refuse any sort of resolution sounds kind of interesting, then buckle in for a lifelong fascination with one of Brazil’s most fascinating musical figures — this probably won’t be your last Zé recording.

The Mothers of Invention – Freak Out!

Freak Out!

The Mothers of InventionFreak Out! Verve V6-5005-2 (1966)


There is something really curious about Mothers of Invention records.  They rely on a kind of double irony.  That is to say that there are songs like “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” and “Any Way the Wind Blows” that look back to 1950s doo-wop and pop/rock with a dose of sarcasm, or “Wowie Zowie” with a melody near the end cribbed from The 4 Seasons‘ 1962 sunshine pop hit “Sherry,” but the sarcasm is itself ironic and sarcastic.  It’s like this: given the wave of counterculture that was underway in the late 1960s (a year after the release of Freak Out! was the “summer of love”), the only way for the Mothers to hold fast to the pre-countercultural norms was to do those things ironically.  So when someone hears a song like “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder” the listener hears sarcastic, mocking vocals, she is really supposed to like the song and not sarcastically dismiss it.  In the liner notes there is a comment about “Any Way the Wind Blows” that says, “It is included in this collection because, in a nutshell, kids, it is…how shall I say it?…it is intellectually and emotionally accessible for you.  Hah!  Maybe it is even right down your alley!”  But why put a song like this on the album at all — or write it in the first place — if it is only for squares?  And why go on to do Cruising With Reuben & The Jets, an entire album of doo-wop?  Again, this is why the real intent is to like the song for its retro qualities.  Really, what is wrong with that though?  Probably the best career move bandleader Frank Zappa ever made was to sign the Philadelphia doo-wop group The Persuasions to his record label!  In some ways, the doo-wop tracks are some of the very best cuts on the entire double album.

One of the most successful rockers is “Trouble Every Day.”  This song, commenting on the Watts Riots and race relations generally, turns out to have less of an Abbie Hoffman “militant activist” vibe than a Hubert H. Humphrey “compassionate liberal” vibe!

All this positions The Mothers not as a faithful part of the counter-culture, but as part of the counter-counterculture. The band’s labelmates (sometimes appearing together on tour) The Velvet Underground represented a real musical revolution.  But Zappa would mock them on stage.  Zappa, and by extension The Mothers, were basically crypto-conservatives (of the liberal-libertarian-conservative strain).  If that seems like an odd characterization, it is in the sense of adapting to and blunting revolutionary impulses to avoid a real revolution — think Igor Stravinsky instead of Arnold Schönberg or The New Deal instead of the Bolsheviks.

Challenging that view, however, are songs like “I Ain’t Got No Heart,” “How Could I Be Such a Fool,” “You Didn’t Try to Call Me,” and “I’m Not Satisfied” that appropriate easy listening, marching band and plaid suit old boys club horn section atmospherics, and place them alongside rock guitar riffs.  According to one source (not verifiable by any other online source), Zappa attended musical training by Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the use of wildly disparate musical styles was an approach that showed up in the work of many such students — Zappa’s fellow student Rogério Duprat from Brazil employed that effect with more startling originality and subversive power on records for Gilberto Gil and others in the tropicália movement.  Zappa’s use of this technique is the most rudimentary.  It seeks to provide a contrast, but never really succeeds in mocking the underlying premises of the horn section music.  It just shows up like a fart joke (and those kinds of jokes were mainstays of The Mothers’ repertoire).  The lengthy closer “The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet” was an unfinished track that Zappa and the band did not want included.  The the abstractions of “Help, I’m a Rock (Suite in Three Movements),” “It’s Can’t Happen Here,” and “Who Are the Brain Police?” add other layers and music elements to the mix — only the first part of “Help I’m a Rock” really succeeds though.

This album is decent.  It is worth giving a listen every once and while, but doesn’t quite come together enough to likely be a perennial favorite.  As my friend Brian put it, “Freak Out! is a more important release than it is necessarily a great album.”  The Mothers did better with We’re Only In It for the Money.  And other artists later improved on many of the ideas here: The Grateful Dead on Anthem of the Sun and CAN on Tago Mago with a hybrid of rock and modern classical; Brazilian tropicalismo with juxtaposition of seemingly opposing elements; and The Red Krayola with absurdist humor on the likes of God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It.  But Freak Out! still deserves credit for attempting a unique blend of countercultural rock, retro pop, and avant garde modern classical musics.  It clearly tries to normalize the weirder elements — to prove that the weird stuff isn’t really weird at all.  Yet it was making these attempts and making its experiments sooner than most.  The floodgates of truly revolutionary music would only really open in 1967 and 68.  Legendary producer Tom Wilson deserves special credit for the album’s best elements.  He summoned a lot of resources to help make an album of base humor with the finest studio recording techniques and equipment of the day.