Irará, a dusty town in northeastern Brazil, is not the sort of place where one would expect an avant-gardist musical provocateur to be born. The town is on the edge of the Brazilian sertão, a semi-arid region known for its roadside bandits, fanatical millenarian movements, and impoverished ranchers. Yet it was in Irará where Tom Zé, son of shopkeepers, was born in 1936. Back then, it was the kind of town where guns prevailed over pianos and storytellers over books. Still, this birthplace left an indelible impression on Zé‘s intellect and musical palate.
The dry goods aisles of his parents’ store might seem light years away from the circuits in which Zé now moves as a musician: European jazz festivals, David Byrnes’s Luaka Bop label, boutique venues. Yet Zé has never lost the fiercely independent, mercurial personality that is typical of men raised in rugged towns like Irará. In Brazil his type is called a sertanejo, or man of the sertão.
Euclides da Cunha, one of Brazil’s classic authors, wrote a portrait of the sertanejo that might as well be a thumbnail biographical sketch of Zé himself. The sertanejo, Da Cunha writes, is short in stature, rangy and lean in appearance, with the leathery aspect of someone who has lived their lives battling against the elements. The sertanejo looks, at first sight, like “an old warrior exhausted from his battles.” He looks sleepy, tired, defeated. He might even seem to have few of his wits about him. Appearances deceive however.
In reality, he is only “playing dead” or playing dumb, biding his time. In a flash, the sertanejo will prove his mettle. When it’s required, the sertanejo “transfigures himself”. He becomes another man entirely: “a coppery and potent titan”, of surprising cunning and agility. That is Tom Zé. Famous in the ‘60s, for a long time Zé was forgotten, neglected. Fairly recently, in the ‘90s to be exact, the labyrinth of destiny offered him a chance at a resurrection of sorts, and the sertanejo in him knew how to take advantage of the opportunity. Today, he’s over 70-years-old, and he’s permanently touring, writing music, and enjoying his rediscovered fame.
Yes, good things come to those who wait. In a first instance, though, it seemed Zé would have another sort of career entirely. In the late ‘60s, it seemed certain Zé would be one of those musicians who flash brilliantly and precociously across the musical firmament and then remain fixed in place as an incontrovertible star. That is what happened to other musicians associated with the Tropicália movement, the musical efflorescence of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Brazil. The slicker champions of the movement became household names: people like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa. Zé enjoyed some early success but then foundered in semi-obscurity. Some music buffs savored his zany and humor-inflected musical inventions, and he lingered as something of a cult figure, but he was marginalized by the mainstream and considered commercially irrelevant through the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
In truth, the Tropicália movement never wholly absorbed Zé. He did share many of its sensibilities: a taste for experimentation, an interest in US and British rock, and a critical stance toward Brazilian society. But he was too much of an iconoclast to rise on the Tropicália wave. It didn’t matter that he was also from the state of Bahia, as were Gil, Costa, and Veloso. They were from cosmopolitan, Afro-Brazilian, coastal Salvador, the state capital, and Zé was from the rural interior. Veloso, who has written a memoir of Tropicália’s heyday, remembers Zé as something of a loner, an unclassifiable mix of hick and aesthete. Veloso was baffled by the musically sophisticated sertanejo who spoke with a rural accent and yet helped to organize rock concerts in Salvador, when rock was still somewhat blasphemous in Brazil, both socially and musically.
From the start, Zé was on his own trip. In 1968, at Tropicália’s frenzied peak, he put out his first release, Grande Liquidação (unfortunately still unavailable in the United States except as an import). The title can be translated loosely as “Grand Clearance Sale”, but in Portuguese it has a double meaning. Liquidação, the word for “clearance sale”, might also be taken to mean liquefying or melting. The pun can be interpreted as a simultaneous reference to the international consumer culture that was making its first inroads into Brazil, and the mixed-up world that was being ushered into being with it. Traditional values were being put into the blender and liquefied.
In other words, the album diagnoses Brazil’s first slippage into the troubled waters of free market capitalism, economic globalization, and cultural homogenization. With humor and wit, Zé‘s lyrics criticize the conformism and that accompanied these changes. His music is more than a match for his ideas: multi-layered, harmonically deep, flashing constantly with humor, audacity, and weird sound effects. The sleeve notes are a manifesto in and of themselves. In one passage, Zé riffs on the exploitation of the human smile as a marketing tool:
The human smile is a very old artifact. It has hardly changed over the ages. Today, it is industrialized, sought after, photographed, and expensive (sometimes). Smiles sell. They sell toothpaste, air tickets, decongestants, skirts, etc. And since gestures are always confused with reality, television proves on a daily basis that no one can ever be unhappy.
In the same year the album was released, hardliners in the military government plunged Brazil headlong into the country’s Dirty War era. Anyone listening to Zé’s album might have predicted this turn of events: the swirling changes of the ‘60s provoked a reactionary attempt to “reform” Brazilian society. Intellectuals, activists, and artists, including some of Zé‘s colleagues (Veloso, Gil), were rounded up, jailed and forced into exile—or worse. Zé was able to remain in Brazil, but his friends’ exile marked a before and after. Things would never be the same with the Tropicália set.
Obscurity and Resurrection
The story of Zé‘s lapse into near-anonymity, and of his comeback, is told in the Brazilian documentary Fabricando Tom Zé (the title has a Zé-esque double meaning, since “fabricando” might be taken to mean fabricating, as in lying, or manufacturing). The film, by director Décio Matos Júnior, is still on the festival circuit and awaiting international distribution, but if stars align, it will find its way to wider audiences. It features long, intimate interviews with Zé himself. He speaks honestly of the resentment that ate at him during the long years when no one seemed to appreciate what he did. He was considered a sort of living fossil, a weird musical footnote to Tropicália that refused to go away. His music, always eccentric, was never able to find a solid fan base in Brazil. At times, he had trouble finding labels willing to back him.
Like a true sertanejo gunslinger, biding his time in the hills before wreaking revenge on his enemies, Zé toughed it out for some 20- years. Eventually, a helping hand helped him to his late-career apotheosis. As is the case with many hidden talents south of the equator, it took an outside hand to bring him to international prominence (and as a result, renewed appreciation in his home country). In this case, David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, was Zé’s re-discoverer. The fourth album in his Brazil Classics series is a Zé anthology. In all, Byrne’s Luaka Bop label has issued five Zé albums in the United States.
Despite being a septuagenarian, Zé remains a music machine, both on stage and in the studio.
In the documentary, he claims his lack of natural talent forced him into the role of mad scientist, pleasing audiences not so much on the visceral level, but wowing them with the sheer audacity of his musical inventions. This is false modesty, because Zé knows rhythm. But it is true that Zé’s strength is as a wily inventor, a prodigious creator of musical gizmos who won’t be dissuaded by unbelievers.
One episode in the documentary highlights his irrepressible spirit. At the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, a sound technician makes the mistake of challenging Zé’s competence. The tall, hulking European soundman comes on stage during a sound check and says Zé’s directions are vague and confusing. Zé, small and skinny, explodes into a fury. Chest out, he almost pushes the sound technician off the stage, as festival staff and his own band members struggle to hold him back. Later, we learn festival officials replaced the soundman with someone more amenable to Zé’s demands. Zé, the tough sertanejo, should not be crossed. Eventually he will have his way.