Tom Zé

Estudando O Pagode

(Luaka Bop; 2006)

By Mark Abraham | 4 May 2006

At the public square on the southeast corner of Dundas and Young, a Latin-guitar duo, playing its acoustic guitars through a crappy indoor PA system, are surrounded by a zillion private school kids in varying states of uniform and various stages of coupling. The kids aren’t really watching the band; they’re watching each other, mostly in socially sanctioned hetero-couples, but also some of them are watching and laughing at this dude who must have been about seventy flitting through their ranks, decked out in a shimmering cheap plastic not-quite-a-windbreaker blue baseball jacket loosely slung over a white work shirt, a long skinny navy tie, super-tapered (like, we’re talking early-‘90s DIY pin-backs) light-washed jeans, and beige canvas deck shoes (probably left his slippers at the Elk Lodge), dancing as if his life depended on it, incensed, all pointed toes, twirling hands, legs en l’air, head swooning, interpreting the music.

You would think this would be the weirdest thing I would see this day, but two blocks north, a massive photo of Avril Lavigne with her hands over her ears and captioned HEAR NO EVIL absolutely STARES down at the thoroughfare, demanding us mere plebs to bow before the Aldo Fights Aids Campaign. I’m just passing through, but frustrated by the non-arrival of Tom Zé’s latest at my local shop, I duck into the Sam’s across the street to check the world section. Bingo! With Estudando O Pagode in hand, I make my way to the streetcar, struggle with the shrink-wrap, and pop the sucker into my Discman. And…damn. It’s a three act feminist opera. And it’s all in Portuguese. Where do I even start?

The album is about sex, but unlike Amir’s review of Sexteen last week, the sex isn’t so pathetic or funny, or it is pathetic and funny, but also serious and excruciating and wonderful and painful, working because it gets that “love is bile and honey,” but for women it has mostly just been bile as far as power is concerned. So sex is all of these things at once, just like an old man getting his Christopher Walken on in front of a bunch of hands-in-each-other’s-pockets-school-kids is…well, gross, yes, but sex? As far as this album understands the intersection of the mundane and surreal that makes it hard to define the social networks sexualities produce (for example, dancing dude stole his jean cut from the Ramones who stole it from NYC gay culture), also yes, just like Avril Lavigne, once a statutory sex-symbol wearing a tie and playing “male” rock, can now be bought and sold as the image of safe shoe-wearing sex (I hear pumps help you avoid Chlamydia). Sex is rote and sex is powerful and sex is currency all at the same time, and Zé gets that the most basic urges we have (food, frolic, fuck) are tricky precisely because their prevalence makes them mundane while their permutations make them impossible to comprehend. Sex is power, because power is about what we want, and what we want is about desire, and desire is about sex. That’s the part that Zé nails.

If that seems cyclic, my day job as a historian of sex has shown me that it very often is, but it’s crucial to understanding exactly why this album is powerful. Estudando O Pagode isn’t simply Zé‘s First Feminist Project where he criticizes male chauvinism; sure, pointing out that oppression is important, but trying to figure out the why of it is how we move towards change. Zé has researched his subject extensively, and in several interviews, he’s even outlined the critical historical currents: “there’s a connection between territory as property and women as property,” where women, as a “technology for reproduction,” must have their sexuality controlled, because their sexual liberation threatens the control of the patriarchy (which, I can’t find him referencing it, but this is essentially the argument of Gayle Rubin’s seminal essay “The Traffic In Women”). Where Zé works it is where he notes how this macro-phallic project doesn’t play out so simply on the ground; despite the hetero-normative myth, sexualities are not monolithic, and a vast range of personal desires obstruct the phallic project, leading societies to refashion gender politics to accommodate more prevalent sexual desires (i.e. non-procreative sex and more recently sex-before-marriage). But, also, in the space of 16 songs, Zé is able to map out many of the far more mundane and odd ways desires play out in public: dancing in public, machismo, sex for/as profit, erotic art, and truant snogging.

The politics are somewhere between “awesome!” and “awesome?” because the academic in me snarks, “How can a MAN make a ‘feminist story’ [un-problematically, at least]?” It’s an important question, but I’ll avoid the debate about whether a man can or can’t here because it isn’t quite germane to the question of whether the album is great (which it is) except to note that the discrepancy would have seemed less awkward in the seventies, when Zé released his classic Estudando O Samba, and…fuck, Zé is like seventy and it’s now he decided to write a musical essay like this? And he’s still working his FZ ‘stache and talking about how he makes “spoken and sung journalism” and being inspired by Cesar de Palmeiras who celebrated a goal with his fans instead of his teammates and how, to make sure the hooks on Estudando O Pagode were singable at parties, he wouldn’t record any of its songs until they had been signed off on by two 15 year old teenagers, because above all else he wants this to be an album for The People? With populist cred like that, how harsh can I possibly be on the overriding gender issues? Even if the man-as-voice-for-woman thing is a bit anachronistic, I’m struggling to think of a capitol “o” rock Opera that isn’t about some whiny dude who walls himself up inside a pinball machine and gets his dick cut off in some emasculated men’s colony. A “tragedy” that occurs normally because, as this album posits in its opening moments, Women Are Evil.

Waters and Townsend and Gabriel might as well hit the showers, ‘cause when Zé fractures “Ave Maria” into “Ave Dor Maria,” his first track is already as dense as their oeuvres, inverting pagode against itself and coming off somewhere between Ghostface’s Veloso-sampling “Charlie Brown” and the Fiery Furnaces (which, for the record, compared to this, I’m pretty “meh” about). Zé believes the admirable populism of the pagode (the Brazilian middle-class hates it; the working class have embraced it as a means of resistance) is subverted by its unrepentant misogyny (Zé notes one particular song popular at the moment which tells the tale of a young women hunching over a bottle). The track starts similarly, with a chorus of male accusers hawking shit at a trial on gender roles, but the women respond in kind. The fact that it’s one of the best tracks this year raises another issue: using and subverting the politics of pagode allows Zé to make his argument about sex and gender an argument about music. Accordingly, as much as it’s true that this would be a pretty album for dinner parties, ignoring the politics in favor of the consistently delightful melodies and arrangements runs against Zé’s point: all people should share in the creation of music and not be complicit in the production of music that alienates all but a few.

So then there’s the even more impressive fact that though many of these tracks are some of the best this year, they cover topics far more serious than their uproarious delivery. So you get the glorious highs of “Elaeu,” its verses a slow-funk bass exercise and its (quoth Dom) “jeez-o-peets” chorus, a song that details the heated discussions of participants in a Pride rally at the Vatican. Or the heartbreaking duet “Duas Opinioes,” a placid guitar that underscores two voices, traditional pagode and opera affectation, that can be interpreted in two ways: a) high and popular art interacting as a sonic manifestation of Gramscian class hegemony or b) caressing and biting at each other like pain and pleasure in sex. “Pagode-Enredo Dos Tempos Do Medo” metas it’s subject as various art collectives arrive at the trial to proclaim that they, too, face segregation, highlighted by the melodies of the Cinema Novo Wing singing “Cinderella boogie-woogie” and crunching the “g” in both words with the same humor that allows the Modernist Week of 1922 Wing to declare that “Mass culture is a bag of cats.” The fantastic “O Amor É Um Rock,” a harmony workout over aggressive Gainsbourg guitars, has Dr. Burgone, a middle class professor who covets the girlfriend of a working class black man whom he racially discriminates against, visited by a whole spate of canonical characters who explain to him the faults of the patriarchy.

“Estudando,” or “study,” isn’t simply a name—Zé conceives of composition as a process. Along with the study of pagode and sex, the tracks are united by two other features. First, most of the tracks feature an instrument he created out of cupped ficus leaves (basically a thumbs-and-grass trick), which adds a melismatic quality to many of the songs—screaming, unintelligible anger in the background—but also link the music to the traditional roots of the pagode, without being unduly reliant on awkward concepts like “authenticity.” Second, almost all of these tracks involve induced harmony, where the instruments stay on the tonic, and the vocalist (the story that draws you in) asks for your assistance in changing the key. It’s not an uncommon procedure, really, but because it is placed in this political context it works to involve the listener in the debate. Because we must be complicit in the sonic changes, we must pay attention to the words themselves. The best example is “Quero Pensar (A Mulher De Bath),” where Luciana Mello’s alto vocal track is absolutely enchanting, darting back and forth between quick cyclic phrasing and long drawn out runs that compound the song’s original key. Elsewhere, Zé’s typical sonic brilliance pushes “Estúpido Rapaz” over the top. The breaks feature deliciously arranged male breath samples (at the end, replaced by a donkey) under my favorite melody ever, at least until I hear “Prazer Carnal,” in which Patricia Marx and Jair Oliveira flow around each other and…swoon. Prettiest. Song. This. Year.

The album closes with “Beatles A Granel,” which marvelously subverts the sing-along status of “All You Need Is Love” and “Hey Jude” into a complex conclusion that asks for mutual understanding between genders. It would be a sort of trite conclusion, if it wasn’t voiced by Maneco Tatit (the male lead) and immediately called out by Teresa (his girlfriend, who has turned to prostitution to pay for university): “Honey? What honey, you bum! Let me show you some of the cruelties that befell women throughout the centuries. Listen up, let’s see.” That the album ends at an impasse makes sense; historians and theorists of sexuality have been debating these questions for more than thirty years, so we shouldn’t expect Zé to solve the issue, and anyway I think his point is that this “unfinished operetta” provides a space or language for others to explore them with him (following in the footsteps of Brecht, Boal, and Grotowski), and perhaps find “the courage to choose this utopia,” which is détente in this case, at least until utopia is possible. He notes that “the right to have differences is a thorny issue,” but that “difference” isn’t the same as hierarchy. Which…yeah.

I’m not sure if this will be my Favorite album of 2006; it’s too early to make claims like that. I suspect, however, that if I made a spreadsheet and marked all of the albums on objective qualities, this would always end up the Best album. None of the lightning here is bottle-caught; Zé has built it all himself, and with an impressive load of research, an always scrupulous method, and a massive cohort of contributors, he has raised the bar on everyone else. This is the new definitive rock opera.