Like many artists who have pursued a radically inventive path in popular music, Tom Zé has experienced his share of ostracism and frustration mixed with occasional, hard-won moments of critical recognition and modest success. Yet two instances of good fortune had a decisive impact on his life and career. The first came in 1920, sixteen years before he was born, when Zé’s father, a street vendor, won the federal lottery. With his prize, Zé’s father opened a fabric store and married into a family of local politicians and intellectuals in Irará, a small town in the dry scrublands, known as o sertão, in the state of Bahia. By 1936, when Tom came along, his family enjoyed a life of relative comfort in one of the poorest regions of Brazil. In Zé’s estimation, his father’s luck provided him and his four siblings access to protein and books, two commodities that were in short supply in the Brazilian hinterlands in the 1930s and 1940s. He ate meat with his rice and beans, learned how to read, listened to his uncles’ classical music records, and went off to study in Salvador, the state capital.
The second instance was not a case of sheer luck, like the lottery windfall, but rather a stroke of serendipity. In 1998, David Byrne was scouring the record stores of downtown Rio in search of material for a compilation of samba recordings for Luaka Bop, his recently founded label. He happened upon Zé’s Estudando o Samba (Studying the samba), which had been misplaced in a bin of samba records, no doubt thanks to the title. Back in New York, he found something quite different—an edgy, vanguardist take on samba that seemed to have more in common with New York’s downtown music scene than with the modern samba of Rio’s north side. It had been recorded in 1975, around the time that Byrne formed Talking Heads.
When Byrne came across Estudando o Samba, Tom Zé was at the nadir of his career. Most of his records were out of print and he was surviving on local gigs for small audiences of university students, intellectuals, and fellow experimental musicians in São Paulo. At the time, he was contemplating a move back to Irará to work at a service station owned by one of his cousins. Within two years he was contracted as the first artist on the Luaka Bop label.
In 1990, when Luaka Bop issued The Best of Tom Zé: Massive Hits, comprised primarily of cuts from Estudando o Samba, Zé was not an obvious candidate for rehabilitation in Brazil. Santo de casa não faz milagre—“the house saint doesn’t perform miracles,” as the expression goes. In the US and Europe, however, Tom Zé’s sudden appearance seemed like a small miracle in the way it defied all expectations of what Brazilian music should sound like. Critics attempted comparisons with Captain Beefheart and John Zorn, but they were never very convincing. He had emerged from another culture, one equally modern and urban, yet with different musical sensibilities. Besides introducing Tom Zé to an international audience and reviving his career in Brazil, Massive Hits also led Zé to a creative renaissance in the studio and on stage. As a pop artist, he is something of an anomaly, having produced some of his best work after turning fifty-five. At seventy-five, he is at the top of his game and playing with the best band he has ever had.
Trained in classical and contemporary avant-garde musics, he likes working with “studies”—a sustained formal exploration of a genre, style, or motif. Three decades after Estudando o Samba, he completed a trilogy of studies with Estudando o Pagode and Estudando a Bossa. For the first time, these three “studies” have been collected together.
From the Sertão to São Paulo
Brazilians who were born in the thirties and forties and reached maturity in the fifties and sixties witnessed a nation in transformation from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial one. For those who, like Tom Zé, grew up in a small underdeveloped town, the process of modernization was a startling existential experience. In recalling his childhood, Zé can describe the arrival of electricity and running water in Irará in vivid detail. In the 1940s, Irará was, as Zé says, a “pre-Gutenbergian” place, a world of oral communication and circular time marked by agricultural seasons and annual religious festivals.
Learning to read was astonishing and delightful for Zé, but he was even more impressed by the animated conversations and richly narrated stories that he heard while sitting at the counter in his father’s fabric store. He was immersed in the linguistic universe of illiterate backland peasants who invented with precision and creativity new words and metaphors to analyze the physical world of the sertão, the drama of human relations, and the arrival of modern amenities. Zé would soon discover classics of the Brazilian literary canon, such as Os Sertões by Euclides da Cunha and Grande Sertão: Veredas by João Guimarães Rosa, which revealed to him that this experience could be represented in print.
Tom Zé grew up between two distinct, yet interconnected worlds: one that was “traditional,” reliant on oral communication, and mostly poor, and another that was “modern” and distinguished by literacy, access to new technologies, and the promise of upward mobility. Much of his artistic production over the past five decades is informed by the tension between these two realities.
In the early 1950s, a friend introduced him to the guitar and he soon found that music was an ideal form for chronicling the social and cultural life of Irará. He drew inspiration from backland cancionistas, itinerant musicians who traveled around the sertão, performing at markets and festivals. These roving troubadours were masters at topical improvisation, sizing up the audience, and tailoring each performance to each new context. Telling stories, relating news, and providing humorous commentary were central to the work of the cancionistas, who performed for tips. They were an early inspiration for Tom Zé’s performance style, which still eschews the conventions of pop music shows in favor of free-wheeling improvisation with frequent interruptions, impromptu monologues, the occasional diatribe, and audience sing-alongs.
A typical Tom Zé show is part musical performance, part stand-up comedy, and part lecture on anything ranging from the history of counterpoint to the pitfalls of globalization. He likes to call his music imprensa cantada—sung journalism. Heavy doses of social and political satire have permeated his songs ever since he began composing tongue-in-cheek ditties about life in Irará. In his very first televised performance, in 1960, the twenty six year old appeared on a talent show in Salvador called Escada para o Sucesso (The Stairway to Success) only to sing a ballad called “Rampa para o Fracasso” (The Ramp to Failure), revealing a penchant for irony and self-deprecation. This was the era of bossa nova, a cool distillation of samba, which is not particularly noted for its ironic or satiric sensibilities. In 1962, Tom Zé began his musical studies at the Universidade da Bahia, in Salvador. The university was experiencing a renaissance under the visionary direction of Chancellor Edgar Santos, who was determined to turn Salvador, then a provincial backwater, into a world-class center for the arts. In the mid-1950s, he had invited German composer and educator Hans Joachim Koellreuter to establish a music school. Fleeing from the Nazis, Koellreuter had arrived in Brazil in 1939 and established himself as the leading proponent of avantgarde twelve-tone composition and critic of the nationalist modernism of Heitor Villa-Lobos and his acolytes. Zé studied composition with the Swiss composer Ernst Widmer, who sought to open up the realm of “erudite” music to local Afro-Bahian musical traditions. He also began working with another Swiss emigré, Walter Smetak, who had been hired to teach cello but spent most of his time in a basement workshop. There he invented new electro-acoustic instruments made with local materials, especially the calabash gourds typically used as resonators for berimbaus, the one-string instrument of Angolan origin used in the dance/fight capoeira. It was a period of intense experimentation, when the rarified world of “art music” began to engage the local Afro-Brazilian musical practices.
Around the same time, Zé began composing music for the local branch of the CPC (Centro Popular de Cultura), the cultural arm of the left-wing National Students’ Union, which was closely associated with the Brazilian Communist Party. The CPC was charged with raising political consciousness among urban workers and rural peasants with the aim of building an anti-imperialist and socialist revolutionary movement. Inspired by the Cuban Revolution and emboldened by the leftward tack of Brazil’s populist president, João Goulart, left-wing artists and intellectuals joined forces with union leaders and peasant leagues with hopes of transforming Brazil. While working with the CPC and circulating within the broader university scene, Zé came into contact with other young artists, like musicians Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, and poets José Carlos Capinan and Torquato Neto. In 1964, he first performed with Gil and Veloso, along with Veloso’s younger sister Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa in a musical showcase called “Nós, por exemplo” (Us, for example). In that same year, a US-backed military coup ousted Goulart, quashed the labor movements, persecuted students, and abolished the CPC. This cohort of Bahian artists— later known as o grupo baiano-- would migrate south, first to Rio and then on to São Paulo. Zé stayed in Salvador to finish his studies at the university, but at Veloso’s suggestion, he relocated to São Paulo in January 1968.
Earlier in the century, São Paulo had surpassed Rio as Brazil’s largest city and most dynamic industrial center. It was the epicenter for Brazilian modernismo, a reinvention of literary and visual arts in the 1920s. Some thirty years later, it was the center for concretismo, a constructivist avantgarde in poetry and visual arts. By the 1960s, São Paulo had become a hub for media and culture industries, attracting musicians from Rio and beyond. The leading television station, TV Record hosted annual televised music festivals, modeled after the San Remo Festival in Italy, in which musicians would enter songs into a formal competition and perform them before a live studio audience. The TV Record festival become a stage for the cultivation of MPB, an acronym for Música Popular Brasileira, which gained currency in the mid-1960s as a designation for post-bossa nova popular music that was coded as both “national” and “modern”. MPB artists, such as Elis Regina, Chico Buarque, Edu Lobo, and Geraldo Vandré competed with a nascent rock ’n’ roll movement, known as iê-iê-iê, led by the charismatic heart-throb, Roberto Carlos and his allies, collectively known as the Jovem Guarda (Young Guard). The conflict between MPB artists and the Jovem Guarda was largely media-driven: TV Record aired Elis Regina’s weekly showcase for MPB, O Fino da Bossa, as well as Roberto Carlos’s program Jovem Guarda and had an interest in promoting this rivalry. At the same time, there were political implications to the schism: MPB artists were more apt to use popular music as a vehicle for social and political critique, including protest against the military regime, while iê-iê-iê was mostly about love dramas, fast cars, and youth style.
While clearly identified with MPB, o grupo baiano, especially Veloso and Gil, were enthralled with British and American rock and dreamed of revolutionizing Brazilian popular music. Both of them participated in the 1967 TV Record festival-- Veloso backed by an Argentine rock band and Gil backed by Os Mutantes, a group of three kids from São Paulo who would soon become one of the greatest psychedelic rock bands of all time. It was the beginning of what was soon be called Tropicália (or Tropicalismo), a radical intervention in the field of MPB that cannibalized modern rock and pop, bossa nova, traditional sambas, and kitschy boleros. The tropicalistas worked intensively with Rogério Duprat, a member of Música Nova, a group of experimental composers allied with the concrete poets who were heirs to Koellreuter’s vanguard of the forties and fifties. They also enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the concrete poets, especially Augusto de Campos, who wrote effusively in the local press about tropicália as a kind of avantgarde for the masses.
Veloso and Gil were the most visible faces of the tropicalist movement, but Zé brought to the group an interest in formal experimentation honed during his years studying composition at the university, and an acute sense of social and political satire. His song, “Parque Industrial,” which appeared on the collective concept album Tropicália, ou Panis et Circensis, lampooned the official discourse of industrial development, the promises of consumer capitalism, and the rise of the sensationalist press. His first solo album, issued in 1968 on the now-defunct Rosenblit label from Recife, further developed this critique of urban life during a time of rapid modernization. With arrangements by Damiano Cozzela, another member of the Música Nova group, the album was an oddball mixture of organ and electric guitar driven iê-iê-iê, experimental music, and traditional ballads of the northeastern cantadores The closest thing to a hit on this record was “São São Paulo, meu amor” Zé’s bleak homage to his recently adopted home, which took first prize at the TV Record festival of 1968. (His Kubrick-inspired space odyssey “2001”, written with Rita Lee of Os Mutantes, took fourth prize at the same festival) His solo effort was essentially a concept album about daily life in São Paulo—its pollution and traffic jams, its prostitutes and radio personalities, its bargain shops and smiling billboards. The album introduced a recurring theme in Zé’s music, summed up in a phrase from his text from the back cover: “We are an unhappy people bombarded by happiness.” Of all the tropicalistas, Tom Zé was most intrigued, but also the most wary, of the media-saturated consumer-driven industrial society of São Paulo. While tropicalia songs by Gil and Veloso celebrated opportunities for becoming “consumer-citizens” in a mega-city with countless attractions, Zé’s songs often reminded listeners of deep class inequalities and forms of social exclusion in the sprawling metropolis. For Zé, the promise of happiness in consumer society could be deceptive and even oppressive.With this in mind, we might better undersand the ironically cheerful samba “Vai,” which he composed several years later: “Girl, tomorrow morning/ when we wake up/ I want to tell you/ happiness will crash down on mankind.”
For decades, Zé was all but written out of the history of the tropicalia movement, which focused on Veloso, Gil, and Costa, who would become superstars in the following decade. This has changed in recent years with new scholarship on the movement and several excellent documentaries about Tom Zé, such as Decio Matos’s Fabricando Tom Zé (2006) and Ígor Iglesias’s Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado (2009). Still today, there is debate around Tom Zé’s place in tropicália, with some arguing that his musical project was distinct, having diverged so radically from mainstream MPB. Others regard Zé as the musician who most faithfully carried on in the vanguardist spirit of the movement in the ensuing years. It’s a question of emphasis: Was tropicália ultimately about opening up Brazilian popular music to the electric guitar and various forms of international pop? Or was it about permanent experimentation informed by the musical avantgarde? Or was it more complicated? Tom Zé recorded his share of radio-friendly pop songs, like the now-forgotten “Jeitinho dela” (1970), while Veloso recorded Araça Azul (1972), perhaps the most explicitly vanguardist album in the history of Brazilian popular music. These lingering questions are a testament to the ambiguity of tropicália, which was based on the dual imperatives of formal experimentation and pop viability.
Estudando O Samba
Whatever pretensions he had of becoming a pop star were effectively abandoned with Todos os Olhos, an album recorded in 1973 during the most repressive and violent period of military rule in Brazil. The album was not a commercial success, but later gained legendary status for its cover, featuring a close-up shot of what appeared to be a floating eyeball. It was, in fact, a green marble set perfectly on top of a fleshy pink anus and shot in soft focus, a cheeky gesture of defiance to government censors. The inside fold-out cover showed “Olho por olho” (1964), a visual poem by Augusto de Campos-- a pyramid of close-up photos of eyes, some recognizably famous, others anonymous—that brought to mind the prevalence of surveillance and spectacle in contemporary society. Campos collaborated with Zé on “Cademar,” a song inspired directly by the word play of concrete poetry in the way it breaks up words in discrete parts to produce multiple meanings. Todos os Olhos also featured his second tongue-in-cheek homage to São Paulo, “Augusta, Angélica e Consolação,” which refers to the names of three well-known streets in the city. In this samba, the streets are figured as actual women who bring him all kinds of grief. Augusta, then a fashionable street, spends all of his money, while Angélica, home to a row of medical offices, is unreliable and smells like a doctors office. Only Consolação, as the name suggests, brings him comfort.
Five songs from Todos os Olhos would later appear on Massive Hits, but the core of the compilation was composed of tracks from the record Byrne found by chance in the late 1980s. Massive Hits featured all but three tracks from Estudando o Samba, his most important work of his early career, and among the most influential albums of experimental pop in Brazil. Conceived as an extended “study” of various forms of samba with complex, yet sparing vocal and instrumental arrangements, the album deconstructed the genre in minimalist sketches with concise titles like “Mã,” “Toc,” “Tô,” “Ui,” “Só,” “Hein?,” “Doi,” and “Vai.” Zé’s love for unresolved paradoxes are on full display in songs like “Ui!,” in which he warbles plaintively, “You invent love/ I invent solitude,” or in the playfully zany “Tô,” which invites listeners to suspend Cartesian rationality in favor of communication through permanent contradiction: “I’m explaining things to confuse you/ I’m confusing you to clarify.”
The most startling composition, “Toc,” is a tense, wordless crescendo of guitar notes that carry the 2/4 samba beat, rapid-fire bursts of horns, typewriters that provide rhythmic accents, and aleatory screams fed through blenders. “Toc” seems to have even unsettled his former professor, Hans Joachim Koellreuter, who revealed in an interview (for Carla Gallo’s documentary Tom Zé, ou quem irá colocar uma dinamite na cabeça do século) that Zé’s composition had kept him awake at night, pondering new directions in music. “Toc” was a prelude to subsequent experiments with homemade electro-acoustic instruments in the spirit of Walter Smetak’s inventations, like the HertZé, a kind of analog sampler connected to pre-recorded tapes that produced aleatory bursts of sound. These instruments were lost in the late 1970s, but period footage of their use in ensemble appears in Ígor Inglesias’s documentary.
This points to what is perhaps the greatest legacy of Estudando o Samba and its partial reprise in Massive Hits. The compilation had the effect of rebooting his career, taking him back into the studio to record new material, tinker with old ideas, and recycle long forgotten tracks from the 1970s. These adventures in self-cannibalism are not about merely reprising old songs, but rather, demonstrate the time-honored practices of selective appropriation, ironic quotation, and repetition through difference. He later dedicated an entire album, Fabrication Defect (1998), to the creative power of plagiarism. It’s no wonder then, that several tracks from Fabrication Defect were subsequently reworked by downtown pop experimentalists like High Llamas, Amon Tobin, Sean Lennon, and Sasha Frere-Jones on an album of remixes aptly titled Postmodern Platos. Or, that Tom Zé would tour the US in 1999 with Tortoise, the genre-defying Chicago based instrumental group.
When Massive Hits appeared in 1990, it influenced the way Americans and Europeans, especially young enthusiasts for experimental rock and international pop, heard Brazilian music. For many decades, most Brazilian music had been received abroad as a tropical sub-genre of jazz, owing to the undeniable impact of bossa nova. This began to change in the late 1980s with Veloso’s collaboration with Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer on Estrangeiro, but Zé’s compilation had a more profound impact on listeners and arguably paved the way for the belated tropicália vogue in the late-1990s. After assimilating the lessons of “Toc,” “Tô,” and “Vai,” it was suddenly possible to appreciate the extraordinary late 1960s recordings of Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes. It’s no accident that Zé’s work from the mid-1970s had begun to circulate internationally more than five years before the first reissues on CD of the classic tropicalia catalogue.
Estudando O Pagode
Little in Tom Zé’s musical trajectory over the last forty years prepared listeners for his next big and rather unlikely idea: an operetta about the psycho-social oppression of women throughout the ages structured as an extended “study” of pagode, the low-brow pop samba that “sophisticated” listeners typically despise. To be sure, he had composed his share of love trouble songs, usually in a puckish vein as in “Augusta, Angélica e Consolação,” or “Medo de Mulher” (from Jogos de Armar), which provides a compendium of past girlfriends and the manner in which they dumped him— kind of like “50 Ways to Leave your Lover,” but far more comical.
The operetta Estudando o Pagode was altogether a different matter: with interconnected musical vignettes in three acts sung by dueling choruses of men and women, highlighting the female voices of Zélia Duncan, Suzana Salles, Patrícia Marx, and Luciana Mello. As always, Zé experimented with new sounds from unconventional sources, such as ficus leaves, which produce a loud buzzing sound somewhere between a kazoo and a vuvuzela. Zé never converted into a theatrical production, but he once mused in an interview with Tom Moon that it would work best as poor theater in the manner of Polish director Jerry Grotowski, with sparse scenery and men dressed as beggars to symbolize “their situation in relation to women given how badly they have treated them for so many centuries.”
Estudando o Pagode was initially inspired by his reading of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Riane Eisler’s influential study The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, which portrays ancient Mediterranean agrarian societies based on harmony with nature, non-violence, and egalitarian gender relations. Eisler argues that these societies were wiped out by nomadic invaders from the east, who gained power through violence, and sustained it by subjugating women. Property rights became intrinsically connected to the ownership of women and children through marriage and reproduction. Zé’s project also took cues from a local study at the University of São Paulo that revealed that 60% of women interviewed don’t have orgasms during sex, which suggested to him that they were poorly and perfunctorily loved. A similar theme was picked up in another local source for his ruminations-- Juca de Oliveira’s play whose title requires no further explanation-- Qualquer gato vira-lata tem uma vida sexual mais sadia que a nossa (Any Alley Cat Has a Healthier Sexuality Than We Do). In composing each of the songs, he recruited two adolescents from his neighborhood, who gave him suggestions on what to change, keep, or discard. After gaining their approval, he would share the song with his wife, Neusa, for final approval, a creative process in line with the overall theme of male/female partnership.
Zé’s operetta is both sweeping and idiosyncratic in scope. References to Greek tragedy, Biblical stories, medieval romances, and Cervante’s epic Dom Quixote play alongside Gay and Lesbian Pride marches at the Vatican, and a U.N. debate about the segregation of women and pagode. One of his pet peeves, the lack of investment in a national rail system, is the central theme of “A Volta do Trem das Onze,” which also happens to be a tribute to Adoniran Barbosa, the master of São Paulo samba. Above all, it peels back layers of hurt and misunderstanding, culminating in a gorgeous finale, “Beatles a granel,” in which male and female voices alternate, presenting different views of romantic love. The male protagonist gushes with sentiment, while the female cooly remarks on the cruel pitfalls of romance, reminding her partner, in a line for the ages, “If the woman becomes tender/ it’s sponge cake in cashew juice/ But if she gets mad/ He only gets/ Love with Red Bull.” As Zé has claimed, Estudando o Pagode, despite its feminist discourse, is a “masculinist” record that dispenses advice to men about the perils of mistreating women and regarding them as anything but equals.
Estudando a Bossa
While Estudando o Pagode is about the suffering of women under patriarchal regimes, the final study of Zé’s trilogy, Estudando a Bossa, is premised on the idea that Brazilian society, especially its men, became more feminized thanks to bossa nova, an intimate, minimalist style of samba that emerged in 1958. He also credits bossa nova for inspiring “feminine” engineering solutions like floating piers that undulated in the waves, making possible the construction of the long elegant strip of concrete that extends across Guanabara Bay to link Rio with Niterói. In Zé’s world, the construction of the Rio-Niterói Bridge was not just about solving a mass transit problem or integrating the region around Rio de Janeiro. It was also a story recounted in the song “Amor do Rio” about two lovers who were finally united after gazing at each other from across the bay from time immemorial.
Bossa nova is associated with a time of optimism and development in Brazil, not unlike the present period of growth and national affirmation on the world stage. For Zé and many of his contemporaries, the new style was a sign of modernity, an epic achievement that attracted international attention of the sort garnered by the national football team when it won its first World Cup in 1958 or by the new federal capital, Brasília, a monument to utopian modernist architecture. Its nostalgic association with a brief golden age of democracy and progress was retrospectively intensified in the following decade with the rise of authoritarian rule and political violence.
The distinctive finger-picking guitar style and soft, understated vocal delivery of bossa nova was invented by João Gilberto, a native of Juazeiro, a provincial city in the interior of Bahia state. Yet the style is not typically associated with Bahia, but rather with the middle and upper-class beachside neighborhoods of Rio’s zona sul, especially Ipanema and Copacabana, home to the most famous nightclubs where the style was first performed and developed. That early bossa nova standards were composed by Tom Jobim, the most distinguished Brazilian composer of popular music in the twentieth century, and Vinícius de Moraes, a respected modernist poet and diplomat, further enhanced the status of the new style. Despite the grumblings of a few critics, who charged that its champions sung “off key” or were too beholden to the influence of American jazz, bossa nova soon garnered commercial success and critical acclaim at home and abroad. In a country in which artists, intellectuals, and scientists alike fretted about structural impediments to achieving world class excellence, João Gilberto stood out as a paragon of technical perfection as a musician, while Tom Jobim consolidated his place as a world-renowned composer and arranger with many compositions that entered in the songbook of jazz standards.
Yet these very achievements imprisoned bossa nova within an ideology of technical competence and “good taste,” ensuring that the style would always be appropriate for concert halls and cocktail parties, but not especially open to innovation. The tropicalistas were all bossa nova enthusiasts, but one of the main reasons they embarked on their own noisy adventure in hybrid sound was precisely to subvert “good taste” in Brazilian music. There have been few significant innovations in bossa nova since the early 1970s, when Gilberto recorded his milestone “white album,” João Gilberto (1973), and Jobim teamed up with Elis Regina on the masterpiece Elis e Tom (1974)..In the wrong hands, bossa nova can be pretty dull, prone to sliding into the realm of musak. Recent years have witnessed an endless parade of bossa nova tributes and bossa electronica recordings that are pretty enough, but rather soulless.
Among his contemporaries in MPB, Tom Zé was one of the least indebted to bossa nova, which he admired, but didn’t cultivate in his repertoire. His musical and cultural sensibilities are far removed from the tony, sun-kissed neighborhoods of Rio’s zona sul. Yet he occasionally experimented with the style, as in his version of the Jobim-Moraes standard “A Felicidade,” the only cover on Estudando o Samba, in which he introduced a compound meter, creating a syncopated tension between a 2/4 samba and a 3/4 waltz. Estudando a Bossa features no bossa standards at all. Instead, the thirteen original compositions make references-- some obvious, others oblique, some earnest, others parodic—to famous sambas and bossas of the 1950s. It’s not a bossa nova record.. It’s a Tom Zé record about the historical significance of bossa nova, (“Brazil, Capital Buenos Aires”) its precursors, (“Solvador Bahia de Caymmi”) its key creators, (“Síncope Jãobim,” “João nos Tribunais”) its champions and detractors, (“O Céu Desabou”) and its muses, (“Mulher de Música”). Estudando a Bossa is, in a sense, a meta-album—an album about a particular form of music, thecontext in which it emerged, and its cultural impact.
When Tom Zé set out to record Estudando o Samba in the mid-1970s, he had no intention of creating a trilogy of “studies.” He didn’t conceive this record as a radical intervention in Brazilian popular music or as a watershed in his own career. He couldn’t have imagined that it would form the core of a 1990 compilation that would reach an international audience or be heralded as one of the best albums of that decade by Rolling Stone. His return to “studies” thirty years later was, on some level, a way of recognizing the signficance of Estudando o Samba in his artistic trajectory. As a set, it offers a unique perspective on Tom Zé’s approach to musical invention, his vanguardist approach to pop music, and his complex relationship with the tradition of Brazilian song.
Christopher Dunn teaches Brazilian literature and culture at Tulane University and is author of Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (UNC Press).