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In the 1960s, Brazilian musician Tom Ze took part in founding the polemical popular culture movement tropicalismo, with a group of like-minded compatriots that included Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Gal Costa. But while his collaborators emerged from a period of political strife to achieve international fame, Ze, the story goes, languished in Sa~o Paulo.
Discouraged by the repressed society's negative reaction to his 1973 album Todos os olhos (All the Eyes) A with cover art featuring a soft-focus photo of a marble embedded in someone's anus A Ze stopped making music. He even refused to listen to it.
Thus exiled from the mainstream media and the general public's short-term memory, the composer made a living writing advertising jingles. Enter musical explorer David Byrne, who in 1986 stumbled upon one of Ze's old albums and decided to look him up. Their meeting resulted in the release of two albums of Ze's music on Byrne's Luaka Bop label: Tom Ze in 1990 and Brazil 5 A The Return of Tom Ze: The Hips of Tradition in 1992.
Ze's comeback was celebrated by the international music press. Articles in his own country told how he'd been "rehabilitated" by Byrne, and writers in the United States and Europe lauded his talent in stories that most often described the musician as "eccentric," "obscure," and "deranged." But it was probably a Village Voice critic who said it best when he called Ze "nothing less than a one-of-a-kind avant-pop genius."
While singers like Gil and Costa are best known for the kind of tropical ballads with romantic messages and rhythmic nationalist anthems that are commonly acknowledged as typically Brazilian, Ze's music has an experimental edge that is more international in scope.
Born in Bahia, he is a classically trained musician and an urban poet whose music incorporates sinuous sambas, angular rhythmic chants, and traditional bossa nova, along with industrial noise and Eno-esque ambiant echoes. Drums and the cavaquinhos (a high-pitched Brazilian guitar) are sometimes accompanied by sounds made with blenders, typewriters, and drills.
Ze promotes the kind of high-minded silliness that's been expressed in this country by Frank Zappa or They Might Be Giants. And like those musicians A and contrary to the mainstream media hype A Ze has maintained a cult following of college-student and other alternative-type fans over the past two decades. Even after the Todos os olhos fiasco, he recorded several solo albums, tracks of which were compiled for Luaka Bop's Tom Ze release.
"There's been a real continuity in what he's done over the past twenty years," says Charles Perrone, a professor of Brazilian literature and culture at the University of Florida and author of the book Master of Contemporary Brazilian Song. Perrone and Ze will present a lecture-demonstration on Saturday and will appear together at Books & Books later that day. (See "Calendar" listings.)
"Ze was always more faithful to the avant-garde impulse and gave in less to the pop style over the years. He was just a little stranger than the rest of them," Perrone observes. "His following increased because of his affiliation with Byrne, but he just got the respect he deserves. Rather than he being influenced by David Byrne, I think it was Byrne who latched on to him, because he heard some stuff he was amazed by."
Ze, who is now nearing 60 years old, moved from the country to the city to attend high school. He began playing guitar, at first singing nostalgic ballads about his native town. According to the liner notes for Tom Ze, his first success came in 1960, when he appeared on a TV show called Escada para o sucesso (Stairway to Success). He played a song that parodied the show, calling it Ramp to Failure.
At the University of Bahia's College of Music, Ze studied classical composition, cello, piano, and guitar. Then he moved to Sa~o Paulo and fell in with the other founders of the tropicalist movement. He performed extensively with Veloso, Costa, Gil, Maria Bethania, and others, until the early Seventies, when the spirit of tropicalism was dampened by the rightist military regime. He continued to tour on the college circuit, where he became known for wrapping himself in plastic and otherwise making a spectacle of himself.
"Let's just say he's less than conventional," says Perrone, who has had the chance to catch Ze only on video. "You never know what he's going to do."
Ze seems to be enjoying his recent success. He even wrote a samba for Hips of Tradition that is something of an ode to music marketing. Entitled "Jingle del disco" ("Jingle of the Record"), it goes: "Come on, buy this record/It's a very patient work/Tom Ze! Tom Ze!/Shall grant you relaxation/High spirits and happiness/Tom Ze!"
Tom Ze performs at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 672-5202. Tickets cost $15 and $20.