Z is for Zé
ã Banning Eyre
THE BOSTON PHOENIX - SECTION THREE -
A Brazilian eccentric shakes the hips of musical tradition.
by Banning Eyre
Listening to the world music releases (Brazilian, Cuban, and Asian) from David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, you get the flavor of the offcenter lyricism and angular grooves he enjoys. But when it comes to Byrne’s releases by Brazilian maestro Tom Zé, the connection seems more personal. Eccentric, brainy, playful, at times obscure but with a clear pop feel, Zé comes across as Byrne’s kind of guy. On The Best of Tom Zé (1990), Byrne collected his favorites from Zé’s most fertile period, the ’70s. The Return of Tom Zé: The Hips of Tradition, just out from Luaka Bop/Warner, finds his creativity and spark still intact in the ’90s.
''I am 56 years young,'' Zé told me in a recent telephone interview from New York, where he was visiting with Byrne and with producer Arto Lindsay, who mixed Zé’s new album and also translated our interview.‘‘ Before David released the first record, I was ready to give up my career as a composer. I didn’t think that anyone would ever recognize me.’’
Zé’s notoriety began in cosmopolitan São Paulo during the heady days of the ’60s tropicalismo movement, when musicians and other artists thought they were ushering in a new, enlightened society. Brazil’s military leaders thought otherwise, and Zé’s fellow tropicalistas Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were forced to leave the country. ‘‘I was in a fallow period when the shit came down. I went home to Bahia [in northern Brazil] and woodshedded. I tried to come’up with a new approach.’’
He studied at the conservatory in Bahia, delving into the prevailing currents of 12-tone music and serial composition. ‘‘I started to work alone on a two-track tape recorder. The recorder limited me but also gave me ideas.’’
Since that time, Zé has specialized in the musical use of electric appliances. Mixing the new tunes in New York, he and Lindsay combined sampled sounds to create a set of four cortinas (‘‘curtains’’), short instrumental pieces that intersperce the tracks Zé recorded in Brazil. In ‘‘Cortina #1,’’ a rhythmic knot of keyboard and drum sounds backs up a pair of power drills. One drill pumps out a grinding bass as the other sings out in a high-speed whine.
Zé’s key compositional technique entails ‘‘inverting the roles in a traditional band - to have the harmony and melody instruments play a percussive role and vice versa.’’ On the new album’s opener, ‘‘Ogodo, and 2000,’’ electric guitars spit out a rapid, dark-toned ostinato while the bass and drums play a prominent countermelody punctuated by cymbal splashes that jump out of the mix all on their own rather than accentuating musical cadences. A chorus of voices weaves through, ooing melodiously or chattering to set up Zé’s strained, apocalyptic lead vocal.
‘‘I dream a sound and then spend my life chasing after it,’’ he explains. ‘‘You always get part of it. But you inevitably miss something. I think this is a device God uses to keep life moving.’’ Zé says he spent three years recording his 1979 album Nave Maria, and through that experience he learned how to record his music.
ECCENTRIC, BRAINY, PLAYFUL -- count him among those musicians who forge a link between pop and experimental music.
‘‘The main thing I learned was that my arrangements had to be simple. I should only use one guitar, [either] one electric guitar, one acoustic guitar, one seven-string guitar, or one 12-string guitar. My ideas require simplicity to be strong.’’
At times, Zé pares down radically. A single acoustic guitar and voice deliver perky bossa novas on ‘‘Multiplicar-se Unica’’ and ‘‘Iracema.’’ He leaves his mark on this venerable Brazilian form with exuberant, crying chants, but he’s not parodying tradition here. ‘‘When I was young, bossa nova made my life an enchantment, like a sunset. I think that if you can make up a new sound, you can inspire people and give them hope.’’
For all their variety, these 18 selections define a singular sound. Chants figure prominently, often harmonized to create a mood of forboding, as on ‘‘Feira de Santana’’ and ‘‘Lua-Gira-Sol.’’ Tantalizingly brief, ‘‘Tai’’ displays his cool, contemporery take on funk.
When the groove gets deep, Zé likes to throw in strident, offbeat chinks on the high-pitched cavaquinho, a small Brazilian guitar. On another funky track, ‘‘Sofro de Juventude’’ (‘‘I Suffer from Youth’’), he snarls and raves with.
Tom Waits dramatics: ‘‘I suffer from youth, this damned thing that, when it’s almost ready, falls apart and fries itself.’’
Occasional English lines reveal his peculiar brand of poetry. On ‘‘Tatuaramba,’’ he repeats the phrase ‘‘to expose the hips of tradition to the burning iron of ads.’’ Asked to explain, he laughs mischievously and then suggests that advertising amounts to a kind of cultural branding.
Never mind that Zé hails from Brazil and sings in Portuguese. Count him among the creative breed of musicians who forge a link between pop and experimental music, always with a premiu on entertainment and good humor.
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