Tom Zé ‘Estudando o Samba’ LP (Mr Bongo) 5/5

One of the iconoclastic figures of the Brazilian music scene, this gem of a recording inspired no less than David Byrne to compile an anthology of Zé’s work on Luaka Bop back in the 1990s. Indeed Byrne came across this extremely rare 1976 original album (on the Continental label) while vinyl hunting in Brazil and the listener now has the luxurious option of listening in full to the recording, and that in vinyl format.

What the composer-singer and multi-instrumentalist set out to do was to take the traditional samba form and deconstruct it in the most subtle of manners. The result is a magnificent post-Tropicália trip through the samba tradition and this is definitely one case where listening to an album in its entirety is essential to gaining a better understanding of the musical mind and intentions of the author. Typical of the diversity of approach is the simple melody of ‘(Você Inventa) Ui!’, with two guitars operating from either speaker channel, one of which sounds like a classic cavaquinho (a small high-pitched guitar that is an essential musical ingredient of the samba tradition), and the gentle vocals of Tom are augmented by a female chorus. All that in the first part of the song, before the second part transforms into a more traditional samba complete with bass drum, percussion and acoustic guitar. Arguably, the most impressive piece is ‘Toc’, with a regulated guitar riff and, intriguingly, the sampled brass of what comes across as a big band orchestra; a technique which was way ahead of its time. The build up is fascinating in that it effortlessly combines melody with a dose of experimental sampling incorporated and somehow Tom Zé manages to pull it off. Quite sublime!

Indeed, throughout the album, the music retains a beautiful folkloric quality, and a lightness of touch that makes the experimental side eminently manageable for the casual listener and it does not take anything away from the strong lyricism of the music. In the more laid back samba-cançao tradition, the ballad, ‘Só’, demonstrates what a fine singer Zé can be, and there is gorgeous melancholia to the layered strings and brass of ‘Mâe (Mâe Solteira)’ and yet in essence this is still a samba-cançao (a predominantly song form of samba). The sound of what appears to be a saw is incorporated into the mid-tempo groove of ‘Tô’, while on ‘Vai (Menina Amenhâ de Manhâ)’, the leader’s own vocals are overdubbed to great effect which come across as not dissimilar to those of Caetano Veloso. Again simplicity is the name of the game. An interest in Afro-Brazilian bloc music surfaces on ‘Mâ’, with collective chants and guitar.

This re-issue has been a long time in coming, but should count as one of the world roots events of the year. More of this talented and so utterly distinctive artist, please! Of note is that when the David Byrne inspired compilation came out, Tom Zé was wandering into obscurity, even working at a petrol station. The new found interest spurred him on to taken a renewed interest in music and he has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Tim Stenhouse