July/August 2011

David Byrne


in conversation with

Tom Zé


“It’s enough to play it, and any listener… gets immediately absorbed by it just for the pleasure of hearing, without requiring any accessory or theoretical babble. It was like returning children and joy to the earth again.”
Two characterizations of the sonata as a principle of composition:
An amusement
A form of slavery

I stumbled upon the music of Tom Zé accidentally. On my first trip to Brazil, in 1986, I went to Salvador (Bahia) and Rio, and in the latter city I did a little record shopping. Some artists had been recommended to me, but largely I was buying blind, as there were no guides to Brazilian music available and finding it on the internet wasn’t possible yet. I came upon one disc (these were all vinyl) that had the word samba in the title, but instead of a girl in a bikini on the cover, there was coiled barbed wire. Something must be different about this one—so I threw that in as well.

When I listened to it back in New York, I was shocked. The record, Estudando o Samba, was more akin to some New York downtown experimental work than the lilting melodies and sexy rhythms of the more well-known Brazilian artists, or of the popular samba recordings. Who was this guy? Where did this record come from, and how did it come about?

I asked Arto Lindsay, a New York no-wave musician (of the band DNA) who grew up in Brazil and who has gone on to a successful career producing records there. He said Tom was part of the Tropicália cultural movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s, though while some of the others involved in that scene went on to greater success (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso), Zé never became as popular as they did. He also continued to make more probing and experimental music, while they managed to find a way to meld their innovations with more accessible popular songs. When I bought his record, he was on the verge of being forgotten, or being considered a historical footnote at best.

What was unique about Tom’s music is that, while radical, it was also rooted in popular music. This wasn’t noise or intentionally difficult music—it had roots in the traditional music and instrumentation of the Brazilian Northeast (what we might compare to our rural South), while simultaneously referencing Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, Glass, and other “serious” new music composers. Maybe you could even compare him to Captain Beefheart in that way—in that artist’s unique combination of deep rural blues, dada, and serious composition.

I received some complaints from Brazilians asking why my North American label was releasing Tom Zé of all people, and why didn’t I pick some more beautiful and popular artist instead of this half-forgotten weirdo? Well, after a while, a mainly younger generation of Brazilians came to know Tom’s music and his incredibly innovative performances that sometimes incorporated grinders and floor polishers as instruments! They saw him as a kindred spirit to what they were doing, as many of us in North America and in Europe did as well. As a result, Tom is now well known and respected in Brazil, and he can make a living from his music.

Tom came from a very small town in rural Bahia, a state that included the town of Salvador, from which Caetano and Gil and others emerged. His town didn’t have electricity during his childhood. (He wrote in one song about everyone coming to marvel and stare at a light bulb.) He eventually studied music at the University of Bahia, just when some innovative teachers were being brought in to teach there. This formative moment was what I focused on in this interview. I see this as a moment in our culture where funds to music in schools have been cut, and attitudes toward the teaching of music are sometimes becoming ossified and not as creative as they could be. I myself didn’t have a formal musical education, so this all fascinates me—the effect this period had on Tom (and on many others) was profound.

Thanks to Christopher Dunn (check out his own work!) for translating and helping clarify a lot of issues. Thanks to Tom’s wife, Neusa, who is patient and helpful as always, and, of course, thanks to Tom, who continues to be a huge source of hope, optimism, and inspiration.

—David Byrne


DAVID BYRNE: Are most popular composers more or less self-taught?

TOM ZÉ: Up to my generation, popular musicians were mostly self-taught. Today there is a larger percentage of graduates of universities and other schools. Here in São Paulo, there is an institution called Oficinas de Música [Music Workshops], sponsored by the state government, whose courses are administered by musicians, both popular and erudite. In the 1970s, I taught several of these courses.

DB: What was your teaching method?

TZ: In certain circles in Brazil, the study of guitar is extremely sophisticated. The bossa nova group regarded it as a symbol and as a method, with João Gilberto elevating the study of guitar to its most sophisticated extreme. I used the “Bandeirantes” method by the guitarist and composer Aníbal Augusto Sardinh. I explained it in order to make it easy for each student to learn and develop. I didn’t teach how to harmonize melodies. I showed the student that there was always a tendency to leave the tonic home and make a leap to the subdominant, and through the attraction to the dominant to return to the tonic. T-S-D. So I would teach a series of intermediary chords between T and S and ask the student, while trying to harmonize the melody, to choose the most adequate chords. In this way, he would learn how to harmonize.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Tom Zé will perform at Lincoln Center in NYC on Tuesday, July 19, at 8 p.m. A vinyl-only box set, Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, was released in 2010, along with the stand-alone CD release of Estudando a Bossa. The documentary Tom Zé: Astronauta Libertado allows viewers a look into Tom’s life and music through personal reflection, archival images, and input from other Brazilian musicians, and won the Audience Award for Best Foreign Documentary at the São Paulo International Film Festival.

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