Most Brazilian pop we hear up north here comes at you two ways – either in its subtle, silky smooth bossa nova style, or in the drum-heavy, rhythmically charged sambas of the urban centers. But once upon a time in the late-60’s there was a group of musicians who called themselves tropicalistas. They dubbed their movement Tropicália, a youth-lead movement that incorporated hidden political lyrics and any sounds they liked into their music – especially American and British Rock and R&B, but also including the bossas and sambas of Brazil, even if they sometimes thumbed their noses at tradition. But where many of the others in the group stuck closer to Brazilian tradition or to rock and roll, Tom Zé utilized his schooling in music theory plus his love of traditional musics to create something altogether odder, utilizing not only the music he grew up with, but also advanced Western classical music. What’s unique about Zé is that for all his experimental impulses – which included building his own musical devices that incorporated such non-musical-seeming pieces as blenders and typewriters – he’s remarkably catchy, even in his loopy, angular eccentricity. He was considered too eccentric in his heyday to achieve the popularity (or notoriety) of his compatriots, and between 1978 and the 1990 release of this collection, he released only one album, living in relative obscurity.
All that changed when David Byrne took a late 80’s trip to Brazil and picked up one of Zé’s albums on a whim and was struck by the curiously catchy sounds he heard there. He tracked down Tom Zé and reissued cuts from several records as this release (with its ironic subtitle: Massive Hits) on his then-new Luaka Bop label. Since then Zé has found the audience for his work internationally (and has achieved a revival and recognition at home as well) and resumed his recording career, which has continued steadily through his latest release, a 2012 album (Tropicália Lixo Lógico) which has yet to find a domestic distributor.
And in listening to this wonderful collection – drawn from the early/mid-1970’s and largely from his brilliant (and sadly out of print) 1976 album Estudando o Samba – it’s hard to imagine what was so upsettingly odd about the music. Surely he didn’t adhere as closely to tradition as others, but today, as in 1990, these sound like a slightly bent, personal take on the pop – meaning Brazilian pop, of course – norms. Even the loopy stuff, like the lead track “Mā” and its answer bookending the album, “Nave Maria” with their syncopated, dissonant rhythm guitars churning out an irresistible rhythm, or the short, fragmentary bites of “Um "oh!" e um "ah!"” or “Complexo de Épico” are infectious as all get-out. And for real pop hooks, try “Hein?” (simple, catchy) or “Dói” (with its horn section emerging late to give an extra punch to the samba feel of the piece) for starters and wonder yet again how his work could be neglected as too odd. And when he chooses to bend himself to tradition instead of the other way around, he can come up with a piece as openly lovely as his cover of Jobim’s gorgeous “A Felicidade.” Give it a try and see if you’re not drawn inexorably into Tom Zé’s weird, funny, catchy, moving world. It’s a great place to visit.
- Patrick Brown