Born Antonio Jose Santana Martins on November 11, 1936, in Irara, Bahia, Brazil; son of a storekeeper; married. Education: Attended University of Bahia School of Music, Brazil. Addresses: Record company--Luaka Bop, Box 652, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276, website: Website--Tom Zé Official Website:

A standout in the annals of experimental music, Tropicalia pioneer Tom Zé blends angular rhythms and creative dissonances with an unusual mingling of words and sounds. A master showman, this classically trained musician performs antics that border on zany, breaking every convention of instrumentation without missing a beat. After fading from prominence in his native Brazil in the late 1970s, Zé resurfaced a decade later to realize immense popularity among a new generation of internationally based fans.

Zé was born Antonio Jose Santana Martins on November 11, 1936, in Irara, a small rural town in the northeast Brazilian state of Bahia. He was raised with his brother Augusto and sister Marita. Their father ran the town's general store, a place where the locals converged to trade news and gossip. Zé first learned about politics from his mother's family, who were fervent communists.

As a teenager in the early 1950s, Zé moved to Salvador, the capital of Bahia, where he attended high school and lived with a host family who exposed him to classical music--and he liked what he heard. After working at a bank in the early 1960s he enrolled at the University of Bahia School of Music in Salvador, where he studied violin, viola, cello, and composition. In addition to the classics, he also learned about music of the world, including the African rhythms on which Brazilian music is based. Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan comprised much of his early listening, but he was also inspired by the music of composers John Cage and Charles Ives, as well as popular folk and funk music.

During those early years as a student musician, Zé, a self-taught guitarist, developed a flair for experimentation and a preoccupation for turning household tools and appliances into musical instruments. Although his grades often suffered, his improvisational skills blossomed and he became adept at playing the handsaw. Perhaps the most distinctive of his musical inventions was a doorbell-activated keyboard contraption, which he used for playing vacuum cleaner and blender motors.

Roots of a Counterculture

While at Salvador in 1963, Zé met Caetano Veloso and others who would lead a Bahian musical movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The seeds of Tropicalia, as the movement was called, were sown early in the 1960s in a musicians' group that included Zé. The musicians met on a weekly basis for jam sessions at the home of an actress named Maria Muniz. Much like the Lost Generation and bohemian poets and hippies, these musicians were out of sync with the mainstream. From a small beginning they built a substantial counterculture called esquerda festiva (festive left). In 1965 Zé and his colleagues moved to São Paulo hoping to further their careers. Newly relocated, they became acquainted with a so-called obscuro band called Os Mutantes consisting of Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sergio Baptista. Zé--along with Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes, and a producer named Rogerio Duprat--then figured prominently in the evolution of Tropicalia, which surfaced against the backdrop of political unrest in Brazil following a right-wing military coup in 1964.

With wildly unconventional rhythms and songs, the Tropicalias jump-started Brazilian music into the rock and pop era, much to the chagrin of new Brazilian leaders who feared every cultural extreme. Zé went so far as to join the Chilean Communist Party and was incarcerated on two occasions.

Rise and Fall of a Career

In 1964 in Salvador, Zé appeared in a musical written by Veloso called Nova Bossa Velha Show and was featured in two more musicals the following year. Of these, his appearance in Arena Conta Bahia led RCA Records to award him a contract. He made his recording debut that year, releasing a single, "Maria do Colégio da Bahia," which won first place in a televised singing contest.

On December 13, 1965, the new Brazilian government imposed a strict policy of censorship. Although Zé had taped his first full-length recording that year, the album was not released at that time. Soon afterward Veloso and Gil were arrested and imprisoned, then exiled. During this time Zé's music grew steadily more bizarre, and his politically peppered vocal renditions evolved into a new art form called "regurgitation music," which San Francisco Chronicle writer Dan Ouellette described as "taking in a smorgasbord of styles and coming up with jarring new juxtapositions of sound." With the issue of his album Grande Liquidacao in 1968, Zé won another contest with the song, "São Paulo, Meu Amor"; in 1971 he began to teach music in São Paulo.

Throughout the 1970s his fan base ebbed slowly and bookings became scarce. His self-titled album, originally recorded in 1965, was finally released in 1972, but recording contracts dried up by 1979. He continued to perform, touring small venues like college campuses; in 1984 he signed briefly with the RGE label. By the mid-1980s, however, his professional life had dimmed to a flicker. After working briefly for an advertising agency he supported himself by following a series of odd jobs.

Career Revival

In 1989, as Zé contemplated working at a gas station in Bahia, the Talking Heads' David Byrne contacted him. Byrne had found some vintage samples of Zé's recordings while seeking talent for a newly established label called Luaka Bop, and was interested in reconstituting Zé's unconventional blender music. This began a revival of Zé's career that endured through the 1990s and gave no indication of abating in the early 2000s.

A compilation called Best of Tom Zé was issued in 1990, followed by a second compilation in 1992. Zé appeared at the Zurich Jazz Festival that year, and was presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City in 1993. He performed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and played concert dates in North America and Europe. In 1994 he made an appearance in the Ugo Giorgetti comedy, Sabado, and toured his native Brazil during 1995-96. He also collaborated on a soundtrack for the Grupo Corpo ballet company in the mid-1990s.

Zé's 1998 album, Com Defeito de Fabricacao (Fabrication Defect), made its mark worldwide. His popularity surged, and many avant-garde musicians came forward to contribute to his 1999 EP Postmodern Platos, comprised largely of remixes. Songs in the recording came from post-rock musicians including John McEntire and Sean Lennon. Zé embarked on a coast-to-coast tour of six American cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Zé's guitarist and McEntire's band, Tortoise, were also on the bill. In 2002 Zé released the album Jogos de Armar (Jigsaw Puzzle).

Zé emotes a special zest and energy, combined with an outrageously off-the-wall aura. Mark Holston in Americas approved this eccentricity, and called it a "Self-appointed ... out-of-tune counterbalance to Brazil's sunny, upbeat mainstream music." Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot described him as, "A man giving free reign [sic] to his inner Harpo Marx." Julian Dibbell said of Zé's extraordinary uniqueness in Village Voice, "We could use more[!]"

Zé lives with his wife Neusa in a São Paulo apartment that doubles as a recording studio where he works long hours, composing and creating. His music, despite the exotic instrumentation, is based on stringent tempos, which Zé mingles freely, juxtaposing 2/4 tempo (which he calls Brazilia) and 4/4 meter (America). Gerald Marzorati in New York Times Magazine characterized Zé's tempos as "infectious rhythms, oddball sounds and cut-and-paste texture."

Zé is known for his infatuation with intellectual pastimes, including the study of philosophy and history. He is a Nero Wolfe mystery fan, enjoys reading William Faulkner, and practices yoga.

by Gloria Cooksey

Tom Zé's Career

Appeared in musical comedies, early 1960s; signed with RCA, 1965; toured Brazil, 1965-66; released debut album, 1968; signed with RGE, 1984; signed with Luaka Bop, 1989; presented at Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, 1993; toured United States, 1999.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…