In the made-for-TV movie version of the life of Brazilian mad-genius avant-pop weirdo Tom Zé (starring John Leguizamo as Tom Zé and slated to begin production soon after hell freezes over or Wal-Mart starts stocking excellent 2000 import Jogos de Armar, whichever comes first), the opening scene is set in 1990 and finds our hero at the nadir of his career: six years without a record deal, two decades without a hit, a long-forgotten legend of his country’s legendary music scene and seriously thinking about abandoning the bright lights of São Paulo to go back to his hicksville hometown and pump gas at his cousin’s filling station.
Flash back to 1968. After a quick montage of students marching, generals decreeing, and longhairs being-in, we see Tom Zé (short for Antônio José Santana Martins) posing for the group cover photo of the historic Tropicália LP. His co-auteurs surround him: fellow singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso (Jeff Goldblum) and Gilberto Gil (Chris Rock), the rock band Os Mutantes (Sonic Youth), and other, lesser lights of the nascent Tropicalismo movement (the cast of Friends), all grinning slyly like they just ate the existing mass-cultural landscape and heaved it back up as a pop-cubist assemblage of rock, samba, bossa nova, commercial jingles, and musique concrète. A hands-down cultural coup, Tropicália drags Brazilian music headlong into postmodernity and, incidentally, launches long, hit-studded careers for Veloso and Gil, who manage over the years to transform Tropicalismo’s wild omnivorousness into a broad-reaching pop mastery. No such luck for the movement’s torch-carrying radical, whose descent into obscurity traverses 20 years and a half-dozen brilliant, worst-selling albums—jagged little mutations of Brazilian popular song form, tight, sweet, and radio-ready but for the baleful dissonance, buzz-saw sound effects, Dada word play, and other pointedly unsettling crotchets braided in throughout.
But just as Tom Zé is preparing to go pump gas, Talking Head-turned-talent-scout David Byrne (Christopher Walken) goes on a record-hunting safari to Brazil and stumbles across one of those albums. Smitten, Byrne compiles The Best of Tom Zé for his Luaka Bop label and delivers Tom into the loving arms of American hipsterdom. By the end of the decade, Rolling Stone has declared Best of one of the 10 essential world-music records of the ’90s, Tom Zé is touring the planet backed by reverent Chicago neo-art-rockers Tortoise (the Dave Matthews Band), and the reissued Tropicália has become required listening in boho ghettos from Williamsburg to Silverlake. Lo and behold, Brazil takes note of all the fuss, and as the movie ends, we see Tom Zé at a rock festival in Rio, performing choice cuts from Jogos de Armar—as nimble a walk down the fine line between eccentricity and art as any he’s ever taken—for an audience of thousands.
Roll credits, cut to commercial, and never mind that in real life most of the thousands were there for the headlining Queens of the Stone Age. Or that in real life no one ever triumphs over adversity quite so neatly. Tom Zé had his comeback coming to him, sure enough, but it’s not like it would have happened at all if a certain segment of the North American music market hadn’t just then embarked on a well-timed identity crisis. When The Best of Tom Zé first hit record stores, the word “post-rock” had yet to be uttered aloud, but the notion was already afoot. Word on the boho-ghetto streets was that after 30 years of pop-cultural hegemony, rock and its attendant ideology were teetering on the brink of exhaustion. The trick now was to imagine what came next, and for a generation that had lived its entire life under the cozy arc of a single über-genre, the trick was no small one. How convenient, then, to discover a rock-inflected culture just down the hemisphere that had long ago rigged up an apparently simple solution: the postgenre genre that was Tropicalismo. And what a bonus to find that its most hardcore practitioner was available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Thus did Tom Zé finally win his well-earned fame: as post-rock poster child, a mascot as much as a model for the likes of Tortoise and other artboy refugees from the dead hand of genre. This wasn’t quite the same as being recognized for his innate avant-pop weirdo mad genius, but it wasn’t a bad deal either, and those of his artboy fans who still haven’t figured out that he got the better end of it will get the message now or never. Because if there’s one lesson to be gleaned from a long hard look at Tom Zé’s oeuvre, it’s the lesson that Jogos de Armar offers even a quick first glance: pop, semipop, or antipop, the further you try to flee from genre, the likelier you are to find yourself right back at its doorstep, banging away in what may look for all the world like a determined effort to get back in.
On Jogos de Armar, which means “jigsaw puzzle” and is now available at a net retailer near you, the effort seems almost manic. The trappings of genre stick out everywhere, like fruit from Carmen Miranda’s headgear. Back-to-back covers of ultra-trad accordion standards “Asa Branca” and “Pisa na Fulô”—each duly but not ungracefully subjected to the requisite deconstructionist stress-testing—pay frank homage to the Northeastern country genres they define, conspicuously labeled on the liner notes as baião and xote, though you’ll need to brush up on your Portuguese to figure it out. Every other track gets a label too, some sorted into traditional urban and rural Brazilian categories like samba and desafio, others tagged as off-the-cuff hybrids like samba-rap and maracapoeira (Recife’s maracatu street style, itself an integral component of the mangue beat made famous by the late Chico Science, crossed with capoeira rhythms). Four or five songs are variations on the chamega, a style Tom Zé seems to have invented specially for this record, defining it as “a genre with a guitar that has its accent on the eighth note after the downbeat of the drums” and going so far as to commission a pair of pomo choreographers to create an accompanying dance, complete with improbable but helpfully illustrated moves like “tapa na bunda” (pat-ass: bend over and swat your partner’s butt) and “cabra cega” (blind goat: lift your shirts up, boys and girls, till your face is covered but your chest is not).
And yes, clearly Tom Zé is goofing on the very idea of genre here. But that’s not all he’s doing. This is in one sense as compulsively idiosyncratic a record as he’s ever made. He’s got more money than ever to play around with the quirky homemade instruments he’s been concocting since the ’70s—the businorio, or car-horn organ, which threads a plaintive honking through the pro-Hendrix, anti-imperialist maracapoeira “Jimi Renda-se/Moeda Falsa”; the enceroscópio, made of floor waxers, which lends its teeth-rattling burr to the otherwise pacific lilt of “Desafio”; the hertZé, a sampler Tom Zé claims to have independently invented in 1978, which here dizzyingly slices, dices, and whipsaws a snatch of playground laughter in and out of the cool, furious undergroove of “O PIB da PIB (Prostituir),” a howl at Brazil’s rampant child-prostitution industry. Additionally he has included a companion CD containing the raw, unmixed tracks that compose the songs on the mother disc, the stated intent being that a thousand home-remixed versions bloom, but the impression being that Tom Zé added the thing at the last minute just in case the record wasn’t quite odd enough to distinguish it from Celine Dion’s latest.
All the same, we’ve heard this record before. Put Jogos de Amar on shuffle with just about any other Tom Zé CD (except maybe the over-Byrne-ished Fabrication Defect) and you’ll be hard-pressed to know where one begins and the other ends. Certain trademark features recur with tic-like persistence: the clockwork riffing of the mandolin, the ominous low fuzzy guitar figure stomping around beneath it, the female chorus playing call and response with Tom Zé’s hangdog but doggedly tuneful voice. The effect isn’t samey, though, nor does the cause seem to be creative exhaustion. On the contrary, it’s as if the man’s inspiration derived entirely from the obsessive project of defining a genre all his own, its conventions partly borrowed from the hegemonic samba über-genre but wholly transformed into the boundaries of a genre he can share with no one. Post-rockers take note: It’s a lonely job. Nor is it necessarily the case that someone has to do it. But if you think you’ve got the stomach to follow in Tom Zé’s footsteps, knock yourself out. We could use more music as unlikely as his, and he could use the company.