The wild world of Tom Zé
By Josh Kun
MAY 17, 1999: There's a good chance you've never heard of Tom Zé. But let me assure you: if you've ever liked a little post-rock deconstruction with your Britney Spears, ever gotten goosebumps when Q-Bert crab-scratched a Steve Martin comedy record, ever nodded your head when Puffy recycled the Police or Led Zeppelin, then you're living in Zé-ville.
The 62-year-old-Brazilian may not manhandle SP1200s or fiddle with sample loops (he prefers playing guitars, singing melodies, rubbing balloons against his teeth, and operating floor sanders), but he's been advocating all varieties of musical theft, copying, and recombination as a means of creating beautiful tune-stuffed pop songs since the late '60s. Back then, he was part of tropicalismo or tropicália, the short-lived but massively influential musical movement that flared up and fizzled out between 1967 and 1969 as a response to Brazil's military dictatorship. Zé conspired with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Os Mutantes, and others to pummel Afro-Brazilian folk with hallucinatory psych-rock, embrace Carmen Miranda while drinking Coca-Cola, and pledge allegiance to Carnaval while butchering the national anthem on live TV (ahem, before Woodstock). It was all a riff on what the Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade called cultural cannibalism: devour all the First World pop you can find, grind it up with local teeth, then spit it up transformed.
After he'd worked in relative international obscurity throughout the '70s and '80s, Zé's career got blown a second wind from David Byrne's Luaka Bop label. In 1990, Byrne released Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé and then two solo albums of new goods: 1992's The Hips of Tradition and last year's ingenious Fabrication Defect. The combined effect of Byrne's cultural brokerage and Zé's avant-pop vision pulled off the unexpected: it introduced a new generation of US musicians to a hero they never knew they had.
See, for Zé, it's all about what he's tagged "the esthetics of plagiarism." He says we're no longer living in the age of the composer but in "the plagi-combinator era," an era of recycling and borrowing that has no need for origin myths and policed ownership. As a result, all of the songs on Fabrication Defect are based on stolen parts, the products of arrastão, a musical version of street robbery that Zé translates as "a type of 'wilding' with a purpose." Zé's wilding knows no bounds. He quotes everyone from St. Augustine to Tchaikovsky, Provençal troubadours to "the anonymous musicians who play in the São Paulo night."
No wonder he's become a grandfather figure for new school cut-and-pasters and pastiche popsters like Tortoise, who are currently backing the Brazilian on a tour that comes to the Middle East this Tuesday. On Postmodern Platos, a new EP of Fabrication remixes, the likes of Tortoise's John McEntire, Sean Lennon, and High Llamas rob Zé of his robberies and plagiarize his plagiarisms. Junglist Amon Tobin tries out a batucada breakbeat rush on his arrastão of "Curiosidade" ("Curiosity"). High Llamas dissolve the same track into a pool of radio static, and Zé even shows up to play "drill" and "newspaper" on Lennon's space-rock take on "O Olho do Lago" ("The Eye of the Lake").
Yet nothing on Postmodern Platos sounds as visionary and radical as Zé's own songs, which are based not in bedroom four-tracks or studio sequencers but in the traditions buried in the rich past of his native northeastern Brazil. He talks about his home town of Irara the way Gabriel García Márquez writes of Macondo, the kind of place that doesn't need science fiction, where Portuguese colonists, mountain-dwelling Indians, Celts, and Arabs have all left their traces in fossils of syncretism and alchemical dust. All Zé (whom I spoke to through a translator over the phone from his home in Brazil) says he's done is shown the rest of the world where the future began.
A: I was surprised by the language and the syntax that they produced. They do genetic engineering and obtain something like tomatoes with lettuce heads. Vegetable with fruit roots. My main interest is how they broke off from tradition, gave up this bipolarization between Brazilian and American languages, and dove into a musical discourse that became like a trip. Tortoise does what would be 4/4, which is the American language, and 2/4, which is the Brazilian language.
A: There could be something to that. We here in Brazil are so poor that we could do something advanced not because we had the resources to do it but because of the soul and contradictory characteristic of poverty. Frank Zappa said that "necessity is the mother of invention."
A: That's absolutely what I practice. Because all my roots are in my country's folkloric music, which I still listen to, and I still have friends who play it. I adopt the same ethics. But at the same time I studied in a modern university where I learned the post-Schoenberg technology of serialism, dodecaphonics, and I learned these things without having the least necessity of using them. And I can't use them. That's how I live, completely nourished by the past. I never have the pretension of making music of the future, only the eternal necessity of entertaining, of bringing joy, of combatting boredom, of not repeating what has already been done, and with the contradiction of saying that I plagiarize everything.
A: It is. I'm rooted in that stuff in the northeast of Brazil, which is something from the distant past. That business of being in touch with the past is very similar to what the youth today does. The young reject their parents to join their great grandparents. For example, when John McEntire looked me up, he found his great grandfather, his Celtic and Arabian great grandfathers. They were transported to Brazil through the Iberian peninsula, through eight centuries of Arabian invasion and the practices of Celtic culture. I found it in the interior of Bahia, in Cubadl, which had been kept like an Egyptian mummy, and I found that culture in the mouths of the people. That was my most sophisticated university, and I met them when I was eight years old. It's these great grandparents of McEntire and Sean Lennon that they found in me. It's as if I were a representative of these ancient peoples. It's a gift that God gave me.
A: They were slaves but not satisfactory slaves because the best slave is the robot worker as manufactured by Germany and Russia. But those robots are more expensive than we are. So the First World prefers to keep these enormous populations as robots with great defects, because they dream, they love. Everybody knows that thinking is a very dangerous defect in an android, because if you think a lot your brain will grow. So they have to feed us very badly because if we start thinking too much, then Jesus Christ or Fidel Castro would spring up all over the place. So the defects I was thinking about were the defects of thinking too much, loving too much, feeling too much, and curiosity.
A: That's a very Brazilian question. When I was studying music at the university, I didn't know international rock and roll. I didn't know Oswald de Andrade. I didn't know anything about which tropicalismo was speaking, so in that sense I'm not even a tropicalista. As far as plagi-combination, I'm taking about older stuff like Bach copying a piece by Vivaldi, a piece that was in C major and he would do it in E-flat minor and sign his name to it as if he were the author. The word author first came to light in the 18th century, in Amsterdam and Venice. It was derived from authority, and they said that for example the best minuet you could compose would be the one closest to the model that had come through the ages.
A: It seems that things are eternal but that's not true. The diatonic scale has not even had 10 centuries of life. Since Gregory the Fourth prohibited music, microtonal music, and established diatonic music, those seven notes of the diatonic scale have already been used in all of their possible combinations, all of the possibilities have already been taken. So anything we compose today is in some way just repeating what has already been done. A clever music student would look at it and see that it's the same music of some other place. All I did was call attention to that.
I'm not discovering anything. Normally, one is always plagiarizing. But nobody noticed that. I could transmit to the people of Boston a plagiarizing combination and I would tell them that the coda of "Hey Jude" [sings it -- da, da, da, da-da-da] would be ripe fruit for plagi-combination. Anybody who knows the technique of inversion can take that part of "Hey Jude" and simply turn it into [sings it slower, with different tempo, daa, daa, daa-da-daaa] and nobody could identify it. I tried it with some very experienced musicians here and they never notice that it's "Hey Jude" inverted. I have music already composed for the next album, and I don't care if someone does it the same way. If a composer there in Boston launches my ideas before I do, he can sue me for plagiarism if he wants.
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