For those not familiar with Tom Zé, here’s a quick thumbnail. Zé was born in Brazil and was highly influential, along with Caetano Veloso and Gil Costa, in forming the Tropicalia movement. His music veered more toward the experimental while his peers toed the lines of samba and had successful careers. His album, Estudando o Samba, or for those challenged by Portuguese, “Studying Samba,” was a pivotal album in the region at the time. Years later, David Byrne discovered the album, was enraptured by it, then amassed every album by Zé he could find, eventually making Zé the first musician signed to his own label, the now famous Luaka Bop. Zé’s latest release for Byrne’s label is his most experimental yet, Estudando o Pagode, or again, for those who need a translation (as I did, frankly), “Studying Pagode.”
`Pagode’ is a style of samba that is becoming more popular. The name originally meant improvisational samba music played at a party, usually with players sitting in a circle or around a table, but now it means a more adventurous style of samba that employs the use of African instruments and rhythm along with the traditional sounds with which the genre is familiar, while also representing a lower class, `street,’ version of the samba style. Zé chose this style because the middle class specifically rebukes it. Zé’s study of the sound is challenging, to put it mildly. He combines so many styles, instruments and the odd electronic or jarring noise that accessibility is at best difficult. But like most difficult works, repeated listens merit reward, and true genius is found.
Estudando o Pagode is presented as a three act operetta about the mistreatment of women. The style of Pagode itself is misogynistic in nature, with macho lyrics that objectify women and dances that degrade them. Zé studies the music to find the root of the sexism and expose it. The album is in fact, dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (the famous author of Frankenstein) who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Zé’s passion for the subject led to some of his most original work to date. The first act starts with “Ave Dor Maria” which combines the traditional religious song with a gangster hip-hop type sound, providing a dichotomy of sound and style that lays the groundwork for the rest of the operetta.
Each note, sound and choice of instrument means something to the message, although the listener (this one included) might never understand each small part. Braying donkeys, orgasmic cries, low moans and more might jar the audience, but that is the point. While traditional samba can lull one into a sense of peace and security, Zé means to awaken people to the serious ideas within his work. Act I consists of an introduction to the plot, with the main character, Maneco Tatit, hearing the voices of women decrying their fates on trial before he is transported to speak with Aphrodite who sets up the second act, a history of the injustices done to women. The third act wraps things up by emphasizing the idea of partnership over dominance.
While this sounds, and frankly is, heavy material, there are some accessible moments, specifically in the second act with the more traditional “Duas Opinioes” and the catchy pop of “Elaeu.” Plus, as previously mentioned, the complexity does reward repeated listens and fans of many genres can grab onto something within the operetta. I wouldn’t recommend this album as an introduction to Brazilian music, but I would recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different with a mix of flavors. Fans of Byrne particularly will hear how Zé influences his work in songs like “Vibracao da Carne.”
David Byrne- Rei Momo
Arto Lindsay- Mundo Civilizado
Tom Zé- Estudando o Samba