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Brazil's Rebel With a Cause

Tom Ze has spent 30 years subverting Big Brother with kaleidoscopic sounds.

May 23, 1999|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes about world music for Calendar

Give Tom Ze an electric drill and he'll make music with it. He can even find inspiration in a door buzzer or a floor sander.

At 62, Ze, who performs at the Conga Room on Thursday, is an unreconstructed '60s adventurer. A veteran of Brazil's Tropicalia movement of the late '60s, he, along with performers such as Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, was a force behind the wave of new ideas that hit Brazilian music at virtually the same time that American and British pop were experiencing a similar burst of creative vitality.

The guitarist and composer never quite moved into the pop mainstream the way Veloso and Gil have done, and there were periods in the late '70s and '80s when he nearly disappeared from public sight. But with the release of "The Best of Tom Ze" and "Hips of Tradition: The Return of Tom Ze" on Luaka Bop in 1990, the buzz began, particularly among performers and fans of alternative rock.

His latest Luaka Bop album, "Fabrication Defect," is bursting with particularly Ze-like elements--a complex, sometimes wacky mosaic that includes funk rhythms, an array of scratching, clanging, sounds morphing into lyrical melodies, bits and pieces of chant and spoken words and sudden interjections of machine noises.

This kaleidoscope of sound is primarily intended to frame the words of Ze's songs, which are at the center of his art. Directly expressing his political and intellectual concerns, they are filled with phrases recalling the rebellious Brazilian music of the Tropicalia period.

"In Brazil and the other First World countries," says Ze, whose mother's family were Communists, "we work hard to buy an item like a car. Then, after five years we exchange our car for another car that is not quite as old, and we give all our money to Mr. Ford or Mr. Chevrolet.

"And these items--cars and floor waxers and vacuum machines--that formerly would last for 20 years now last for three. This is part of the organization of slavery, of getting every extra bit of money that you're able to earn, that is practiced by all the great industries."

Music, Ze feels, must address these issues head on.

"Look," he says. "In Brazil we're not governed by the president of the republic, we're governed by big business, because our government is only the foreman for these business lords. So the only way we can show any freedom at all is through singing a little, and through other fantasies."


Next month, Luaka Bop will expand the impact of Ze's music with the release of "Postmodern Platos," featuring remixes of music from "Fabrication Defect" done by Sean Lennon, John McEntire and others. The album is a kind of '90s pop music echo of the eclectic, cut-and-paste avant-garde music of the '60s, an early influence on Ze during his student days.

"I had contact with things by John Cage, Charles Ives, Stockhausen, musique concrete of the '40s, and so on," he says. "That variety of styles and speculations and experiments placed the sin of avant-garde in my heart, and I was no longer pure."

A bit later, Ze heard some of the parallel developments taking place in pop music.

"I remember hearing the American anthem played by Jimi Hendrix," he says, "and I heard the curious style of Bobby Dylan. One day Caetano played for me 'Sgt. Pepper.' But usually I heard music in the street or on someone's radio, because mostly I don't listen to music.

"Those who listen are those artists who are geniuses, who can compose on the basis of inspiration a whole song in an afternoon. But not me. I work 12 or 14 hours every day, and after that I don't want to listen to anything. I could look at a painting or read a book or watch soccer on the TV, but not music."

Ze sees the remix album as an unusual slant on his work, done in a manner vastly different from his day-in-day-out approach to composition.

"There are two main types of musician," he says. "Those who are slow, incapable of a jam session, and those who are swift. And when I saw some of those remixes being done, I was impressed, because they were almost carried along by the wind of inspiration. I can't do that. If I have to do a jam session, I'll lose my job."

When he heard Sean Lennon working with the young musician's fiancee, Yuka Honda, however, Ze found a common linkage.

"I was surprised to see the work oriented toward music with timbres like French Impressionism, especially Ravel," he explains. "And, since I understood that aspect of his work, I brought some more timbres, like the business of playing sounds with a newspaper, and the thing about using a drill to play on a plastic glass, all of which give interesting timbres."

Ze plans to bring some of his unusual sound-making devices to the Conga Room, where he will appear with McEntire and the Chicago-based electronic/computer music group Tortoise. He is anticipating the six-city U.S. tour with pleasure, trying to further develop his English before he arrives.

"Here I am," he says, "this man from the interior of Brazil, this yokel from Bahia. But I don't have the least shame about speaking wrong English. Even speaking badly, I know that people can read something into it, because the timbre of the voice provides enormous information about one's whole personality.

"And, after all," he says, "all I am doing is struggling to offer some music that contains interest, information and some tricks for the intelligence of the audience to decipher.

"I don't give orders, I give suggestions to the mind. And who knows if God can forgive me for that."


TOM ZE, Conga Room, 5364 Wilshire Blvd. Date: Thursday, 8 and 10:30 p.m. Price: $15.50-$27.50. Phone: (323) 938-1696.

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