October 5, 2010
Tom Zé has remarked that Brazil began the year of 1958 as a lowly exporter of raw materials to industrialized countries and finished it triumphantly as a country that exported art. He made Estudando a Bossa to illustrate and explain his point. Bossa Nova was not only an extraordinary musical innovation; it was also the soundtrack to a hopeful period of national modernization and development. The new sound also located Brazil on the map for an international audience previously ignorant of the fact that the largest nation in Latin America spoke Portuguese, not Spanish. It’s worth recalling that Brazil’s greatest pop icon, Carmen Miranda, had been cast years earlier in a Hollywood production called Down Argentine Way. With this in mind, we can better understand the wry humor of the recurring motif that frames the album: “On the day bossa nova invented Brazil/ It had to be done right, my dear gentlemen/ Because Buenos Aires was our capital back then.”
Born in 1936 in Irará, Bahia, a small town of the impoverished scrublands of northeastern Brazil, Tom Zé reached adulthood in the mid-1950s, a period of great optimism. The democratically elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek had promised “fifty years of development in five” and invested heavily in basic infrastructure, industrial development, and social programs. He mustered the political and economic will to build a new capital, Brasília, a utopian monument to modernist architecture built on the high plains of the Brazilian hinterland. The principal architect of the new capital, Oscar Niemeyer, consolidated his international reputation as a leading innovator of the International Style. In São Paulo, the concrete poets positioned themselves in the vanguard of poetic experimentation, attracting followers and critical recognition from all over Europe and the Americas. In 1958, as if to prove a point, Brazil won its first World Cup in soccer, led by the phenomenal sttriker Pelé. In that same year, bossa nova emerged.
Musicians and music fans of his generation often remember the first time they heard João Gilberto’s “Chega de Saudade”, released in August 1958. Clocking in at just under two minutes, it announced a “new thing”-a bossa nova- in Brazilian song by capturing the essential rhythmic elements of samba with a novel finger-picking style on the guitar and introducing a distictive understated vocal delivery that wavered between singing and whispering. The very same song, composed by Brazil’s most acclaimed composer, Tom Jobim, with lyrics by poet Vinícius de Moraes, had been recorded four months earlier by samba singer Elizeth Cardoso, whose version suddenly seemed outdated when João Gilberto’s recording hit the airwaves. Within months, radio-friendly samba songs, known as samba-canção, were rearranged and recorded in the bossa nova style, a trend Tom Zé recalls in “João no Tribunal,” when he suggests only half in jest that João Gilberto could have claimed legal rights to those songs.
“Chega de Saudade” set in motion a veritable revolution in Brazilian song that within a couple of years caught the attention of musicians and critics within international jazz circles. Not all listeners and critics were so impressed. To many, it seemed that João Gilberto sang “out of tune”, an idea that would inspire “Desafinado”, a kind of song-manifesto of the bossa nova movement also written by Jobim and Moraes. In “O céu desabou”, Tom Zé recalls the musicians who regarded bossa nova as an annoying fad and critics like José Ramos Tinhorão who denounced the new style as overly influenced by American jazz.
By 1964, when “The Girl from Ipanema” topped the U.S. pop charts and Jobim and Gilberto made their acclaimed debut at Carnegie Hall, bossa nova was also criticized by artists and intellectuals for its excessive focus on romantic love and natural beauty at a time of great political and social turmoil leading up to a right-wing military coup that ushered in twenty years of authoritarian rule. Tom Zé made his debut on the national stage in the late 1960s as an insurgent voice of Tropicália, a noisy movement that lampooned the generals in power, but also rebelled against prevailing notions of “good taste” in Brazilian popular music that were associated with the suave sound of bossa nova.
Several years ago Tom Zé quipped that his approach to making music, which places in dialogue the vast tradition of Brazilian popular song with international pop and vanguardist sound experiments, was a response to his inability to master the refined guitar technique and delicate vocal style invented by João Gilberto. As Bob Dylan once remarked: “Some may like a soft Brazilian singer, but I have given up all attempts at perfection.” The refusal of bossa nova’s aesthetics of “perfection” was central to the brash hybridity of the tropicalists, who reveled in startling sonic juxtapositions of rock, samba, and a variety of regional Brazilian genres. This didn’t stop Tom Zé from “studying” bossa nova from a perspective that was slightly awry and decentered as in his recording of “A Felicidade,” a Jobim-Moraes standard that he rhythmically deconstructed on his 1975 album Estudando o samba, the first of a trilogy of “studies” followed by Estudando o pagode (2005) and Estudando a bossa.
These recent albums have revealed a lyrical, melodic dimension of Tom Zé’s music, previously obscured by his quest to unsettle and subvert the tradition of Brazilian song. Yet he embraces the soft beauty of bossa nova on his own terms. The plaintive duet with Zélia Duncan, “Amor do Rio,” for example, is a song about longing involving two lovers separated by a seemingly insurmountable distance who are blissfully reunited at the end of the song. It brings to mind the early sixties recordings of great bossa nova stylists like Sylvia Telles and Nara Leão, but with a curious difference: the lovers aren’t people at all, but two major cities separated by Guanabara Bay. The hero who unites the lovers turns out to be “an engineer, smart and descrete/ with loads of iron and concrete” who builds a bridge from Rio de Janeiro to the city of Niterói. For Tom Zé, the Rio-Niterói Bridge, completed in 1974, constitutes a kind of “intersemiotic translation” of bossa nova. Brazilian modernity was about structures wrought in musical notes, poetic verse, and reinforced concrete rising from the high plains and from the deep waters of Guanabara Bay. Not far from where Tom Zé lives in São Paulo, there is a sprawling shopping mall called “West Plaza,” the English name serving to convey an image of cosmopolitan modernity. In recent years, it has become a meeting place for poor migrants from the rural northeast who have come to São Paulo in search of work, where they are often treated with disdain. Locals have taken to calling the mall, with irony and a touch of malice, as “Nordeste Plaza.” Tom Zé, himself a native of an impoverished northeastern town, chose the moniker for the album’s subtitle as a way of reminding us that the inventor of the style, João Gilberto, came from Joazeiro, a small northeastern city in rural Bahia. The reference is oblique, but offers a key to understanding Tom Zé’s reading of bossa nova a distillation of many Brazilian traditions, including the seemingly rustic, but actually sophisticated musical cultures of the northeast. Bossa nova isn’t just about Ipanema, he seems to say, it’s also about Irará.
Estudando a Bossa Album Art