Tom Zé: Estundando O Pagode

Tom Zé
Estundando O Pagode
Luaka Bop/V2

As insouciant teenage punks, my friends and I knew noise: guitar feedback, cat-in-heat screams, drums pummeling. Until one day, when a friend's impish father played us a track off of some "world music" disc. It was of the forgotten Tropicaliaist and Brazilian songwriter Tom Zé compiled by Talking Head David Byrne, and it was the third track, "Toc," that steamrolled us. Based on an incessantly strummed nylon-stringed guitar, the song was pocked by outbursts of brass, electric guitar, radio static, a croaked mewl, and weirdest of all, the whir of a blender. Noise up to that point had always been caustic—cathartic even—but this was something else: off-kilter, disorienting, and downright playful.

"Toc" originated on Zé's stupefying 1975 album Estudando O Samba, and some 30 years on, the man revisits it for his new Estudando O Pagode with the same sense of revelry and reverie. Rather than riddle Brazil's most urbane musical export, the samba, he instead takes on the lewd pagode. (For those unfamiliar with the style, it's the one used on Favela Booty Beats, or more recently, on K-Fed's hideous "Popazao" single.) Ultra-macho and misogynistic, pagode is the sound of Sao Paulo's favelas at their most base. In the hands of Tom Zé, though, it becomes the carrier for his extended musings on the oppression of women throughout history, as he takes on the roles of men by turns romantic and cruel, well-intended yet doltish.

It's apropos that Tom Zé would make a blender into an instrument; that act exemplifies his approach. Chopped up within Pagode's unfinished operetta are Greek choruses, allusions to Jobim, and bickering couples, not to mention settings like the UN, Eden, and a gay pride parade in the Vatican. "Estúpido Rapaz" couples a woman's orgasm with the braying of a donkey, but such ruptures and juxtapositions are Zé's stock in trade—it's no wonder he finds fans in Beck, Cibo Matto, and Tortoise. "Pagode-Enredo Dos Tempos Do Medo" verges on motion sickness as kazoos and chipmunk vocals intermingle with the tics, blips, and hiccups endemic to Zé, but the stark "Duas Opiniões," a duet with Suzana Salles, may be his loveliest song yet. Amid urban noise and the expected junkyard sounds of Zé, isn't that punk rock?

 
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