Pop Will Eat Itself

On the eve of his first American tour, Brazilian cut-up artist Tom Zé talks about Tropicália and its cultural remixes

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--"National Library" by Oswald de Andrade

"Every chord in a song had five bombs ready to throw at the military headquarters": Insurgent musician Tom Zé
"Every chord in a song had five bombs ready to throw at the military headquarters": Insurgent musician Tom Zé

Shove it up your verb/You son of a letter.

--from "Politicar" by Tom Zé

The word cannibal is a centuries-old mispronunciation and a slander to boot. It was Columbus's term for the Caribs in the West Indies, whom the explorer roundly and dubiously labeled human-eaters in a campaign to make human slavery palatable to the Old World order. But in the late 1920s, Modernist Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade turned cannibalism into a metaphor for his countrymen devouring Western culture itself--digesting the Northern conqueror in the stomach of tropical experience. His 1928 Manifesto Antropofágico ("Cannibalistic Manifesto") flew in the face of folk-art purism. Don't judge your sources, the wordsmith said, rob them. It was this sensibility that might have had him lifting the titles of library books to create a new nationalist poetry.

Cannibalism's application to music would seem obvious to any fan of the sampler. But it took another four decades before this connection occurred to the Brazilian musicians of the late-'60s Tropicália movement, including Tom Zé, who performs Saturday at the Walker Art Center. When a superrich, superpoor, samba-soaked Brazil discovered Tropicália as the new pop music to replace bossa nova, de Andrade's intellectual progeny seized the country's artistic imagination. Here, at last, was a genuinely cannibalistic popular art form, an Afro-Brazilian answer to Northern psychedelia, nourished under the hardening eyes of a military dictatorship that had been in place since a U.S.-backed 1964 coup. It's significant that the movement borrowed its name from a work by artist Helio Oiticica (a painter known to use cocaine as a white pigment), who advocated for a kind of mass miscegenation. More than a third of Brazilians consider themselves racially mixed, and the Tropicalistas themselves were a mix of colors. They hailed from the small towns of Bahia--Brazil's impoverished, culturally rich eastern coastal state--and stole equally from pop and traditional accordion-based dance music, fashioning Pet Sounds into funky forro and choro rhythms.

These musicians embraced pop, appearing on national television, writing hit singles, wearing Afros and plastic clothes. Yet they also slyly mocked consumerist excess, and it didn't take long for the rulers to catch on to their defiant game and ban certain songs, eventually running many of the musicians into exile. Institutional Act No. 5 of late 1968 effectively eliminated free speech, and by the time movement leaders Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso fled to London in early 1969, Tropicália's storm had passed.

Thirty years later, this odd cultural moment is enjoying newfound interest in the North American nation that once trained Brazil's oppressive police force. Many of the founding albums of the movement have been reissued recently (see "The Tropicália Ten," below), while Beck's cut "Tropicália" and an Intel commercial soundtracked by a Jorge Ben song have placed Tropicália-influenced rock in America's musical in-box.

Still, the genre's most distinct architect, Tom Zé, has no interest in reliving the past. Few musicians stretched Modernism as ingeniously as Zé did in the '60s and '70s, when the singer-guitarist-composer borrowed as freely from Béla Bartók and Dada as from the northeast Brazilian folk traditions he'd absorbed as a youth. Zé constructed doorbell-triggered tape recorders and made music with blenders. He played floor sanders and typewriters, all while singing satiric, playfully surreal lyrics. He kept experimenting right into obscurity through the late '70s, while his peers--most notably Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa--became pop stars.

Now, after a career-reviving 1990 best-of reissue on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label (Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé), two new albums for the imprint, and a handful of concerts in the U.S. (he performed at the Walker six years ago), the 63-year-old is embarking on his first-ever U.S. tour. For a backup band, he'll be towing along Chicago post-rockers Tortoise, whose cut-and-paste grooves owe something to Zé's mélange, and whose presence is meant to tip off Amerindie kids that in a more adventurous world, Tropicália's resurgence could be to the '90s what those Velvet Underground reissues were to the '80s. While dissonant São Paulo rockers Os Mutantes (The Mutants) may have been a closer parallel to the Velvets (Kurt Cobain was a fan), the enduring Zé falls somewhere between a more danceable Zappa and a more hummable Captain Beefheart. "I think he's always been on the periphery, even in Tropicália," says Tortoise's John McEntire. "But he's always made vital music on the periphery."

Released last fall, his sophomore Luaka Bop disc, Fabrication Defect, with its hinky acoustic beats, sounded like Timbaland unplugged, and made inviting remix fodder for McEntire, the High Llamas, and Sean Lennon on the just-released Postmodern Platos. With samplers free-associating cultural sources at a pace de Andrade could only have imagined, modern music has finally caught up to Zé's postmodernism. Still, speaking over the phone recently through an interpreter, the good-natured musician seems keen to talk about economic, rather than culinary or aesthetic, cannibalism. He calls his country "sick," and describes its 14-year existence after the dictatorship as a "minimum-security prison," propped up by corrupt governments and tacitly accepted by a middle class that has sold out to comfort.

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