Get to Know a Brazilian – Tom Zé

This post, the last in the series on artists tied to the Tropicália movement, focuses on one of the most innovative and clever Brazilian musicians of the last 50 years – Tom Zé.

Tom Zé (1936- ), photographed while on a mini-tour in Brazil in 2007.

Now 76 and better known by his stage name, Antônio José Santana Martins was born on October 11, 1936, making him one of the oldest musicians and songwriters in the Tropicália movement (only Rogério Duprat was older than Zé). Like other artists involved with Tropicália, Zé was from a middle-class family in the poor Northeast, although the conditions of his family’s own status were unique: his father had won the national lottery. Growing up in the interior part of the region, Zé has described his childhood hometown as “pre-Gutenbergian,” an area where low literacy rates and regional culture created a strong oral tradition, both through the spoken word and through song. Indeed, Zé cites a fascination with the repetitive structure and lyrical content of songs from the 1930s (a sampling of which are available today, thanks to a series of field recordings that Mario de Andrade made in the 1930s) as a key part of his musical identity. As with other musicians who ended up in the Tropicália movement, Zé moved to the state capital of Bahia in his teenage years in order to attend high school and to pursue a college degree. Finishing first among all applicants on the university entrance exam, Zé enrolled in the School of Music at the Federal University of Bahia. While in school, he also participated in public performances where he met Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, creating the connections that would ultimately lead to him being an important part of the musical movement of the late-1960s.

Like others from the Northeast, Zé relocated to São Paulo city. While there, he began writing and recording his own music, performing on the landmark Tropicália ou Panis et Circenses and contributing the wry commentary on industrialism and the global economy in “Parque Industrial,” a song which also appeared on his self-titled debut album of 1968 (also known as “Grande Liquidição,” released when he was already 32. He also co-wrote the phenomenal “2001” with Os Mutantes’ Rita Lee, and the song became a hit for the group. Zé’s 1968 debut was a well-crafted album, but did not get the attention or praise that Veloso, Gil, and Os Mutantes would garner that year. The album was thematically tied to the lyrical themes of ironic analysis of Brazil’s place in the world and the conflict between national and international culture common to tropicalismo. A recent transplant from the poor Northeast to Brazil’s economic capital, Zé’s album also provided more wry and ironic commentaries on the commercial offerings and nature of the city and of Brazilian “modernity” more generally. However, while excellent, the album lacked some of the musical playfulness of other albums of the era. Indeed, where artists like Gil and Veloso were willing to incorporate a variety of international musical forms like psychedelic rock alongside Brazilian forms like bossa nova and samba, Zé already showed a greater interest in teasing apart those Brazilian forms themselves and exploring them from a variety of angles.

The cover for Tom Zé’s self-titled 1968 album, also known as “Grande Liquidação,” an alternate title that gives away its focus on consumerism and materialism in Brazil.

Already by 1969, Zé’s path was diverging from that of his fellow tropicalistas, however. While Gil and Veloso went into exile and abandoned the Tropicália sound, Os Mutantes fell apart, and Gal Costa became renowned as an interpreter of songs, Zé continued to make music, but without the renown of his former colleagues. In 1973, he released Todos os Olhos, an album that fully dove into the deconstruction and exploration of Brazilian sounds that he’d only increasingly hinted at on his first three albums. Though recognized today as a classic, at the time, it was almost universally panned, and sold poorly. That did not deter Zé, however, who was nothing if not stubborn. Instead of abandoning his approach, he chose to instead concentrate it even further, using his style to take apart a single genre. The result was 1976’s Estudando o Samba (“Studying Samba”), which played with its rhythms, lyrical content, and style, tearing it apart and rebuilding it into a unique sound that highlighted some of the folkloric and ancient influences on samba music, as evident on “Toc,” which breaks down the rhythms and confuses the sounds of instruments commonly found in samba while adding the repetitive structure of the folkloric music Zé grew up hearing in the Northeast. The album went mostly overlooked at the time (and remains out of print today), but is now recognized not only as one of Zé’s best albums, but one of the best albums of Brazilian music ever. The album was unapologetic in its experimentation, and unsurprisingly, did poorly in sales, leading to Zé nearly completely falling off the musical map. Though he released Correio de Estação do Brás in 1978, he didn’t release another album until 1984’s Nave Maria.

Tom Zé’s 1976 classic, “Estudando o Samba,” which deconstructed and rebuilt an entire musical genre, leading to one of the best Brazilian albums ever made.

However, by the early 1990s, Zé’s career saw a massive revival, starting not in Brazil, but in the United States. David Byrne of the Talking Heads had gotten a hold of some of Zé’s music, and had been blown away by what he heard. He contacted Brazilian-born Arto Lindsay, whose band DNA had been a key part of the so-called “No-Wave” movement of the late-1970s in New York, asking about Zé, and learning that his work had fallen out of production and had never been popularity, Byrne began to advocate heavily for Zé’s work. In 1990, Byrne’s lable, Luaka Bop, released The Best of Tom, which gathered 15 songs from his first seven albums (including 9 of the 12 tracks from Estudando o Samba). The album received critical praise in the United States and created a market for this previously-overlooked artist, reviving his career.

With growing attention in both the US and Brazil, Zé returned to making music, but where his experimentation had once been seen as confrontational and off-putting, he was now appreciated as one of the most original and unique voices to emerge from the Tropicália scene. Building on his rediscovery, he followed up the release of the greatest “hits” with 1992’s The Hips of Tradition, his first studio album in 8 years. By the late-1990s, Zé was again making music, entering a second highly-prolific period of production. In 1998, he released two alubms: No Jardim da Política; and Com Defeito de Fabricação, his first studio album since 1992. Where once his experimentation led to being ignored, it now led to curiosity, and he embraced the opportunity for new avenues of musical and lyrical exploration. 2003’s Imprensa Cantada was a a live album where he read newspaper stories and made up songs on the spot, with the lyrics coming from newspapers themselves, revealing his innovation and improvisational abilities. However, it was his 2005 studio album, Estudando o Pagode – Na Opereta Segregamulher e Amor, that really elevated his reputation in the U.S. Returning to the musical idea first expressed on 1976’s Estudando o SambaEstudando o Pagode looked at another Brazilian musical format from a variety of angles, even while providing a quasi-concept album revolving around the inequalities women face on a daily basis. The album received excellent reviews in the US, and ended up in discussions of best albums of the year, broadening his audience further.


Tom Ze’s 2005 album “Estudando o Pagode,” which returned to his deconstruction of Brazilian genres and which, with its musical and lyrical experimentation, further cemented his reputation in the US as one of Brazil’s greatest and most original musicians.

Zé’s experimentation and production continued throughout the 2000s. In 2008, he released his third “Study” album, Estudando a Bossa – Nordeste Plaza, which provided his own unique take on bossa nova, the music that influenced him and many of his earlier collaborators in the Tropicália movement. And this year, nearly 45 years after his debut album came out, Zé returned to tropicalismo once more with this year’s Tropicalia Lixo Logico (“Tropicalia Trash Logic” or “Tropicalia Logical Trash,” depending on how one wants to translate it), an album that makes clear his complicated memories of the movement he played no small role in. While the title is typically playful and mocking, he also has said in interviews that, culturally, tropicalismo “took Brazil from the Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution” and that not just Brazilian music but “the entire nation” is indebted to Gil and Veloso. That is not to say he remains close with some of his former colleagues, however. As he points out in a 2006 documentary, they were able to escape the dictatorship while he remained behind, and it is clear in some of his comments that he’s more than a little bitter that while they enjoyed international success, he toiled in obscurity. Indeed, having belatedly gained recognition in his late career, he took Veloso in particular to task in the 2000s, effectively saying he had been burned by Veloso in the past and would not “return to ride the coattails” of the Bahian group, of which Veloso is often the symbolic leader.

Although 76 years old, Zé shows little signs of slowing down. He continues to play in a variety of venues, ranging from traditional stages to small theaters in the round, regularly demonstrating greater energy and vitality, both in his music and performance, at the age of 71 than many people less than half his age do in shows. He continues to tour and perform periodically in Brazil and Europe; though he has tried several times to tour in the US, visa issues and bureaucratic obstacles have prevented him from being able to play here.

Though unrecognized for many years, today Zé is readily acknowledged as one of the most important and inventive songwriters of Brazilian music. Coming out of the Tropicália movement, he originally seemed to be one of the peripheral figures, one who’d had fleeting success but then slipped into obscurity. However, though his contributions to tropicalismo were not as great as those of Gil’s or Veloso’s, nor was he at his creative peak in the late-1960s, and his overall oeuvre is more consistent and excellent than either Gil’s or Veloso’s, without any of the musical missteps the other two have occasionally taken.  While Tom Zécontinues to be less popular than his compatriots from the 1960s, Zé has become highly respected in his own regard in recent years even while pushing Brazilian music in new paths and garnering respect among new audiences.

This is part of a series. In addition to recent posts on musicians from the Tropicália movement, it has looked at renowned Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa and poet/songwriter/diplomat Vinícius de Moraes.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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1 Response to Get to Know a Brazilian – Tom Zé

  1. agogo22 says:

    Reblogged this on msamba.

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