The politics of plagiarism

Why Beck, Stereolab, Tortoise, the High Llamas and Sean Lennon are all fascinated by Tom Zi.

By Jeff Stark
Published May 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Tom Zi's eyes are large and dark, a pair of polished acorns.
He is 62 years old, which you wouldn't know but you can
actually kind of tell when you stare at the creases. He
smiles a lot, like he's always laughing at his own absurdist
in-joke. Sometimes, when he looks at you, his pupils are so
bright that you can see a ghost of yourself. Other times he
drops his head to consider a question. His features -- the
patchy beard, big nose, diminutive frame -- are strikingly
human. His eyes never wander.

His attention is remarkable. There are a million things
happening at once in this shabby Victorian parlor,
downstairs in the Irving Plaza concert hall. Later tonight, Zi is performing a rare U.S. show
with the Chicago post-rock band Tortoise. Right now, the
room is loud and complicated with the kinds of things that
have to happen before concerts. A small television crew is
interviewing David Byrne about Zi (pronounced Zay),
whom the former Talking Head tracked down more than 10 years
ago in Brazil. A photographer from a Brazilian newspaper is
pacing impatiently, waiting for a chance to take Zi outside
in the rain. And a stressed-out record company guy keeps
coming into the room and looking over the translator's
shoulder. There are things to do. Sound checks. Photographs.
Brazilians who need nonexistent tickets. Dinner. Strangers
to hug. And Zi's eyes never wander.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Tom Zi, who has made some of the most beautiful music in the
world, is not a purist. Purists are boring, especially world
music purists. The best contemporary musicians know this.
That is why artists like Beck, Stereolab, Tortoise, the High
Llamas and Sean Lennon are all fascinated by Tom Zi and
Tropicalia, the 1960s Brazilian pop movement that he helped
create. Beck et al. have looked beyond American-Anglo pop
for inspiration and incorporated elements into their own
work. They, like Zi, are not purists either.

If world beat is a genre of music loosely based on the idea
of marrying native sounds with foreign influences or musics
from other cultures, Zi made world beat music long
before it went Deep Forest. In some ways, the Tropicalistas
-- including principally Zi, the young Gilberto Gil,
songwriter Caetano Veloso and a strange, obscure and
wonderful band called Os Mutantes -- can be understood as
corollaries to the dirty hippies jamming psychedelic music
in the States. The Tropicalistas' movement was both
political and social, set against injustice, restrictive
sexuality and a military dictatorship. (Imagine Nixon's
tenure, under martial law.)

"We speak about the government, the people that conspire
with the government, the big corporations," says Zi, half in
English, half with the help of a Portuguese translator. "If
you live in a country like that, you have politics
everywhere. You can't imagine."

Working with Brazil's rich rhythmic heritage -- dense with
the music of Portugal, the Caribbean, Africa and indigenous
America -- the Tropicalistas layered their pop songs with
Brit psych, modernist poetry, found sounds and phrases
ripped off wholesale from the Beatles and the Stones. Like
most musicians, they were combining influences and
reinventing in their own language. At the same time, there
was never a question of where the components originated.
Listen to the old Tropicalia records and you hear parts
connected to parts connected to parts. It's some of the most
angular, confusing and ecstatic pop music ever recorded.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Oddly enough, it's the riff from "Smoke on the Water"
coming through the P.A. onstage at Irving Plaza. Zi
turns to the guitarist and stops the set. There is something
that he wants to say to the audience.

"I want to make a partnership with you," he says, "to take
plagiarism into your home."

It is difficult to understand Zi because his English is so
poor. He's trying to convince the crowd that the melody of
"Hey Jude" is almost the same as the Brazilian national anthem. He has split the audience into halves and has them
humming each song separately at the same time. It's hard to
know what he's talking about.

For Zi, plagiarism is political. A liner-note essay from his 1998 record
"Fabrication Defect" explains how the third world can
cannibalize the first, settle a score and put an end to the
notion of the traditional composer. "The esthetic of the
fabrication defect will reutilize the sonorous civilized
trash ... It will recycle an alphabet of emotions contained
in songs and musical symbols of the first world, that sealed
each marked step of our affective and emotional life. They
will be put to use in small cells of plagiarized material.
This deliberate practice unleashes an esthetic of plagiarism
... that ambushes the universe of well-known and traditional

Back onstage, the guitarist rips into "Smoke on the Water"
again. Conga drums come in. He switches to the Stones' "(I
Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Zi smiles. The music
wanders everywhere, but he is unswerving.

As a performer, Zi was the weirdest in a weird movement. The
military came down on the Tropicalistas with extreme
censorship in late 1968. Some of the musicians were
arrested, others banished. Zi went underground. He began
recording with homemade instruments, experimenting with
atonal riffs and continuing to write political songs. Zi,
unlike his Tropicalista comrades who abandoned much of the
strangeness of Tropicalia and became stars, lost his

He languished for years until David Byrne found his records
during a stay in Sau Paulo. Byrne tracked down Zi and
arranged to release the Brazilian's older songs on his Luaka
Bop record label. The first collection, "The Best of Tom Zi," is a pleasant mix of acoustic guitar
melodies, strange sounds and Zi's soft, almost soothing
voice. At the same time, it's very, very odd: One minute
back-up singers coo lullabies, the next there's the sound of
metal milling against a grinding wheel. Odd, and very, very

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Zi in the Irving Plaza lobby: "Politics are in my songs in
the same way that to be lovers -- to have a relationship --
is politics, the same way that staring at the moon is
politics. For us Brazilians, politics is a very important
matter, because politics is destroying us. It's fucking up
the country. Politics are in my music because it is part of
our food. It is very important."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Tom Zi is jumping up and down onstage at Irving Plaza.
There are 1,100 people in the audience and the show is sold
out. He is playing percussion by thumping his chest. Behind
him, the members of Tortoise plink on vibes and shake
rattles and play fuzzed-out guitar.

People in the audience are not really dancing: They are listening. When
Zi asks them to, they sing entire choruses. Some speak
Portuguese, many know the lyrics and sing along.

Zi is very pleased with a just-finished version of "Defect
2." He smiles at the mike, gleams at the lights and
addresses the crowd. "You know that I no speak English," he
says. This does not stop him.

"In Africa, I am the slave. In Brazil, I am the slave. In
Brazil, the republic is the slave. But here, here I am the

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

"Fabrication Defect" (1998), Zi's third record for Luaka
Bop, is a concept album of sorts, based around some of the
esthetic theories Zi has been toying with since he began
studying music at a university in Bahia in the early '60s. An essay
in the liner notes explains that
Zi believes that people in the third world have been
converted to "a kind of android," which allows them to serve
"first world bosses." The androids, however, are not perfect
yet, they have defects, which include the ability to think,
dance and dream. Zi's album then is a celebration of those
defects, broken down into 14 different songs, each celebrating
a separate defect.

It's smart music, obviously, but the ideas never seem
forced. The three-minute songs effortlessly segue from one
to another. "Defect 1: Gene" is a sprightly tune based
around ringing guitar patterns and chiming tambourines.
"Defect 2: Curiosidade" is a quieter ballad, its acoustic
guitar riffing off "Defect 1," with Zi baby-talking in the

It's almost suspiciously tight, musically at least. Did Zi
ever abandon the album's concept for musical concessions? Is
there a difference between the fabrication defect idea and
"Fabrication Defect"? "My attempt was to make the record
very simple: Defect one, to think, that is the most
dangerous defect; defect two can be to love, to study, to
dance, to think. These are all defects," he says. "But the
songs I get to compose -- like the winds in navigation --
change the direction of the target. My own inspiration
changes direction too. It fucked me up."

Not too much. There are moments when you can hear Zi's past,
like the "vasolina-gasolina" rhyme he rips off from
Caetano Veloso on "Defect 3: Politicar." And there are other
moments when Zi sounds like the future, or at least hyper
contemporary. The record's figurative centerpiece is the
loping, accordion-driven finale, "Defect 14: Xiquexique," which flips
from found-sound to rhythm sticks, methodically builds new
patterns upon each section and crescendos at five and a half
minutes with all the different sounds ramming into one
another. It's as dramatic and complicated and weird and
exciting as the best songs by Beck, Stereolab or Tortoise.

Brazilian music, once
again, is reaching critical mass in the States. Consider:

  • Luaka is reissuing long out of print records by Os
    Mutantes this summer. (Talk about beach music!)

  • Beck named
    a groovy Brazilian-influenced tune "Tropicalia," and named
    his last record "Mutations," which sounds a lot like a mad
    shout-out to the Mutantes.

  • A huge Tropicalia box set
    appeared last year with four CDs' worth of songs.

  • "Fabrication Defect" popped up all over 1998 critics lists
    for best record of the year; Zi's tour earned stacks of press
    clippings; and you can still hear his songs in
    rotation on college radio.

  • Zi's tour-only EP "Postmodern
    Platos" includes remixes by popsters like Sean Lennon and
    the High Llamas and sonic pioneers like Amon Tobin, Ui's
    Sasha Frere-Jones and Tortoise's John McEntire.

  • That damn Banana Republic commercial and its little Brazilian

    And so what does it all mean? What were the Tropicalistas onto that still resonates today?
    For starters, it probably has
    something to do with the essence of pop: miscegenation and
    the constant progress that comes with reinventing form by
    destruction. Then there's the lure of appropriation, the desire to turn a world of sounds
    into a private playground, and the absurd drama of dada, which allows for laughter in
    the face of tyranny. And there might be a little political
    residue, or at least a nostalgia for a time or place where to
    sing about politics seemed important, when it gave their music force and a reason to exist.

    Ask Zi what the fuss is about and he'll answer with a bizarre
    riddle, one that says everything and nothing at once -- the
    perfect Tom Zi quote.

    "To respond, I will make a metaphor," he says, speaking
    quietly, his eyes narrowing in. "The ears of
    the dollar are more sensitive than the honors of the

  • Jeff Stark

    Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

    MORE FROM Jeff Stark

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Brazil Latin America Music