Other than the lucky few of us who were introduced to Tom Zé’s music by actual Brazilians, most Americans have come to know him because of David Byrne’s bout with serendipity: in the early 1990′s Byrne discovered one of his albums – Estudando O Samba, his best – in a record store in Rio de Janeiro, and immediately sought Zé out to sign him as the first artist contracted under his Luaka Bop label. He’s been recording in Brazil and the US ever since.
During the beginning of his career, the Bahian-born Zé held a premier role in the development of the Tropicalia movement by co-authoring the influential album and artist’s manifesto Tropicalia: Ou Panis Et Circenses (Latin for “Bread and Circuses”) with Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Nara Leão, Gal Costa, and Os Mutantes. Tropicalia is a classic LP, and should not be missed. But Zé’s solo work at the time stands with the best of them, too. It is easy to see why Byrne fell in love with Estudando O Samba: it contains some of the most innovative music to come out of Brazil during that time – and considering the revolutionary influence musicians like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso had, that’s saying something.
The heart of Zé’s music has its roots in samba (naturally), the Bahian style of music known as forro, bossa nova, and American genres, particularly rock and blues. In the sense of these influences, his music is quintessentially Tropicalian. But his music also has its own sense of style. Estudando O Samba, while only one of several fantastic albums Zé has released in his illustrious career, contains several characteristics that made Zé stand out on his own: the use of unconventional percussive and melodic instruments, such as the typewriter and a woman’s high pitched scream, rhythms that do not fit into any of the typical time signatures one finds in samba or rock, and lyrics that are often ironic and absurd.
“Doi,” off Estudando O Samba, is a track that embodies much of what Zé’s music is all about: a catchy bass, simple but effective Bahian percussion, and a chorus that just about stretches a single word – “doi,” which means “it hurts” – out in as many ways as you can think of. My personal favorite section is his delivery of the lyric, “meu coração que bate / que bate calado, que bate calado” (translated as “My heart that beats / that beats silently, that beats silently”): due to the Portuguese pronunciation of “bate” as “BAH-chi,” the resulting click of consonants is delightful and sounds not unlike, well, a heart beating. It’s the most effective part of a fantastic, unique song.