Nobody suspects pain in this ideal,” Tom Zé sings in Estudando o Pagode. And while the subject of this “unfinished operetta” is the way pagode (the term refers to a form of samba popular with lower-class Brazilians, as well as to gatherings of samba musicians) embodies macho attitudes about women, Zé desexualizes samba while adding pain and juice to the highly aestheticized Brazilian musical styles that took bossa nova as a foundation text for their ever more obsessive and urbane fusions of samba and Bahia. The stuttering basslines and nervous guitar figures constantly undercut the even flow of the forms Zé uses in his study of pagode, and there are echoes of the whistling and supernal piano that grace bossa recordings like Elis Regina and Tom Jobim’s “Waters of March.”
With its allusions to Jobim, the Beatles, and Bach, Estudando serves as a grand tour of post-1960 Brazilian pop’s world-historic ambitions. And if the conniving female voices and jumpy, pasted-on rhythms occasionally recall the Residents or Beefheart, they’re predicated on the principle of integration, not disruption, as befits a man who has thought hard about male egotism’s less salutary aspects. The accompanying libretto’s English translations make sense of a dizzying cast of characters that includes a donkey braying in orgasm, a fairy who conducts an imaginary pagode group in Aphrodite’s garden, and a pair of men who debate the concepts of anima and animusduring a gay and lesbian parade at the Vatican.
“Story—Pagode in the Time of Fear” makes explicit the connection between Zé’s critique of sexism and his bemused embrace of pop culture. “Cinderella boogie-woogie/Boogie-woogie boogie/I prefer my pagode-wood,” sing the Cinema Novo Chorus. The Modernist Week of 1922 Wing shoot right back: “Aside from our not having any school/Mass culture is a bag of cats.” And when Zé describes how love “scatters in the sky/Beatles by the bushel/In paper dreams,” he closes the lid on any number of comforting delusions by paying his respects to our most necessary pleasures.