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

"There are still pockets of resistance," he says, citing fellow São Paulo residents Racionais MCs ("Rational MCs"), a hip-hop crew that deals explicitly with subjects like Brazil's overcrowded prison system. "It's very common here for a 15-year-old kid to slip up once and find himself in prison, where right away he's beaten up and raped. It's the most efficient school of crime anywhere."

CITY PAGES: What was your own childhood like?

TOM ZÉ: Irará, Bahia, in 1936 was like a different century. It had different customs, a different language. I was bilingual as a child, because I could speak the city language but also the old Portuguese they used at the counter of my father's feed shop, which was a completely different, rural language. That was the most sophisticated university I went through. At the university in Salvador, I studied surrealism and polytonality and so on, but the axis of my energy center is that very rich rural folklore and those customs, which actually date back to the Middle Ages.

"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

Let me give you an example. There's a dance in the Northeast called the Chegança. It's a dramatic dance where they act out the expulsion of the Moors and the Arabs. Now, there are no Arabs that I've noticed in Brazil--except in our own blood. The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula for eight centuries, and when the Portuguese left at the start of the Renaissance, they started immigrating to Brazil, where the poorest settled in the Northeast. They were illiterate, so they cultivated this culture with dance and folkloric songs and in spoken words, which was the greatest currency in circulation.

CP: Given the relative freedom you grew up with, how did the government repression of the late '60s affect you?

ZÉ: Well, it was the I-5 [Institutional Act No. 5] that made the dictatorship more rigorous. We were like boxers who were close to being knocked out, but we couldn't really calculate how strong that hook would be. That law made our lives an absolute hell. The funny part, which is always part of the tragic, is that I would go through the street in '69 and I would see the newspapers. You had to read them like an algebraic formula, which reminded me of my teachers in high school. We didn't know if we had to be worried about the censorship of our texts, or worried about our sisters involved in resistance who were incarcerated. I had two female friends who were jailed, then fled to Chile. Then, when Allende died, they fled to France. Everybody was saving up money to send them to safety.

It's as if the military was producing a show. One funny thing that doesn't come out in the papers is the way they extorted money. The phone would ring, and someone would say, "Tom Zé, this is Colonel So-and-so. I have a pair of knitting needles for you. But they're very special knitting needles. They're for you to use with French or English yarn. And you have to deposit so much money in such-and-such an account in a bank tomorrow so that you can have these needles, so they can knit the yarn of your life." This was the fear and the surrealism that we were going through. And sometimes we would actually deposit the money.

CP: What was your reaction to Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso being jailed?

ZÉ: With Gilberto Gil and Caetano, it was never explained--not when they were arrested, nor when they were set free--why this happened. When I was incarcerated for a few days in '71, they interrogated me on the day I was set free. And they asked me, like, if this or that star on TV in Brazil was actually nice in person. You were so scared that you didn't even ask them, "Why the heck was I in here?"

CP: What do you think the government feared about Tropicália?

ZÉ: Things worked in an organic manner. First they were afraid of ideas, then of youth, then of modernity. Then they were afraid of the moon and the race to the moon. We were making music that was a novelty in the aesthetic world, and it seemed that every chord in a song had five bombs ready to throw at the military headquarters.

CP: How did Tropicália change Brazil?

ZÉ: It had an effect on people, on business, on the whole concept of innovation. It influenced Brazilian engineering, which produced technology that had not been seen anywhere else in the world. Tropicália enabled them to build the bridge between Rio de Janeiro and the City of Niterói. And there was also simply a joy in knowing that this kind of music existed. It fed our resistance like some kind of protein or antibiotic.

CP: I read that by 1986, you were considering giving up professional music altogether and working in a gas station before David Byrne called. Where would your creative energies have gone?

ZÉ: I knew that my tomb would be in my nephew's gasoline station, but I didn't know what type of death that would be.

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