An Encounter with Tropicalia's Trickster

The Tom Zé Interview

by Jennifer Kelly


Tom Zé, born in 1936 in Brazil’s impoverished northern state of Bahia, has been one of Tropicalia’s oddest and most fascinating artists since the 1960s. In 1967, he joined Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes and Maria Bethania in the defining album Tropicalia ou Panis et Circenses, which gave musical expression to the movement’s juxtaposition of rural and industrial cultures through its mix of bossa nova, samba, African rhythms and rock ‘n’ roll. Zé, who is often compared to American innovators like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, bent traditional Brazil folk into avant garde forms, layering them with polyrhythmic percussion and injecting sardonic political commentary. More eccentric than his contemporaries, Zé never achieved the international stardom of Veloso or Gil, but attained a cult status in his native land, which expanded when David Byrne brought his music to America via the Luaka Bop label.

Zé‘s latest, Estudando o Pagode, is a bizarre and wonderful melange of familiar and unfamiliar sounds, opening with what sounds like a swarm of bees, and moving through exuberant choruses, syncopated samba rhythms and hauntingly beautiful arias. A mass of contradictions, it is an opera, written in the downscale pagode style of Brazilian folk. This form is a sort of improvised samba, which Zé says he chose because it was despised by the middle classes. Pagode is also typically a macho style, but Zé‘s opera is all about women.

I was eager to talk to him, even via email and through a translator, because he’d been a hero of mine for a while. The interview, though, was sort of a disaster, with Zé refusing to answer most of the questions, making fun of the ones he did respond to, and generally playing the trickster. He also initially refused to answer the questions in several cases, then at the end provided interesting and thought-provoking answers. Enlightening? Yes. Editorial nightmare? Definitely. But still, he’s Tom Zé. Reading the answers, I wonder what I expected ... provocation been his role all along. And anyway, he did compare me to Harold Bloom.

You can read for yourself what he thought of my questions, PopMatters and the music press in general. Fortunately, he’s specifically linked his answers to groups of questions; otherwise, we would never have been able to guess what he was talking about. Enjoy.

Tom Zé: My dear Popmasterist, I decided to respond to your questions in blocks. Looking at them [the questions], I said: Help me, Socrates! Since you are a fantastic enquirer and having a fantastic questioner in New York as well, I said: Help me, Harold Bloom.

I’d like to say sorry in advance, especially in confessing that I was scared when I saw your fury of questions. After seeing the questions, I said to myself: Why am I mad at him and the amount of questions I’m being asked, if the way I choose to express myself in my work is through writing? Because of this I implore you to allow me to practice a type of estetic of plagiarism, the type that I announced in Fabrication Defect, and to create a type of ready-made answer, in the style of M. Duchamp.

This style involves the following: I state, in order to enrich the experience of your readers, the first four questions. They will see that, being four questions, they are practically 12, as if Jacob had married them, since four was the number of women with which he produced 12 children and 12 tribes. [The first four questions.]

PopMatters: How did you get the idea to compose an opera?

PopMatters: How did it compare, writing a long piece based on a story, rather than a series of shorter, self-contained songs? Was it more difficult? More challenging? More interesting in any way?

PopMatters: Is there an opera tradition in Brazil?

PopMatters: This piece is titled Estudando o Pagode, a reference, I think, to your earlier Estudando o Samba. What exactly is the difference between pagode and samba, and how do you see these two works as related?

Tom Zé: That tedious operation, that opera, that fury of questions, is similar to the fury of questions and demands that I undertake when I commence my plans for a new record. The principal demand is to acquire enough allies (buyers) as there are sands in the desert. This last part, I usually abandon and leave in the hands of God, but the fury of questions, I take with me until the end of my project.

After attending to those first four women, or curiosities, or interrogations, I return my attention to the next four [questions], specifically, questions 5 through 8. In order to answer them, I will rely on the guidance of Socrates, Harold Bloom, and even C.S. Peirce. [Questions 5 through 8.]

PopMatters: What is pagode music typically about, lyrically?

PopMatters: Yours is inspired by women—both mythological women and real ones, I think. What myths did you draw on? How do they relate to the more contemporary issues that you have always been concerned with?

PopMatters: The rhythms are wonderful in this record ... can you talk about how you think about rhythm when you’re writing a song.

PopMatters: You’re also known for your use of satire—what kinds of things or people are you sending up in Estudando o Pagode?

Tom Zé: Similar to yourself, my dear Popmaster, Socrates used the question as an argumentative tool. Now, the question has a new use: in your hands the question is a tiny surgeon’s scalpel and I was alive and dissected by you. Not that this is a cruel act without an objective. No. Your dissection is capable of explaining to the vultures even, of the butchering and disrespect to culture that is contaminating popular music and is already infecting learning in American Universities, something Harold Bloom complains about in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? As you see, he is also questioning, just like you.

In summary, let’s consider the last five questions, and I ask that you please publish them. [The last five questions.]

PopMatters: You are originally from Bahia…tell me about the music you grew up with. What are some of your earliest memories about music? When did you start playing?

PopMatters: Your earlier music—like Fabrications—was concerned with the impact of industrialization on the very poorest, most rural parts of the world. Is that still something that concerns you?

PopMatters: How’d you get the donkey sound? (Was there a real donkey?)

PopMatters: Tell me about the people you worked with on this record—are they people you’ve worked with before? It’s a really large group of people, isn’t it? Was it hard to bring together all the voices and instruments you needed for this CD?

PopMatters: Now that key members of the Tropicalia movement are so established—Caetano Veloso is an international star and Gilbert Gil is the Minister of Culture—do you think that this type of music still plays the same role—shaking things up and challenging the status quo? Or is it time for another revolution in music…and what form would that take?

Tom Zé: I ask [you to publish the questions], even though it may be humourous because, to a certain extent, they teach journalism. The reader will also be able to see firsthand, the art of asking questions with a totally different point of view, and a type of metamorphosis of the different segments of this interview enabling me to take on a personality, my personification on paper.

[Once he was through expressing his contempt for the interview in the group answer format, Zé actually answered several of the questions, which are presented here for your edification and entertainment.]

PopMatters: Is there an opera tradition in Brazil?

Tom Zé: Certainly, in the Northeast of Brasil, I was raised with an operetta called “Bumba-Meu-Boi” that presents itself as a popular dramatic dance, and whose theme is the division of food supplies among different authorities and a city population. After this, in the CPC (Center of Popular Culture), in 1962, I composed a version of “Bumba-Meu-Boi”, one could say, a politicized version, in which that popular dramatic dance was seen through the eyes of the Brasilian student left. I was also born alongside an operatic representation called “Chegança”, through which the Catholic Northeast, following in the tradition of the Medieval European Nobleman, throws out the Arabs.

PopMatters: This piece is titled Estudando o Pagode, a reference, I think, to your earlier Estudando o Samba. What exactly is the difference between pagode and samba, and how do you see these two works as related?

Tom Zé: EXACTLY! Nothing like that American habit of knowing someone’s personal and work history in order to carry out an interview.

PopMatters: The rhythms are wonderful in this record…can you talk about how you think about rhythm when you’re writing a song?

Tom Zé: The principal nourishments of the Northeast are: a type of dried salted beef, mandioca flour, and rhythm. Rhythm is the principal nourishment of the people of the Northeast. In reality, it is this abstract nourishment that allows the people of the Northeast to survive. Rhythm is the skeletal structure, the spinal cord. Rhythm is, in the Northeast, a dehydrated God.

PopMatters: You were known, early on, for making some of your own instruments? Do you still do that? Are there any of those on Pagode?

Tom Zé: Yes. There is a new instrument, made with the ficus leaves. Ficus is a common tree in the Northeast. Children often roll the leaves up carefully in order to produce a type of Oboe reed, with which they make an irritating noise in order to annoy adults.

In order to seem less absent-minded or forgetful, I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Charles Sanders Peirce, in following the 6th rule in his book, Syllabus of Certain Topics of Logic (1903). He advises that, when one invents something or creates a new idea, they should also create a new word for that product or idea, in order to give a sense of accuracy to the new information being explained.

[PopMatters: We didn’t actually ask a question that would elicit this response, but it’s interesting, so we threw it in anyway. Make up your own question ... perhaps “What is harmony induzida?”]

Tom Zé: HARMONY INDUZIDA involves a practice that is neither bitonality nor polytonality, but consists in maintaining the harmony in an interval of a song while stopping on a tone, while the melody comes and goes in other harmonious tones on the scale.

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