The first time I ever heard a Tom Zé record was a couple years back. I was sitting in my living room while a coworker put a selection of Brazilian tropicalia records from the early ’70s on my turntable—Caetano Veloso’s sensual croon-rocking, the frenetic, almost looped repetition of Gal Costa’s India. But none of them were as surprising as Zé. As soon as the needle dropped on his 1973 album Todos Os Olhos, I was blindsided by what I heard—and what I saw. The cover of the album is a close-up photograph of a marble clinched in an anus; the picture has been rotated 90 degrees so that together, anus plus marble equals eye: All The Eyes.
The music was grounded in a heavy-hitting samba rhythm, with bright but jarring acoustic guitar, choruses singing ecstatically in mush-mouthed Brazilian Portuguese, and what sounded like vacuums shrieking hysterically, terrorizing the percussion with an electro-future industrial glee. The music sounded experimental as all hell—it always playfully operated at two opposite sonic poles simultaneously—but wild experimentation doesn’t make you recklessly, happily confused. Pop music does.
If there is any one defining feature of Tom Zé, it is his ability to create contradictions and delight in them so completely that, ultimately, he’s able to have it both ways. The music sounds as though it’s built with blocks made from a mixture of elements that are, elsewhere, simultaneous impossibilities: the country and the city; the living room and the street; the third world and the first; the organic and the industrial; pure sound and pure emotion; pure intimacy and pure collectivity; the familiarity of tradition and the surprise of the avant-garde. The result is music that is only elementally—not holistically—weird. Zé is distinct from almost everyone else who has been called avant-garde because the “difficulty” for the listener that the tag implies doesn’t really apply to him. He has taken brilliantly bizarre, creative and intellectual routes to making music that is utterly joyous, listenable and often danceable—if not always hummable.