Seventy-year-old Brazilian provocateur Tom Zé has just released a new outrage, Estudando o Pagode, an “unfinished operetta” on women, power and gender. A typically Zé-like convolution of hyperweird, sensually satisfying music and lyrical bravura, this one is especially different, providing the unique experience of hearing a man of great poetic gifts, fantastic humor and enthralling imagination not bragging and complaining, but actually apologizing — without simpering!
Estudando o Pagode works in freshly odd terms, as does all of Zé’s work since the late ’60s, when he was part of the Tropicália movement in Brazil, which included such fellow progressives as Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethânia. Tropicália was a cultural revolution wherein artists, poets and musicians aligned themselves with the pop avant-garde to eagerly “cannibalize” European and American artists and challenge the insularity of the bossa nova and traditional samba that dominated the Brazilian mind.
That didn’t go down well under the contemporary military dictatorship, which, as military dictatorships tend to do, had issued blurry laws about the importance of artists’ adherence to sanctioned cultural values; some were arrested and even imprisoned for their audacity. Zé, the most experimental of the Tropicálistas, labored on in obscurity with projects that included inventing a keyboard that triggered floor polishers, doorbells, vacuums and blenders. He was “rediscovered” in 1989 by David Byrne, whose Luaka Bop label issued a couple of albums in the early ’90s that led to widespread acclaim and a tour with the Chicago art-rock band Tortoise.
Tom Zé is a musical and poetic contrarian, and his “apology” to women in Estudando o Pagode — which really is structured like an operetta — is nonconformist in tangible and more arcane ways. It details the story of Maneco, a young black student who is discriminated against by a teacher at his university, and who in turn mistreats his girlfriend, who has become a prostitute to pay for her psychology courses; the teacher is later revealed to be Maneco’s father — which the father discovers only after he has killed Maneco out of jealousy.
After positing this framework, Zé loses himself amid a total fuckery with the interiors of ostensibly ear-pleasing Brazilian musical styles such as pagode, samba, chorro and bossa nova. The rickety beauty of “Ave Dor Maria,” which begins with a women’s chorus reciting the Hail Mary, typifies the goofily giddy yet unsettling aura as Zé sing/raps the part of an inquisitory jury, and squeaky li’l things flit around a heavily electronic-filtered funk; the chorus (a multitracked Suzana Salles) hovers above, defending, illuminating, righteously castrating; insectlike swirls of distorting effects and the idiosyncratic symmetry of the structure add to the feeling that the whole thing’s about to collapse into a steaming heap.
Within generous servings of excellent shuffling grooves, and frequent piano/guitar harmonic flashbacks to the honeyed melancholy of the samba, Zé makes characteristically mad use of a million enmeshed (or tangled) parts to paint an almost excruciatingly accurate picture of the painful electricity between women and men. The curvaceous samba variants laid out on piano, drums, voice and the high-strummed cavaquinho undergo burnishment interruptus from a you-just-don’t-do-that sonic intuition that ropes in the donkey ee-awws that conclude “Estupido Rapaz” (“Stupid Boy”), jocular synth yelps like voices of the rabble, and tight-and-ticklish but dissonant guitar chords aped derisively by whistles, whistles and more whistles.
Songs like “Quero Pensar,” with singer Luciana Mello, are what Zé does best, which is to cast quite sober subject matter in disconcertingly upbeat musical settings; classic beats and twining synth bleats couch singer Mello’s closing recitation of a centuries-long list of men’s cruelties inflicted upon women (but Ms. Mello sings it like she’s reclining in the bath). In “Vibracao da Carne,” Luciana Paes de Barros guests on feminine orgasm (and she’s really coming hard). Distorted double-speed chipmunk synths and singers, sampled steel-drum loops (I think) and the occasional electronic roar of airliner proportions give other tracks a comically claustrophobic effect, befitting, one imagines, the sheer suffocation of the evils that men do.
A voracious reader, Zé on the cover of Estudando o Pagode references Riane Eisler’s gender-/sexual-identity books The Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasure. As for his own work, he says, “I don’t make art; I make spoken and sung journalism.” He also says, “I can’t get lost, because I myself am lost.” Whether that does women and men any good is maybe not the question. I suggest we ponder it together as Zé blasts us both into outer space.