The Boy From Brazil: Tom Zé’s Po-Mo Samba

On stage, Duke Ellington used to introduce “The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse” by quoting the Marshall McLuhan dictum, “The whole world is going Oriental.” Today, if Ellington weren’t celebrating his 100th birthday from the grave, he might say that the whole world is going Brazilian. The secret knowledge that obsessive record collectors and eagle-eyed deejays have guarded for years has entered the mainstream. Newly minted fans are snapping up copies of the recently reissued 1968 album Tropicália (Polygram), which first put “world music” superstars Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil on the map. Even Banana Republic’s slick new TV ad is set to an airy bossa nova sung by Marisa Monte, Brazil’s reigning pop diva, and New York’s own Arto Lindsay. This Brazilian vogue has even swept up Os Mutantes (The Mutants), a zany trio of pop collagists who were a kind of house band for the Tropicália movement, filtering 60’s psychedelia through a distinctly Brazilian prism. The tiny New York indie label Omplatten has just reissued the first three Mutantes albums- Os Mutantes , Mutantes and A Divina Comédia Ou Ando Meio Desligado . And David Byrne, whose Beleza Tropical compilations first fueled the current interest in Braziliana a decade ago, has his own handy Mutante Baedeker coming out on his Luaka Bop label on June 8: World Psychedelic Classics 1: Brazil: The Best of Os Mutantes-Everything Is Possible!

Os Mutantes are fun, even delirious fun. Imagine an Austin Powers soundtrack piped through Portuguese headphones, or samples from the Mamas and the Papas matched with Veloso-Gil lyrics like, “But the people in the dining room/ Are preoccupied about birth and death/ I had a dagger of pure illuminant steel made.” Maybe only the hard-core postmodernists would accord Os Mutantes megaband status, but their red-carpet reissue treatment portends a shiny American future for the ex-Tropicalists and their second-generation progeny, who are arriving in New York en masse over the next two months.

On May 19, Tom Zé, original Tropicalist and unreformed visionary, plays Irving Plaza with a repertoire drawn from his new album, a fractured classic entitled Fabrication Defect (Luaka Bop/Warner Brothers). (Opening for Mr. Zé is the fine post-bossa crooner Vinicius Cantuária, whose most recent album, Tucumã , is out on Verve.) On June 24, Afro-Brazilian funkster and former Veloso percussionist Carlinhos Brown comes to the Beacon Theater with his new album, Omelete Man , on Metro Blue. June 27 marks the arrival of the great man himself, Mr. Veloso, at the Beacon, singing selections from his folkish, elegant album, Livro (Nonesuch).

If we’re all going Brazilian, it’s not the first time. In the early 60’s, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s gorgeous interpretation of the bossa nova launched a million bachelor pads. In the 70’s, a Brazilian tinge supplied by the likes of singer Flora Purim and percussionist Airto Moreira found its way into perhaps too much of that era’s fusion jazz.

For the most part, Brazilian music was perceived by North Americans as an aural vacation, a beachy, bosomy respite from the real-world rigors of hard bop, free jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. Today, the tables have turned. Hipsters who can’t quite handle the in-your-face hip-hop rhythms reach out to Tom Zé as a po-mo visionary. Just to drive home the delicious affinities between Mr. Zé and arty soft-rockers like Stereolab, Tortoise and Sean Lennon, Luaka Bop cooked up an album of remixes from Fabrication Defect by a bunch of these bands; Postmodern Platos will be sold over the label’s Web site and on Mr. Zé’s upcoming six-city American tour with Tortoise.

At home recently in São Paulo, telephonically connected to the American media via a translator named Theodore, Mr. Zé sounded grateful that anyone is doing anything with his music. Asked whether he was, in effect, the musical godfather of Beck (whose latest album has a tune entitled “Tropicalia”), Mr. Zé replied with evident gratitude: “I accept without vanity. I’m a conduit. I’m the truck driver who carries it along.” His is the most intriguing case study of this Brazilian-American po-mo moment since, in his present incarnation, he’s almost a gringo invention.

In the late 1960’s, though, Tom Zé was one of the gang. He, Mr. Veloso and Mr. Gil were all passionately intellectual university students in Salvador, Brazil. To their right was the Brazilian military government, which did not brook open dissent; to their left, Marxist ideologues who shared with the right a protectionist, purist view of Brazilian culture. Meanwhile, the Anglo-American pop scene was exploding- Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band , Jimi Hendrix, you name it-and the young Tropicalists were determined to get it all into their work. “They were outside the centers of power in the West,” said Arto Lindsay, the Brazilian-music producer and downtown singer-guitarist. “That gave them an outsider’s perspective. Nowadays, everybody feels a little that way.” (Indeed, you get the sense that today’s Anglo-American popmeisters are confronting, via loop and sample, the colonizing power of their own rock ‘n’ roll past.)

The Tropicalists proceeded by indirection and implication. Sonically, they experimented with abrupt segues and juxtapositions. Lyrically, they favored the oblique, which kept them out of jail (for a while) and also placed them within the tradition of avant-garde “concrete” Brazilian poetry with its arty emphasis on words for words’ sake. Perhaps the most sublime cut on 1968’s Tropicália was Mr. Veloso’s slippery take on Brazil’s infatuation with pop Americana, “Baby,” sung by Gal Costa, in Portuguese, in her best baby-doll voice: “You need to learn English to learn what I know and don’t know anymore/ … You need, you need, you need, I don’t know, read my T-shirt:/ Baby, baby, I love you.”

But things fell apart, as things do. Messrs. Veloso and Gil were briefly jailed at the end of 1968 and they subsequently decamped to London, closing the curtain on the Tropicália movement. After their return in 1972, they shed much of their overt experimentalism, steadily and deservedly assuming their mantle as Brazil’s musical laureates. And Tom Zé? Short, wiry and strange, Mr. Zé never fit the part of the pop star, especially when the rest of the 60’s carnival shut down and his own music got progressively weirder and weirder. Mr. Zé repaired to his hometown of Irará in the parched northeastern interior and built his own, sometimes monstrously impractical musical instruments. (There was one contraption built of floor sanders, typewriters, blenders and radios that took up most of the house and that later had to be sold to subsidize one of his concerts.)

In 1990, when David Byrne chanced upon an old Zé platter and decided to record him, Mr. Zé himself was about ready to pack it in and go to work for a relative who owned a gas station. With reason. “When I told Brazilians I was releasing a Tom Zé album,” David Byrne recalled recently, “there was this feeling-‘With all the beautiful, sophisticated music here, this is the guy you choose to represent us, this nut?'”

Mr. Zé confirms: “On the day I traveled to meet David, a journalist published a report-‘Tom Zé enemies can start cutting their wrists with razor blades because he’s going to meet the guy with the Talking Heads.'”

Several Luaka Bop albums later (regrettably, all but the new one are out of print), Mr. Zé has ridden his American wave to belated recognition in his fickle motherland. Fabrication Defect should certify his unlikely new status-there and here. In a song like “Baby,” Caetano Veloso toys with the theme of North American-South American relations in his delicate metapop mode; on Defect , Mr. Zé goes for a surrealistic, cinemascopic blast. To wit: The First Worlders want the Third Worlders to be obedient androids, but the Third Worlders keep screwing up. It’s their “fabrication defects”-they dream, they dance, they drink, they fuck. “The wine of open legs/ soaks the offerings on the altar/ screams, sperm and handcuffs/ the fury of pure lavender,” goes Defect No. 9, “Juventude Javali.”

The truly weird thing is, lines like those, sung in Portuguese in Mr. Zé’s warm voice and set to shifting, samba-fied beats, sound just as sexy as the old Brazilian music we liked before we learned to think and listen at the same time.