The Lollipop of Science (O Pirulito da Ciência): A Defective Guide to Tom Zé (Um guia com defeito para Tom Zé)

A guide to the music of Tom Zé.  His professional musical career spanned half a century (and counting), though today many of his recordings are out of print — even in his native Brazil.  What is available in the United States tends to skew toward his later recordings, which has the unfortunate effect of placing some of his finest material out of reach.  His solo recordings are listed below divided into two time periods.  His collaborations are listed separately — some being mere guest appearances while other are more extensive.  Pursuant to the legend below, ratings are assigned to each, though Zé hardly has any bad releases so bear in mind these are just relative assessments.  Links to other resources, including books and films, are provided at the end.

This is still under construction.

Sung and Spoken Journalism (Imprensa cantada e falada): A Brief Introduction


Birth Name: Antonio José Santana Martins

Born: October 11, 1936, Irará, Bahia, Brazil


Antonio José Santana Martins, who adopted the stage name Tom Zé, was born in the dry interior region of the Brazilian state of Bahia.  He has described his hometown of Irará as “pre-Gutenbergian” (in reference to the inventor of the movable type printing press).  His father won the lottery, which allowed his family to live comfortably in an otherwise poor and arid rural region.  He moved to Salvador, the largest city in Bahia located along the Atlantic coast, to attend the University of Bahia.  He studied music.  He had an interest in composers like John Cage and Charles Ives.  Although Brazil had a troubled legacy as a former Portuguese colony (and briefly was the seat of the Portuguese capital), and was the last country in the western hemisphere to ban slavery, social democratic president João Goulart made some modest reforms and the Brazilian universities recruited professors from Europe to bolster their musical (and other) programs.  A military coup in 1964, supported by the United States, overthrew Goulart and installed a series of military “presidents” who ruled until 1985.  Zé relocated to São Paulo, was associated with a collection of leftist intellectuals in the 1960s, and became part of the tropicália (A/K/A tropicalismo) movement, the most prominent members (tropicalistas) of which were mostly Bahian too.  The (AI5) “coup within a coup” in 1968 brought harsher treatment of leftists and some of the tropicalistas.  While considered a key part of tropicália, he also seemed outside it at the same time, never contained by its key precepts despite his obvious sympathies and contributions.  His career faltered as the 1970s wore on.  By the 1990s he was considering working at a gas station when he was approached by the U.S. musician David Byrne (of Talking Heads), who had come across a Zé record and later sought him out (with the help of Brazilian-raised musician Arto Lindsay) to sign him to a new label.  Byrne was largely responsible for reviving Zé’s commercial career and introducing him to international audiences.  Though in many respects, Zé’s albums on Bryne’s Luaka Bop label are somewhat over-represented in English-speaking countries.

Caetano Veloso has described Zé’s tenaciously archaic yet inventive approach to music as “bizarrely elegant” and his attitude (reflected in his music too) as having an “ironic, distant sense of humor” that is “at once intimate and estranged[.]”  An incident on a plane that Veloso recounts is a fitting summary of a common effect of Zé’s music, when Zé made an absurd request for a particular drink (cachaça) on the plane, then, when it was not available, demanded the stewardess to stop the “caravel” (mid-flight) so he could leave, noting, “we were unnerved by the determination with which [the demand] was made, the sheer imposition of his will.”  Veloso was impressed with how “the sincerity of [Zé’s] defiance exposed the absurd pretense of refinement” around him.  This was in so many ways a fitting metonym for the entire tropicália movement.  (The anecdote also recalls Bertolt Brecht’s short story “Geschichte auf einem Schiff [Story on a Ship]”).  Recurring themes in Zé’s music involve tilting against colonial legacies (in the sense of Frantz Fanon) and making demands that emerge from leftist ideologies deemed impossible in his own time.  Zé considers himself a performer of limited means.  He has referred to at least some of what he does as sung and spoken journalism.  In the 1970s he experimented with what can be called a homemade sampler, and has long utilized homemade instruments (like Harry Partch, or Tom Waits in the mid-1980s and early 90s).

After his comeback in the early 1990s, the influence of animated Brazilian folk dance musics from northern regions, like the forró and coco of Luiz Gonzaga and especially Jackson do Pandeiro, were more apparent in his own recordings.  He continued working long after others would consider retirement.  There is a tenacious sense of experimentation that is constant throughout Tom Zé’s career.  He has toured internationally, though availability of his albums outside Brazil can be limited, even his most famous recordings.

Solo, Part I: Bahia to São Paulo

Tom Zé

Tom Zé (1968)

Release Notes: available on CD, vinyl and digitally as Grande Liquidação



Producer(s): João Araújo

Tier: ♻♻

Key Track(s): “São São Paulo”

Review:   Continue reading “The Lollipop of Science (O Pirulito da Ciência): A Defective Guide to Tom Zé (Um guia com defeito para Tom Zé)”

Tom Zé – Tom Zé [1970]

Tom Zé

Tom ZéTom Zé RGE Discos XRLP 5351 (1970)

Tom Zé’s second album — and the second of three self-titled albums in a row — isn’t always as highly regarded as his first, but it shows him more versatile as a vocalist.  There are some funky rock riffs with more bass and guitar, without the heavy organ of his debut.  There are more ornate arrangements, with lush strings and horns.  The songwriting is, perhaps, less dripping with irony, but the irony and starkly earnest shock humor is still present.  There are plenty of excellent compositions here.  

In an interview, Zé described this time and album as fraught with personal crisis:

“I was in a kind of crisis because I knew at that time that I didn’t want to do the popular music from my first album again. At the same time I didn’t know what to do and at the same time, João, the guy who freed me from my contract . . . was putting pressure on me to work and do more music. To me, it’s a crisis album and I don’t like to listen to it very often.”

The sorts of crises that he’s referring to weren’t just personal.  This was still a turbulent time in Brazil.  In his memoir Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil (2002), fellow tropicalista Caetano Veloso described the era this way:

“In 1964, the military took power, motivated by the need to perpetuate those disparities [making Brazil the country with the greatest social and economic disparity in the world] that have proven to be the only way to make the Brazilian economy work (badly, needless to say) and, in the international arena, to defend the free market from the threat of the communist bloc (another American front of the Cold War).  Students were either leftist or they would keep their mouths shut.  Within the family or among one’s circle of friends, there was no possibility of disagreeing with a socialist ideology.  The Right existed only to serve vested or unspeakable interests.  Thus, the rallies ‘With God and for Freedom’ organized by the ‘Catholic ladies’ in support of the military coup appeared to us as the cynical, hypocritical gestures of evil people. *** we saw the coup simply as a decision to halt the redress of the horrible social inequities in Brazil and, simultaneously, to sustain North American supremacy in the hemisphere.”

When Veloso and Gilberto Gil were jailed in 1969, Tom Zé took over hosting the TV Tupi show Divino, Maravilhoso for a few episodes.

This album is still about the manifesto of tropicalismo.  There is the famous line Dustin Hoffman delivers in the film The Graduate (1967); when asked what he’s doing, he responds, “Drifting.”  Zé is drifting a bit here, but in the best possible way.  He wonderfully evokes a kind of unsatisfied boredom and uncertainty, matched with curiosity and open-mindedness.  There are very poppy tunes, verging on the commercial (“Passageiro,” “Jeitinho dela”).  And there are ballads (“O riso e a faco,” “Me dá, me dê, me diz”).  But there is more than that too.  “Jymmy Rende-se” has a tight groove.  The lyrics are playful nonsense,  but that kind of sums up the best of what the album as a whole has to offer.  Some of the other upbeat numbers (“Guindaste a rigor,” “Escolinha de robô”) are quite good too. And this isn’t all just variations on conventional pop/rock forms — some of this stuff is dissonant and weird too (“Qualquer bobagem”).

This might not be Zé’s most highly regarded album, but it’s still up there with his best.  Though it isn’t like he’s ever really made a bad album in a decades-long career.

Tom Zé – Danç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício) – O Fim da Canção: Ao Vivo

Danç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício) - O Fim da Canção: Ao Vivo

Tom ZéDanç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício) – O Fim da Canção: Ao Vivo Trama (2008)

The album title translates roughly to “Dance-eh-Sa (Dance of the Heirs of Sacrifice) – The End of Song: Live.”  The individual songs are tributes to past revolutions, or failed attempts at revolution.  Up to his usual tricks, like a modern Socrates, Zé seems to be trying to stimulate thinking about what revolutions mean in the present.  Consider what Slavoj Žižek wrote in Trouble in Paradise (p. 143-44):

“permanent political engagement has a limited time-span: after a couple of weeks or, rarely, months, the majority disengages, and the problem is to safeguard the results of the uprising at this moment, when things return to normal.  *** The battle has to be won here, in the domain of citizens’ passivity, when things return back to normal the morning after ecstatic revolts; it is (relatively) easy to have a big ecstatic spectacle of sublime unity, but how will ordinary people feel the difference in their daily lives?  No wonder conservatives like to see sublime explosions from time to time — they remind people that nothing can really change, that things return to normal the day after.”

Is this not precisely what Zé is cultivating with this music — trying maintain an interest in a revolutionary spirit in a time of (relative) prosperity, with the big spectacle of revolution seemingly a thing of the past?

The songs use many onomatopoeic sounds, like “Atchim” (for sneezing) and “Uai” (for amazement).  The effect is a kind of universality.  These things don’t mean much of anything in particular.  But in that respect they mean the same thing now as they did in the times of the revolutions that Zé pays tribute to.  They also prevent this from being dour stuff.  The performances are meant to have levity and playful humor.

This live recording is arguably better than the studio counterpart.  The drums and guitar are a little harder and further forward in the mix.  There are also fewer electronics and hip-hop references.  Also, the best songs are sequenced first here.  This perhaps is more of a second-tier Tom Zé album, but it’s still a good one.

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 the 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.

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.

Tom Zé – Correio da Estação do Brás

Correio da Estação do Brás

Tom ZéCorreio da Estação do Brás Continental 1-01-404-177 (1978)

Tom Zé was one of the most explicitly political of all the Brazilian Tropicalistas.  Later in his career he would call his music imprensa cantada (“sung journalism”).  But his early musical efforts found him associated with the CPC (Centro Popular de Cultura), which was part of the left-wing National Students’ Union that was in turn linked to the Brazilian communist party.  This was during the time before socialist President João Goulart was ousted in a U.S.-backed, right-wing military coup.  As Christopher Dunn has commented, “Zé’s songs often reminded listeners of deep class inequalities and forms of social exclusion in the sprawling metropolis.”  There was a dogged tendency for his music to mock powerful elites and their culture, revealing their hypocrisies and contradictions.  Like others who were a part of the tropicalismo movement, he utilized cultural artifacts considered base and distasteful by elites, developing a kind of solidarity with the underclass by merging the highbrow and the lowbrow.  From a slightly different perspective, these negated or abject cultural artifacts ironically stand for universality, as a point of exception in the allegedly democratic global capitalist (neoliberal) system, giving lie to the supposed goodness and fairness of society by showing how the cleaving of musical forms into the acceptable and unacceptable symbolically reinforces domination of the weak by the powerful and by uniting different musical factions with a common purpose (namely, fighting oppression).  This had the effect of erasing the subtly elitist satisfaction derived from the very essence of making highbrow/lowbrow distinctions at all (quite apart from the “substance” of the highbrow or lowbrow).  He had a unique, outsider’s ability to do this as someone who grew up in what was considered the rural, inland netherworld of Irará, Bahia (north of the state capital Salvador), silently controlled by absentee landlords, but relocated to a big city as an adult in order to work from the urban metropolis of São Paulo.  Even his tropicalist contemporaries noted his rural accent when he sang.  His outsider perspective never really went away, but it mutated into concerns for deeper, less obvious topics.

Zé stuck with some of the underlying impulses of tropicalismo longer than most of the original cadre of proponents, even as his precise methods did depart from the original tropicalist manifesto over time.  As my friend Toni put it:

Years after the great innovators Caetano & Gil began to embrace the banality of western popular culture instead of ridiculing it, the true genii stand out. João Gilberto has retained his integrity by isolating himself from the popular spotlight and the Mutants are respectfully celebrating their past glory, just to pull some arbitrary examples from the golden period of Brazilian music. This is all fine and dandy, but Tom Zé, always the underdog, is not satisfied with just rehashing his former glory: he has to innovate, to create, to explore.

These qualities were unmistakable during Zé’s late-career resurgence.  Yet in the late 1970s, as his popularity was already starting to fade, there was still a question of whether Tom Zé was continuing to innovate or starting to capitulate.

Like most tropicalismo, Zé’s music had to this point relied heavily on ironic use of popular musical forms with kitsch value.  But here, he suddenly seems to be using some popular 1970s rock forms more directly and earnestly (“Morena,” “Carta”).  There are some warm rock keyboards and near crooning.  So, while listeners had always needed to sort out the hidden meaning of Zé’s cutting irony, there was also the added challenge of deciding when he was being ironic at all.  He dabbled with this before (see “O riso e a faca” from his second self-titled album Tom Zé), but the technique was more prevalent here.  This is perhaps why Correio da Estação do Brás is seen as an abrupt rupture in Zé’s recorded catalog.  For some, this was when he washed up and his music lost what it once had.  Others like the album — though some consider it under-appreciated, most Zé admirers rarely place it above the middle of the pack of his albums.

One way to look at Correio da Estação do Brás is to give Zé credit for recognizing that he could not just keep making the same kind of oddball music forever.  Given that the man’s career prospects declined in the 1970s, perhaps one can read his emphasis on conventional song structures as being about finding enjoyment (if not remuneration) outside of the revolutionary content of his earlier work.  But there also seems to be recognition that the ironic distance that his music long proposed was maybe smaller than first assumed (or should be smaller).  An artist cannot stand completely apart from the concerns of mass audiences, even if those mass audiences are driven by crass consumerism and distasteful inequities.  There are forms of dependency involved.  But then what?  Zé strikes an intriguing balance, carrying forward a lot of what he had been doing before, but also trying to make use of whatever redeeming elements of popular 1970s rock he could.  He attempts both of these things at the same time.  In that way he refuses to stand above or apart from the the lowbrow and the social groups associated with it.  By adapting to “easy” popular forms, but not completely or consistently, Zé ends up making what, from a conceptual standpoint, is among his more difficult albums, even if from a technical standpoint it contains some of his most unabashedly pleasing and straightforward music.  For instance, what isn’t to like about his plaintive, mellow singing on “Morena”?  Is it that far off from the Commodores’ 1978 R&B hit “Three Times a Lady”?  Yet placing some lovely melodic statements among ironic ones Zé makes the listener question what she enjoys, and whether she should be expected to enjoy what she hears.  The listener cannot automatically enjoy an assuredly superior, ironic posture.  In fact, the listener may be slightly horrified to have the self-image of ironic superiority shattered.  This is a very different kind of message than Zé’s earlier work, but still a daring and revolutionary one in its own way.

So, on the one hand, listeners skeptical of the weirdness perennially rejoiced by many Zé fans may find that Correio da Estação do Brás presents familiar music elements that are superficially appealing, making this a potential entry point to his music.  On other hand, the reason Tom Zé is known internationally is not for singing smooth pop melodies but for challenging and reconstructing them to present new and different meaning, so listeners who balk at those parts of this album that push against convention will perhaps venture no further into his recorded works from here.  That is the challenge presented by Correio da Estação do Brás.

There is something to be said that this album should not be overlooked, though, even if its most nuanced accomplishments may only become apparent when contextualized against what led up to it.  It is really quite a good album.  Then again, it is a bit difficult to locate a bad Zé album, in a career as irrevocably unique as any in pop music.

Tom Zé – Brazil 5: The Hips of Tradition: The Return of Tom Zé

Brazil 5: The Hips of Tradition: The Return of Tom Zé

Tom ZéBrazil 5: The Hips of Tradition: The Return of Tom Zé Luaka Bop 9 45118-2 (1992)

After a rediscovery by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne following years drifting into obscurity, Tom Zé signed to Bryne’s new label Luaka Bop, and picked up an international recording career.  The Hips of Tradition finds Zé full of ideas, if a little rusty in the studio.  “O pão nosso de cada mês” is basically the template for his entire next album Fabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação — those iconic staccato guitar licks (already present on “” from 1975’s Estudando o samba and “Pecado, rifa e revista” from Correio da Estação do Brás) are all over that follow-up album.  The groove from the opener “Ogodô, Ano 2000” would reappear on “Chamegá” from Jogos de Armar (Faça Você Mesmo).  His manner of singing intentionally “bad” vocals over sweet bossa nova instrumental accompaniment would return on Estudando a Bossa: Nordeste Plaza.  The main liability with The Hips of Tradition is that most of the middle mass of the album seems undeveloped.  He’s experimenting.  And that’s great.  But the experiments aren’t all successful — yet.  He’s still a bit tentative with some of the ideas.

What was kind of new here as compared to Zé’s early career was the sheer zaniness.  He did experimentation before.  His older music was also funny and full of cutting sociopolitical commentary too.  But the dramatic, almost lighthearted, flighty, comically endearing way of doing all those things emerged in a new way on this album, more manic than before, when instead a degree of lethargic, pensive seriousness appeared regularly.  This is even reflected in the way his recordings are presented.  Especially in the 1970s, his albums usually featured his image, looking serious, like an intellectual, whereas from the 1990s on he was typically shown jumping, or with crazy looking action shots, and even a title like “Hips of Tradition” implies dancing and movement.  There was more of an emphasis on action and doing without relinquishing a claim to being intelligent.  This was a change partly made possible due to the end of the Brazilian dictatorship (he has said, “at the time of the dictatorship when you wanted no problems you had to appear to be a serious person.”).

The Hips of Tradition is a good and worthy entry in Tom Zé’s catalog of recordings, though in the coming years he would greatly expand his faculty with studio recording techniques, and also his arsenal of custom, improvised instruments and melodic figures.  All this is to say that this album does not disappoint, yet there are perhaps better entry points for listeners new to Zé’s music.

Tom Zé – Fabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação

Fabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação

Tom ZéFabrication Defect: Com defeito de fabricação Luaka Bop 9362-46953-2 (1998)

When it comes to the work of Tom Zé, the most common comparisons from the English-speaking rock/pop music realm are Tom Waits (from the 1980s) or Captain Beefheart.  But the premise of Fabrication Defect, a concept album about the people of the Third World as “androids” having the “defects” and effrontery to “think, dance and dream,” takes its philosophy straight from the likes of the French writer Jean Genet, a lifelong thief who celebrated that role precisely because it was seen as a perversion by an immoral and corrupt social order.  Zé is part prankster, part eccentric visionary, part musical historian.  You won’t find a whole lot of popular music albums from people in their 60s this sharply caustic and irreverent.  But Zé is one of those beautiful oddities who makes his own precedent.  Fabrication Defect has the same wit and blend of high theory and fun gags (with a bit more in the gags department) as his great mid-1970s albums.

Tom Zé – Tom Zé [1968]

Tom Zé

Tom ZéTom Zé Rozenblit LP 50.010 (1968)

Tom Zé’s debut album is a good one, but it can’t really hold a candle to his later stuff in my mind.  I hear bits of ornate chamber pop of the kind Andrew Loog Oldham made with The Rolling Stones (Metamorphosis), a satirical take on commercial culture like The Who‘s The Who Sell Out, protest folk like Bob Dylan, bossa nova, Brazilian folk of many stripes, and avant-garde classical/jazz.  I love all those bits and pieces, and the idea of throwing them all together.  Yet this sounds a bit too precious.  The record is also recorded rather poorly, with Zé’s vocals off in the distance and flat dynamics that crunch most of the instruments together, except for the organ.  Admittedly, I might be unfairly critical because this music relies heavily on lyrics and I don’t speak Portuguese.  So, anyway, a promising start, but dig deeper into the man’s catalog for bigger rewards, or at least stick a toe into deeper waters with Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé – Massive Hits.