Perfect Sound Forever


by Derrick A. Smith (January 1998)

In his song "Ogodo, Year 2,000," Brazilian composer Tom Zé spits out:

Talac-tac-tac-tac tamborim [tambourine]
Teleco-teco-teco-teco violao [violin]
Toloc-toc-toc-toc agogo [agogo]
Ti-lic-til ano dos mil, ano dos mil.

It's a list of common, even rustic, instruments, which in Zé's mouth becomes a choppy countdown to the next millennium; the nonsense syllables preceding each instrument's name not only describe the rhythm of the instrument, they also describe the sound of a clock tick-tocking to the year 2000, when the minimal heavy-metal guitars and menacingly restrained vocals of the song will no doubt explode. As Zé sings in his dry voice, we will light bonfires to appreciate the electric bulb. It sounds like we will also be scraping on fiddles to herald in a new era of technology.

The song was done in 1992, twenty-five years after Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil recruited Zé to join the Tropicalistas, a group of university students who wished to exploit, and hopefully mend, the rifts in Brazilian society through the arts. Growing up in the Northeast region of the country, Tom Zé had been among veritable peasants whose diet consisted only of scant dry carbohydrates; the lack of protein over several generations caused their brains to shrink. But contrasted with the material desolation was a culture enriched by Indian, Portuguese, and African heritages. However, Zé felt that the culture of his home region was too cyclical and repetitive, revolving around unchanging religious principles.

When he moved to the progressively larger cities of Salvador and finally Sao Paulo, Zé, like the other Bahian Tropicalistas, saw a similar reflection of his rural culture. Brazilian society was quickly moving into the modern age, with new technologies, new fashions, and even a sprawling, ultramodern new capital, Brasilia. But ideas of Brazil's place in the world and the fundamental ideas of religion and society continued to be incestuous. In this decade, Zé is still singing such lines as "The science in her trance will make the sign of the cross", underlining the unchanging roots of culture even as technology exponentially expands.

Zé's time as a Tropicalista was short-lived, and by the 1970's he was fashioning his own unusual juxtapositions of concrete poetry and street sambas, and of sweet fados with stream-of-consciousness lyrics. When he appeared on variety shows in the 1960's Zé had shown a penchant for ironically pointed lyrics, but in the 70's, the tug and pull between modernism and the primal experiences of life and society became the foundation of his lyrical output, and of his music.

On a mechanical level, this contrast can be heard in the way Zé chopped up nearly all his lyrics, to varying degrees. In his 1973 compositional duet with poet Augusto de Campos, "Cademar" [Where's th' Ocean,] Zé chants the minimal title line, "O, o, cade mar" and follows with "o, o, cade," or "oh, oh, where's.." The first refrain appears more complete in English than in Portuguese: in English it's "going when it's not coming," but the sung lyric goes "-ia que nao vem," the "-ia" being the "ing" of Portuguese. Zé and Campos use a similar device in the second refrain- "ria que nao vem" ("and she's late"). The overall effect is one of mental hesitancy and perhaps overheard conversation, a reflection of the disjointed urban life even in describing the primitive movement of the sea.

Even a bouncy samba played on guitar like "Vai (Menina Amanha de Manha)" [Go (A girl tomorrow morning) from Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé] deconstructs to single syllables as the music becomes faster and faster. Zé tells the girl about the happiness she embodies for him: "When we wake up I want to tell you that happiness will come crashing down on men." He then obsessively carries the "crashing" motif into a series of quick conversational lines about claustrophobia caused by the stunning girl--"She makes you scared, she closes the circle, there's no way out, above or beside or around." Zé closes the song by recounting numerous metaphors for happiness, beginning with natural objects and ending with single vowels. Zé does this by recycling segments of the rhymed words in order, then reducing those segments to the vowel sequence, "a-e-i-o-u."

Zé's classic material of the 1970's and early 80's constitutes nothing less than an attempt to convey the stubborn realities and primal experiences of life through a modern and experimental lens, an effort to drag Brazil's then-ultraconservative military dictatorship into the modern age in both body and soul. The contradictions of the task are beautifully expressed in the song, "To" or simply "I'm".

I'm making it clear to confuse you,
I'm confusing you to make things clear.
I'm illuminating so I can blind,
I'm going blind so I can guide.

Zé radically illuminated the possible, but inevitable, horror of self-realization with the song "Nave Maria" (from Brazil Classics 4). The title is an obvious play on the Catholic phrase; Catholicism is the principle European-derived religion of Latin America, and its annual and repetitious rituals were criticiZéd by the Tropicalistas. Maria represents the mother, and in this song Zé seems to portray her as real mother, spiritual mother, and perhaps the cultural European mother of Brazil. This tale of a screaming birth, an "inverted orgasm," in which the baby struggles and crawls through the bleeding barrier of the vagina, only to scream when reality first confronts him, can be taken as an allegory of Brazil and its long, harsh struggle to break free of its past and enter the future. Zé is saying Brazil must kick and scream to get on the other side.

Tom Zé continues in the 90's to portray the apparent contradictions of modern life. In the noisy, electronic "Tatuaramba" (from The Return of Tom Zé), he characteristically combines two opposing realities: that of physical corporeality and that of the mass media. He urges, "bring the body to the brushes of electronics/To wear the poem-commercial, make naked the body in samba/Defile the ass of samba, hold the samba's ass, yes, that's it!" All this implies the way that commercials raise the human body and its functions to a level of sanctity. Despite the "electronic brush," though, the sexual human body is not changed. Only the perception of it undergoes mutation. Taking the holiness-meets-profanity fusion further, in "Our Monthly Bread," (from The Return of Tom Zé), Zé portrays the average mass media consumer as a glutton, feeding on the constant junk food offered up on a tray by the television and radio.

Zé seems to delight in the contradictions. For a brief spell he actually worked at an advertising agency. He says of his experience, "it was a creative and exciting atmosphere."