It was an anxious Tom Ze, guitarist, singer, and experimentalist, who took the stage in New York City's Central Park six years ago. Back then, Ze was a complete unknown in the United States, and not even terribly famous in his native Brazil. Indeed, less than five years before, Ze had essentially abandoned music, and his very presence in New York was thanks to post-Talking Heads David Byrne, who, like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, was steering his middle career toward exploring the music of Africa, Asia, and South America.
"It was the first show of mine that David Byrne had heard, and I thought I'd been a disaster," says Ze from his home in Sao Paulo, speaking through a Portuguese translator. "It was a very confused show, because there were a lot of Brazilians, and Brazilians don't usually go to my shows. They didn't know me, and they asked me for music that wasn't mine."
In other words, familiar Brazilian music, like Jorge Ben's sambas or Antonio Carlos Jobim's sauntering bossa novas. And while Ze's songs are often rooted in Brazilian tradition, he never found a tangent he didn't like: The music he's made off and on through a 30-year career is spiked with staccato guitar rhythms, off-kilter lyrics, beats that clatter as often as they soothe, and an array of unlikely noisemakers percolating underneath, from floor polishers to typewriters to power drills.
An inveterate tinkerer with noise, Ze says his experiments come from his need to create a language beyond his native Portuguese. "When you don't have a ready language," he says, "you go back in time, as if you were a protohuman, trying to crawl to some sound, and when you get to a word like 'god' or 'hell' or 'devil,' it's as if Genesis were still being written. That way of working is difficult, but it gives you a reward afterward."
It wasn't an approach that brought Ze fame when he began his career in the late 1960s, but it did find him contemporaries in Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and other musicians who were forming the core of the Tropicalia movement, which dove deep into Western influences to modernize Brazilian music. The movement became controversial, and soon Brazil's military government was cracking down on the musicians' multilayered political satires.
And while Ze was the most beguiling and least commercially popular musician of the scene, he was hunted down as well, jailed for four days in 1973 on the eve of a national television appearance. "[Gil's and Veloso's] political troubles were more publicized," says Ze. "I had the same kind of problems. I had my shows interrupted. I had to run away to the interior, to a hidden place. My father was screaming all over the place and dying of fear. All these things, at that time, were considered normal."
Ze was able to continue his career in the underground (while Gil and Veloso shot to fame), spending time in the late '70s working as a jingle writer for an advertising agency, among other odd jobs. But it wasn't until David Byrne stumbled across one of his records that Ze received any American attention. Byrne tracked him down in the late '80s in his hometown of Irara--where Ze had considered giving up on music altogether and going to work at a gas station--and afterward released The Best of Tom Ze on his Luaka Bop world-music imprint.
The CD was a collection of Ze's most eclectic works from the mid-'70s, which included minute-long excursions into dissonance. A selection of his more subdued and soulful work made up 20 Preferidas Tom Ze, while a new studio album, The Return of Tom Ze: The Hips of Tradition, appeared in 1992. And last year's Fabrication Defect: Com Defeito de Fabricaço is a short but exhilarating weave of pop strokes, multivocal chorales, Afro-Brazilian rhythmic swaggering, and kitchen-sink experiments (Ze rubs a balloon against his teeth to provide the beat for the closing "Xiquexique").
That Ze, 62, got a new musical life is surprising enough, but he also now finds himself in the midst of a new zeitgeist, in which pop's intelligentsia can't get enough of Tropicalia and the musical topography it created two decades ago. Earlier this year, three albums by the Brazilian psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes were reissued on Omplatten (a label run by Other Music, Manhattan's deeply influential record store), with a best-of compilation, Everything Is Possible!, set for release next month on Luaka Bop as a follow-up to Novo! Mais! Melhor!, the second volume of Byrne's Beleza Tropical compilations. The lead track from the first Beleza Tropical volume, Jorge Ben's soccer-goalie tribute "Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabaruma)," appears in Pentium processor TV ads, and an Arto Lindsay-Marisa Monte duet is being used in a Banana Republic ad showcasing how much fun it is to wear chinos and romp in wheat fields.
Ze himself proudly notes that The Best of Tom Ze was recently selected by Rolling Stone as one of the 10 best world-music albums of the decade. And as definitive proof of Ze's newfound appreciation, he's gotten remixed: Postmodern Platos, an EP sold through Luaka Bop's Web site, features new treatments of Fabrication Defect songs by Sean Lennon, Sasha-Frere Jones, Ninja Tune label heavy-hitter Amon Tobin, British psychedeliacs High Llamas, and Tortoise's John McEntire.
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All of the recent attention doesn't surprise Ze; he considers it a function of America's cultural and financial affluence. "Riches can turn your eye to any place in the world," he says. "And sometimes you can re-evaluate and weigh and take considerations to see if something can nourish the spirit of a people--especially now, when the artistic nourishment of developed nations is a little weak."
For his six-date national tour this month, Ze is essentially acting as a musical missionary. Coming along for the ride are members of Chicago-based post-rockers Tortoise, who themselves enjoyed brief attention when dub patterns and prog-rock experimentalism were supposed to change American music (we got 'N Sync instead). The collaboration isn't a radical one: Tortoise tinkered with Brazilian styles on last year's TNT, and as bassist Douglas McCombs points out, the group has been following Ze's music for some time. "I like the fact that with somebody like Tom, the music is still dominated by nylon-string guitar, but there's all these crazy elements."
The set list that Ze and Tortoise have put together--they've "rehearsed" via e-mail, trading ideas back and forth--is designed to focus on the music Ze's made that's been released in the United States, drawing mostly on Fabrication Defect, but also spikier '70s work, such as "Nave Maria" and "Toc." For Tortoise, known as a moody collective following its own muses, the collaboration presents its own difficulties. "There's a lot of history tied up in Brazilian music--where it originated, where it came from," McCombs insists. "And although Tom's stuff is fairly experimental, it comes from people dancing and having a good time. There's a certain aspect of that I would like to try and retain, and that's going to be a challenge for me, because that's not the way I'm used to playing."
For Ze, what goes around comes around: A home country that once ignored him is now celebrating his work. Recently, Sao Paulo critics presented him with an award for his contributions to Brazilian music, which takes a bit of the edge off the lack of success Ze has had there. "I'm not bothered by it," he says. "When you gain respect...one feels well, one feels happy. I have no resentment, because in the end I chose a path which was hard and was not understood at the time.