Celebrating Tom Zé | Bleader

Tom Ze
  • Tom Ze
On Sunday afternoon the Chicago Cultural Center presents a free screening of Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado, Ígor Iglesias's 2009 Spanish documentary about the singular Brazilian musician. The screening is timed to coincide with a couple of recent Zé releases from Luaka Bop: the first U.S. edition of his album Estudando a Bossa (issued in Brazil in 2008 by Biscoito Fino) and a three-LP box set called Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, which collects his "studies" of samba, pagode, and bossa nova.

Most of the 90-minute documentary was shot in the principality of Asturias during a brief Spanish tour Zé made in 2008; he did a wide-ranging talking-head interview with the filmmakers, and there are also plenty of scenes from a week-long workshop he conducted. At the time Zé was 71, and what quickly becomes clear is how energetic, inquisitive, and excitable he remains. The film includes plenty of recent performance footage and some astonishing archival material, both from some of Brazil's storied televised music festivals and from a wild mid-70s practice or recording session that captures Zé at his most manic and creative. Iglesias also touches on Zé's role in the tropicalia movement, which he joined a bit late, arriving in São Paulo in 1968 after finishing college in Salvador. He was involved in the classic collective album Tropicalia, ou Panis et Circensis, along with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes, and wrote one of its most experimental songs, "Parque Industrial."

It's easy to see now that Zé was sort of on the margins of tropicalia, pursuing his own concerns—he had a classical background and was more explicitly interested in contemporary classical music. His hard-to-find 1968 album Grande Liquidação is rarely discussed, let alone mentioned, in the same breath as solo albums by other tropicalia figures from this era. By the time the movement fizzled out in 1971 or so, Zé had gone his own way; Os Mutantes devolved into a leaden prog-rock band and Veloso, Gil, and Costa all became bona fide pop stars, but Zé was largely forgotten. It could be argued, though, that he alone continued to honor the progressive spirit of tropicalia—while the others turned up the guitars and pushed toward pop, he turned down and tuned out—and that he was a more consistent gadfly to the Brazilian dictatorship than his cohorts. The photo on the cover of his 1973 album Todos os Olhos ("All Eyes") looks at first glance like a discolored eyeball, but it's actually a marble lodged in someone's anus—an excellent poke at Brazilian censors.

By the time Zé released Estudando a Samba in 1975, he'd drifted more or less off the map. This masterpiece is the first of the "studies" collected in the new Luaka Bop set, and the music is gorgeous and strange, its wildly original deconstructions of samba marked by pointillistic arrangements, discordant screams, electronic noise (from an electric blender!), and the use of a kind of primitive analog sampler whose buttons triggered prerecorded blasts of taped sound. That instrument has since been lost, but you can watch it in action in the Iglesias documentary.

Zé also released albums in 1978 and 1984, but after the second one tanked he nearly left music—he was planning to return to his hometown of Irará, deep in the Bahian sertão, to run a gas station owned by a family member. Then in 1986 David Byrne picked up a copy of Estudando a Samba on a record-buying spree in Rio de Janeiro, and the music so impressed him when he listened to it back in New York that he eventually released most of it on his Luaka Bop label in 1990 as The Best of Tom Zé (the disc included all but three of the tracks from Estudando a Samba along with three others from two earlier records). The release introduced Zé to North American and European audiences and resurrected his career at home, in the process revealing a surprising facet of Brazilian music to nonlocals. I vividly remember how it floored me when I first listened to it—I'd never heard anything like it, and in the years since I've met people for whom it served as an entry point into Brazilian music. At that point I'd already heard Beleza Tropical, the wonderful samba collection Luaka Bop had released in 1988, but as a snotty college student I found it too pretty—Zé was more to my liking, and through his music I was able to go back and realize the genius of Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, Jorge Ben, and all the rest.

What's funny in retrospect is that Zé's albums may have been led to the tropicalia craze of the late 90s. Yes, by then folks were digging the movement's other charter members, but Zé's music was probably the first Brazilian stuff to connect with the college crowd in the early part of the decade.

The box set includes high-quality pressings of The Best of Tom Zé—so it's only mostly a reissue of Estudando a Samba—as well as his excellent 2005 album Estudando a Pagode (released in the U.S. the following year) and 2008's Estudando a Bossa. The two albums from the aughts lack the shock of the new produced by Zé's samba collection, but they're also excellent—the most recent celebrates the bossa nova as the cultural achievement that truly put Brazil on the international map in 1958, the year João Gilberto's "Chega de Saudade" came out. The melodies are gorgeous, the rhythms seductive, and the arrangements bizarre; most of the tracks feature cameo vocals from the country's best contemporary singers, among them Fernanda Takai, Tita Lima, Mônica Salmaso, Mariana Aydar, Marina de La Riva, and Zélia Duncan. (Below you can hear "Barquinho Herói," which features Salmaso.) The set also includes a large, photo-packed 12-page booklet with excellent liner notes by Christopher Dunn, author of the definitive book on the musical arm of tropicalia, Brutality Garden: Tropicalia and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (University of North Carolina Press, 2000); a seven-inch single with two tracks by Zé backed by Tortoise live at London's Barbican in 2001; and a CD with a 1993 interview between Zé and David Byrne, with Arto Lindsay serving as interpreter. As is the style these days, the set also includes a code for digital download of all the music.

"Barquinho Herói":

Here's the trailer for Astronauta Libertado:

Today's playlist:

The Fall, Dragnet (Cog Sinister)
Various artists, Relay: Archive 2007-2008 (Manual)
Joe Cuba, Cocinando la Salsa (Tico/Fania)
Judith Godrèche, Toutes les Filles Pleurent (Because)
Maysa, Amor . . . e Maysa (Som Livre)