Tom Zé by David Byrne & Arto Lindsay

Brazilian composer Tom Zé reflects both the sounds and poetry of his rural home town and the conceptual strategies of the Brazilian and the European avant gardes.

BOMB 42 Winter 1993
042 Winter 1993
Ze 01 Body

Tom Zé. Photo by Liz Luppi. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Records.

Tom Zé is a Brazilian composer and musician who lives in the city of São Paulo, one of the most popular places to live on Earth. But he was born in the small village of Irará, in the drought and poverty stricken Northeast of Brazil. As a child, he worked in his father’s dry goods store until he went to high school in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia. Tom studied cello and composition at the University of Bahia, where he was introduced to John Cage and other contemporary music by some enterprising Swiss professors. He also came into contact with the musicians and poets who would establish the Tropicalista movement later in the ’60s. They espoused a cultural attitude that was “cannibalistic,” that ingested and absorbed anything from everywhere then regurgitated it as modern Brazilian music and art. This multi-disciplinary eruption was suppressed by the military rule of the ’70s, but for a brief and very intense period, it had a huge influence. Tom was a key member of this group, moving with them to São Paulo where he wrote songs and added unique arrangements to their compositions. His own material reflects both the sounds and poetry of his rural home town and the conceptual strategies of the Brazilian and the European avant gardes. It’s a unique and somehow joyous combination, simultaneously pre-industrial and post-industrial. Tom Zé’s work throws our Northern situation into sharper focus like a poetic mirror.

Tom released a number of recordings into the mid ’70s, but he only briefly experienced popular success. With the 1990 release of Massive Hits—The Best of Tom Zé , a compilation of recordings from his least commercial period, he was back on the map. And with the release of The Hips of Tradition (The Return of Tom Zé) , we can see his inventiveness has not abated.

“Some mischievous spirit has defined America as a country which has moved from barbarism to decadence without enjoying any intermediary phase of civilization.”

—Claude Levi-Strauss on São Paulo from Tristes Tropiques.


David Byrne Tom, you were telling me the story of how electricity came to your village.

Tom Zé In 1953, when it finally arrived and the lights came on, it seemed that life had changed completely. It changed everyone’s feeling for space, the size of things seemed different. It made it difficult for people to breathe, everybody was in such awe.

DB This was in 1953?

Arto LindsayThat was a very important year you know, because I was born in 1953. (laughter) Tom, you were 25 in 1953, right?

TZ Seventeen.

DB The electric bulb figures in your recent song, “Ogodu Ano 2000.” “And we will light bonfires to appreciate the Electric Bulb.” It seems as if you’re talking about that same experience.

TZ I would have to say that one thing couldn’t have happened without the other.

DB Electricity wouldn’t have come to the town had the song not been written?

TZ Wasn’t to be written! All these markers of advancing civilization were like poems for the people. A spigot for somebody who used to have to go and get the water in the river or the well, bring it and put it in a cistern or some other place to keep it in the house, then take it out of there and put it in a bowl so you could wash your face—to be able to just turn water on was like having a fountain in the house. Turn it off and the fountain disappears. Only the magicians in fairy tales could do these things.

It was the same magical experience when my mother took me to see my first movie. Everyone sits on these very hard benches and then suddenly this thing is happening in front of you. I was ten years old and I didn’t sleep for three days afterwards.

Or, I had heard people speak about the ocean, but I’ll never forget the first time that I saw it. I took the street car in Salvador that goes down to the Barra and saw that big old blue thing. Obviously the descriptions that I had heard had nothing to do with what I was seeing. (laughter)

AL Tom’s starting a whole chain of associations …

TZ When I was six years old someone working at my grandmother’s house told me about sex: men, women, da, da, da, da … So I started to bother one of the maids, and she just picked me up, put me on her lap, put her hands down the front of my pants and grabbed what almost wasn’t there. I became completely petrified. (laughter)

AL I think petrified is the wrong word.

TZ It was a terrifying thing and if I wasn’t a really brave man I wouldn’t be able to let a woman grab my dick to this day. (laughter) Having come from a background like this, I found the electric light, the microphone, and the electric guitar all equally strange. Either you were afraid of all of them or you weren’t afraid of any of them.

DB What kind of music did you hear as a child? This would have been before Bossa Nova. Bossa Nova was from the big cities anyway, right?

TZ Yes. When I was 22, there was one radio, not one radio station, one radio, and it was at my house. We could hear the National Radio Station playing Samba Canacão and Baião and the big samba, the sambão as we call it. There was also a single loud speaker in the middle of the town.

DB What music did you hear over that?

TZ The loudspeaker played music from Rio and also the Northeast; Luiz Gonzaga. [The late Luiz Gonzaga was a popular songwriter and performer who popularized the musical idioms of the rural NE.] … which was already the pop version of the Northeastern folk music heard at popular festivals when I was a boy; when they washed the steps at church or at different weddings, or processions, or parties at people’s houses; someone singing along to an accordion. At these festivals and ceremonies, the performance of the songs was put together like an opera. There was a whole narrative. The Reizado was played first; it was the salutation to the king, the arrival. And then following this were the various happenings, and then they played the farewell. The Bumba Meu Boi dealt really specifically with cutting a bull up and distributing the parts to different people.

DB This is all public music, whether it is a few people listening to the radio, or the loud speaker in the square or at the festivals. Now, music is often heard privately, the ultimate form of that being the walkman, where no one else even knows what you are listening to. Do you think all these technological developments in the way people consume music, have affected the music itself?

TZ As soon as a new technology arose there was already somebody ready to use it, to take advantage of it and make that their stylistic trademark. Maysa took advantage of the advances in microphone technology. She would whisper and you could hear her breath when she sang. This has impressed me throughout my life, the way people took technological advances and turned them into artistic advances. The prime example of that is João Gilberto.

DB Because he sang so softly. But everything could be heard.

AL He wouldn’t have been able to phrase that way or breathe that way if he had to emit more volume.

TZ The story goes that when João understood the possibilities of the microphone, he left Rio, where he had been trying to make a career as part of those vocal quartets that were very popular at the time. He went back to Juazeiro where he was from and just woodsheded for a year there at his sister’s.

AL I know this story. He went to Juazeiro and also to Minas to his sister’s house, and he would sit in her bathroom all day. The whole family is running around da, da, da, da, and he is sitting in the bathroom, singing, listening, because it sounds so nice. For weeks and months he did this, coming up with a style to fit this new possibility.

TZ Did we answer your question at all?

DB Yes. So advantages and disadvantages in your creative life come from being from the Northeast? Here’s the other half of the question. Do people from the Northeast think differently?

TZ The most sophisticated university I ever attended was my father’s store in Irará where I had constant contact with people from the deep interior. They spoke the language of Guimarães Rosa, who is a Brazilian writer comparable in a sense to Joyce.

AL The culture of the people of the interior is an oral tradition and it has preserved many of the old things. It’s not a matter of being contaminated by radio or TV, it was a matter of never having been contaminated by newspapers. You know what I am saying? The language is very metaphorical.

TZ Almost Japanese in the sense that each word represents a whole concept as opposed to having one meaning.

AL Like Morality Plays from the Middle Ages where the characters would have names like Mercy.

DB This makes it sound like a more poetic way of speaking. The implication is that the language of the people from São Paulo or Rio is more logical, more rational, more linear …

AL No question.

TZ When I left Irará and went to high school in Bahia, I kept failing—for three years in a row, and the reason that I kept failing was that I could not, no matter how hard I tried, get interested in their pedestrian way of thinking. It didn’t manage to hold my attention because I felt that I had come from a place that was infinitely more fascinating.

DB Does the same thing happen to the Northeasterners who have migrated to São Paulo, these millions of people, do they have the same problem? I mean aside from their financial problems, I am wondering what their cultural problems are.

TZ I am just remembering that when I was in the fourth year of high school, I had a Portuguese teacher who was short, dark, and incredibly mean. All the teachers were very, very rough on the students. It was a public school but at the time it was the best school in Bahia. And this Portuguese teacher yelled at the class, “You have got to learn Portuguese or else where are we going to get our poets and our writers.” I jumped out of my skin because nobody had ever suggested that it was possible for somebody like me to learn the possibilities of writing. Now back to your question. I think that maybe because the Northeasterners in São Paulo eat better this can make a real difference in the way they think. The Northeasterners who now live in São Paulo eat better than they have in generations.

DB You are saying that their way of speaking, and by implication, thinking, is more poetic. And then when they are thrown, or they throw themselves into a place where speaking and thinking is logical and flat …

AL Does this point out some flaws in the way of seeing the Northeast and saying how great it was? It becomes a problem for me to connect those two things: the poetry and the poverty.

TZ In Irará, when somebody wants to know if it is going to rain they roll up their sleeves and hold their arm up in the wind. And depending upon the way the air strikes their skin, they give their answer. “Maybe it will or maybe it won’t.” (laughter) When I got to Bahia and somebody would ask, “Hey, is it going to rain?” I would hold up my arm. Everybody would collapse in laughter. And so, in order to become civilized, a person from the Northeast has to lose his culture.

AL In other words, what we see in São Paulo is not the full-fledged Northeastern culture confronting or meeting the prosaic materialistic culture. Because people have to give up their culture in order to fit in, find a way to eat, to be understood. Do you know what I am saying? They willingly give that up.

“I’ll pass this decade/ in a very bourgeois hen house/ eating my monthly portion of mass culture”

—from O Pão Nosso de Cada Mês

DB Tom, you were saying the other day that the US perception of Collor’s impeachment proceedings were very different than the way it was perceived in Brazil. I wonder if you could elaborate.

TZ In 1958, Brazil was the largest exporter of raw materials in the world. In 1958, Brazil also began to export the highest fruits of human labor: music and soccer, in other words, art. This was wonderful and also terrible because it turned Brazil into a nation of spoiled children. It made everybody vain and in a way, unrealistic.

This contaminated the way everything works in Brazil. People never speak in terms of solving problems. They never say, for instance, if we have a debt, well, let’s pay off a little bit a day. People only speak in terms of the marvelous or the completely miserable. There is no middle ground. And that is how we live there. The Americans wanted to make cowboy movies in Brazil and they couldn’t because there aren’t any bandits in Brazil, only good guys. Everybody feels like they are good guys. People expect something like this impeachment to produce miracles and to solve everything.

(animated exchange in Portuguese)

AL I just told Tom that I don’t agree with him. My point of view is another Brazilian point of view, not the American point of view. It is not a miracle, but this is very important, and I know that many, many people in Brazil feel as I do. Despite the fact that it is suddenly fashionable for people to go out in the street and everybody can have a good time in the protest parades and whatever. It is vital that they manage to get this guy, who was undoubtedly corrupt and a thief, out—and to get him out by constitutional means, to vote him out. You can’t allow political parties to band together and keep him in there so he can keep passing out government billions to them and to their families. You actually get rid of the guy. You actually strike a blow for honesty … Brazil is corrupt from top to bottom. Everybody accepts this corruption and now, to have society reject it—this is a major moment in Brazilian civilization.

I saved every article in the New York Times about this process, because it was ridiculously biased and condescending, and I get furious when I even think about it.

DB How was the Times reporting?

AL For instance, they had an editorial saying, “Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, though it’s a good thing that they got rid of Collor, it does look like he was really dishonest …” In their typical way, when they want to act like they are observing due process. “It looks like he actually stole … .” Hey man, the guy stole millions and millions right in your face! It’s a question of how many millions. “But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water because this guy started a lot of good things; he started privatizing and he reached agreements with the International Monetary Fund.” Basically, he was the kind of corrupt politician the Americans like to support because he towed the Americans’ line, which isn’t even working here—in the USA. Which is: in order to get an economy in order the government stops spending on social programs and just lets the market work itself out. It doesn’t even matter if hundreds of thousands of people are starving, dying because of this. There are no hospitals, no food, no education, so things can’t change, no roads into new places … That’s okay, let’s just let the fucking stock market work it all out. Of course, the Times didn’t mention that in this wanton and lauded privatization of Brazilian industries that the Brazilian government got screwed every time. The Brazilian government, as a representative of the people, as an owner of these enormous mines, these enormous hydro-electric companies, didn’t make a profit! It sold one of the most profitable companies in Brazil for far less than it was worth. Then they sold the airline that belonged partly to the state of São Paulo, to people that nobody even knows. They think that Collor might have bought a bunch of it. It’s like it was a completely corrupt process and the New York Times was actually upset that Collor was gone. Because despite the fact that in Brazil he kept saying, “We are not going to repay the national debt, we have to do it on our own terms or else we will starve.” He wasn’t doing that at all when it actually came to the negotiating table. Americans treat Brazil like it is a Banana Republic. It’s like we have an orderly political process in this country but in those countries—“Oh my God, there is a coup every few weeks. And look, aren’t they funny; they are so wild and their sexuality is so out of control down there, and who are these people?” It just makes me furious!

TZ Arto is a little more earthy than me, I don’t spend as much time thinking about this kind of stuff. I tend to connect it to ideas I have had all along.

DB Do you listen much to other music?

TZ It is pretentious for me not to listen to music, but it is a hold over from the resentment I felt towards the music industry when I had to stop making records. During that time, if I heard a song, it was really painful because it reminded me of the fact that I couldn’t make records. Sitting in the dentist’s office, listening to the radio playing Caetano, Gil, Gal, Bethania … it was driving me absolutely nuts. These were people whom I had started out playing with, musicians who I used to spend all day and all night with talking and working. The resentment was really hard to take. I would look at the people sitting next to me and hope they didn’t recognize me. It was so humiliating, sometimes I would get tears in my eyes sitting and waiting. There is a bitterness. If I hadn’t wanted to continue making music, I probably wouldn’t have had this resentment. If I had gone off to a relative’s farm, or worked in a store, or had another relationship to the world, it would have been different.

DB Tom, you have talked about the structure of your music and described it as layers, or blocks, or chunks. Do you see it as woven like fabric, or in layers like geological rock formations? You described the structure of music in ways I hadn’t heard before.

TZ In experimenting, I discovered that by using three strings on the guitar and the bass and having their function change from being harmonic, from being above the rhythm section, to come down and contaminate the rhythm section, that in a sense they spoiled the sound but they also made it more delicious. In a way, I had actually come up with a technique.

Combining this technique with other experiments such as using pairs of cavaquinhos … [a steel stringed instrument about the size of a ukulele] … and having them play outside the tonality of the song … I had to fish around, it had to be just outside or I wouldn’t be able to sing in key … but I realized that if I combined these two experiments I would have the beginnings of a style. I wondered what I would do with the middle, and I remembered that Beethoven claimed that the orchestra would only really resound if all the thirds could be heard.

So, using a house as a metaphor and modifying the usual way of describing music in Portuguese where the rhythm section is usually called the kitchen, I decided to call that the floor, calling the cavaquinhosthe ceiling.

AL Tom calls the rest of it tripa tripa which are the walls of a house made of sticks woven together with mud thrown on them.

TZ Bringing the guitar and the bass out of the world of harmony and using them in the world of percussion was one of the most intelligent things I ever did. In other words, to make an instrument go backwards in history …

DB Return to its origins?

TZ I am thinking this in retrospect. I didn’t have a philosophy at the time, I was just going after a dream, a kind of sound.

At one point, when he was selling records, Tom bought a small beach house. He sold it to make some large instruments out of various appliances—some quite large. A “keyboard” made of doorbell buzzers switched on and off and others using an array of machines ranging from floor polishers to blenders. These sounds were then amplified through speakers.

DB How do the constructed instruments fit in with this construction? Which room of the house do these belong in?

TZ Levi-Strauss’s notion of the neolithic paradox is that 5000 years before Christ, man had invented everything. He knew how to domesticate animals, make metals, he knew how to make buildings, he knew how to feel … Nothing really changed until the era of atomic energy, until man started to mess with the structure of the atom. He jumped from domesticating animals to the atom. When I start to fiddle around with machines in order to invent a new instrument, I don’t know which of the machines I will manage to domesticate. It is as if I had lions and tigers and horses and elephants and I don’t know which one I will manage to domesticate. When I manage to domesticate one, then I can put it into this house. For instance, in the case of the floor waxer, it doesn’t really have a rhythm, it starts up ummmmmmmm and you turn it off, uhhhhhhhh, it slows down. But if I can figure out a way to turn it off and on without this slide, then I can use that sound as a bass drum. Then it could fit into this house. This, I hope, will demystify the wild man aspect of the way people see me: as some guy out there making music with appliances without logic.

AL Tom, you said that you always thought that anybody who invented anything gave everybody else a lot of hope. And when you make music, you try to provide the same kind of invention. It can be a small mental leap to come up with something new, but when you make music you try to provide that same excitement, that same thrill of invention. I thought that was very beautiful. Scientific ideas have given you creative ideas.

TZ We’re having an intersemiotic communication now from one discipline to the other…

DB Do you receive any inspiration from contemporary poets, or advertising, or paintings or other art forms. Since you don’t listen to music, we have to look elsewhere. (laughter)

TZ That’s a good guess, when I couldn’t listen to music I would look for inspiration in other places. Like quantum theory. An electric light bulb doesn’t give off a constant light, it pulses but we don’t perceive it as pulsing. There are actually constant very brief instances of darkness.

David Byrne is a musician and director who lives in New York.

Arto Lindsay is a musician who grew up in Brazil and lives in New York.

Djur Djura by David Byrne
Djura 01 Body

Originally published in

BOMB 42, Winter 1993

Featuring interviews with Richard Serra, Steve Buscemi, Neil Jordan, Tom Zé by David Byrne & Arto Lindsay, Sue Williams, Sarah Schulman, Ralph Lee, Coco Fusco & Guillermo Gómez, Don Scardino, Jeff Perrone, and Walter Hill.

Read the issue
042 Winter 1993