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.

"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.

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.

CP: Would it have been a happy death?

ZÉ: They say that when a child leaves his mother's lap, and the lap in my case was the public, the child dies, even with the best nourishment in the world. And I'm not a saint like Gandhi. I haven't learned how to die properly yet.

 

Tom Zé performs with Tortoise 8:00 p.m. May 22 at the Walker Art Center; (612) 375-7622.

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