Who will place the dynamite/On the head of the century?
“Thank God I’ve never heard of any of that!” exclaims Luaka Bop’s resident mad genius Tom Zé. Remixes, DJ culture, 16-bit sampling, ambient soundscaping, multiculti cut ’n’ paste, “Beck-ology” — you’d think the world has finally caught up with Tom Zé’s double-post-modern songcraft. After all, nearly 25 years ago, this architect in Brazil’s Tropicália movement was composing music with tape recorders triggered by doorbells. But Tom demurs. He likes to say that he never listens to music, just the work of his friends and fans who send him songs. “By not knowing,” he explains, “I have no fear of doing something similar.” And thus he remains one step ahead of the curve. On LCom Defeito De Fabricação (Fabrication Defect), his long-awaited third missive, the man from the Brazilian hinterlands once again parries every thrust of a technological society on a rampage — but doesn’t forget the groove. With determined Brazilian bounce, arid back country funk, and generous helping of the South American psychedelia he helped create, Tom Zé’s trigonometric sambas engage the heart, the mind and the gluteal regions.
“Songs are inside of me, like pearls resting in oysters,” Tom says, his mouth moving back and forth as if masticating a marble. “It takes that grain of sand many years of rubbing before it becomes a pearl. That’s why it takes so long for my songs to develop.” A founding member of the Tropicália movement, Zé stepped up his country’s musical metabolism. With cohorts Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes, Zé siezed upon rock, psychedelia and art music, fusing it with folkloric rhythms and popular forms like samba.
Tropicália might be the most enduring musical movement since rock ’n’ roll. Its cannibalistic m.o. — swallowing up everything within reach and shitting out something new — goes down mighty well with today’s sonic elite. From Beck to Tortoise, Stereolab to the Beastie Boys, ’90s rock resonates with the ideals of these rebellious Brazilians.
Tom is the last tropicálista. The last to address “the verbiology of this polishitology” — not to mention the “cardio-philoso-circusassology.” “I’m the one you can talk to,” Tom says of his old running partners, who have elevated themselves from the fray of edgy music-making. Caetano writes dreamy movie soundtracks, Gil records Bob Marley tributes, and Tom Zé builds instruments out of household appliances. “It’s no defect to write pop music,” he concedes. But Tom Zé continues to push the musical envelope, teaching metal machine music how to dance samba, get drunk and cry.
Literally. By 1975, Tom had discovered the floor sander. “The sound was so beautiful,” he remembers, “it brought tears to the eye.” Eventually he constructed an instrument of triggered sanders, typewriters, blenders and radios, mounted in a wooden cabinet. “The instrument took up two Volkswagen buses,” he reminisces, and the greater part of the beach house Tom stored it in. When Tom sold the house in order to finance a concert, his neighbors dismantled the cabinet for firewood. It was an unusually cold winter.
Over the last five years, Tom’s tinkered with the “salad of things” that comprise his art into an “esthetic of plagiarism.” “Everything is plagiarized,” he says. Tom likes to term his borrowings in more active terms: his muse is plunder and urban theft. In the mind of Tom Zé, there are but tiny steps between Russian literature, the lullabies his mother sang, socialist economics and e.e. cummings-style word games.
My youth’s an incinerator, it’s later/If you are held in esteem, I scream
“I never thought I would get to the age of 62 years old and be so well-respected,” Tom Zé says. For a while in the late ’70s, he considered giving up on music entirely, and returning to work in his father’s feed store in Irará. “Now, I would like to live another hundred years. It has been like Ulysses’s voyage to Ithaca,” he says, describing the twists and turns of his life and career. “When I was born,” he says, “Bahia was like the Middle Ages. Now, they have telephones. I could call Irará from here,” he says, gesturing around the New York recording studio. “Imagine that!”