CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- For their tour as Brazilian tropicalia pioneer Tom
Zé's backing band, members of the instrumental post-rock group Tortoise
brought along the usual guitars, bass and xylophone. They're also toting hammers and
Zé and Tortoise opened their six-date mini-tour -- Zé's first-ever North
American outing -- Tuesday at the Middle East nightclub here with a performance where
everything from Zé's voice to his body to an empty bottle was part of the show.
In the 1960s, Zé helped develop tropicalia, a modernist melange of pop, jazz,
psychedelia and traditional Brazilian music that lately has been cited as an influence by
such acts as Beck, Stereolab and the Beastie Boys. The music often is combined with
political sentiments and a generous dash of humor. Zé's distinctive version of
tropicalia is augmented by found sounds such as power drills and floor sanders,
slamming doors, children's voices, toothbrushes and teeth on balloons.
He released Com Defeito de Fabricacao (Fabrication Defect) late last year as well
as a collection of that album's tracks remixed by popsters Sean Lennon, the High
Llamas, Tortoise mastermind John McEntire and others. Both discs are on Luaka Bop,
the world-music label founded by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Tuesday's show drew a capacity crowd. Zé was backed on the small, subtly lit
stage by McEntire on drums, Doug McCombs on bass, John Herndon on xylophone and
Jeff Parker on electric guitar, miscellaneous string and percussion instruments and
Zé confided in broken English that he had rehearsed with Tortoise for only a
week before the show, but the band followed Zé's every twist and turn, many of
which appeared to be improvised.
Though he sang conventional lyrics, too, Zé just as often used his voice to simply
make sounds, repeating single syllables, letting out yips and yelps, lamenting in the
voice of an old woman. He speaks little English and performs in Portuguese, his native
language. But at the Middle East he did so with enough expression and physicality to
leap cultural barriers with ease.
Portuguese-speaking show-goers may have had a more complete experience than their
English-speaking counterparts, as they could better comprehend Zé's
between-song banter, which frequently elicited laughs and whoops. But Zé
played to the linguistically challenged as well; through his facial expressions and body
language, he easily conveyed, for instance, that "Politicar"
(RealAudio excerpt) concerned oppression and abuse of power.
Later, Zé gave the audience a lesson in what he called "plagicombination" --
inverting a classic tune, in this case the coda from the Beatles' "Hey Jude," and changing
its tempo so that it becomes unidentifiable. " 'Hey Jude' inside out, you see?" he said,
disclosing his theft.
Zé's considerable energy belied his age (reports vary from 62 to 73). Small and
wiry, dressed in black jeans and a simple, blue open-necked shirt, Zé entertained
with his whole body. Eyes closed, he would reach toward the heavens or stroke his face
in a loving or lamenting gesture as the spirit moved him. Moments later he might leap to
touch the ceiling, do a high-stepping march or fall to the floor in a faux faint.
Zé made use of all manner of found sound, with empty bottles and newspapers
making contributions. During one song, Zé took a swig from a bottle of water and
engaged in rhythmic gargling as a counterpoint to McCombs' bass and Parker's guitar.
For a finale, Zé and the band donned hard hats, goggles, raincoats and rubber
gloves and proceeded to make sweet music by conking each other on the head with
hammers, using hand saws on metal and banging on metal pipes. Zé and
Herndon, as dueling welders, ground out sound and showered the stage with sparks.
The tour continues Friday (May 21) in Chicago, and then moves to Minneapolis on
Saturday, San Francisco on Tuesday and Los Angeles on Thursday.