Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Professor Dunn awarded NEH Fellowship for book project on Brazilian musician Tom Zé

January 29th, 2020

Story by Erika Pettersen, Stone Center graduate student and Publicity Assistant

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded Christopher Dunn, Professor and Chair of the Spanish & Portuguese Department at Tulane, a fellowship for writing a biography on Antonio José Martins Santana, a Brazilian musician best known as Tom Zé. The NEH provides fellowships on a competitive basis to individual scholars whose projects embody exceptional research and rigorous analysis. Dunn’s proposed book project was selected from a pool of approximately 1,000 submissions, with only 7% of applicants receiving funding.

Dunn will draft a complete manuscript over the course of the twelve-month fellowship period, commencing in Summer 2021, culminating more than a decade of research on Tom Zé. Through this work, Dunn has come to consider Tom Zé to be “one of the great musical innovators for our time,” holding up his compositions as paradigms of traditional creative forms in conversation with experimental music and poetics. Dunn elaborates on this theme in an essay he wrote for Studies of Tom Zé: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, a three-disc set issued by Luaka Bop in 2010: “Tom Zé grew up between two distinct, yet interconnected worlds: one that was ‘traditional,’ reliant on oral communication, and mostly poor, and another that was ‘modern’ and distinguished by literacy, access to new technologies, and the promise of upward mobility. Much of his artistic production over the past five decades is informed by the tension between these two realities.” Furthermore, Dunn points to Tom Zé’s personal and artistic histories as providing key insights into a wide range of issues central to Brazilian culture and politics during the last half century, including rural to urban migration, authoritarian rule and state-sponsored violence, and inequality under neo-liberal influence. Although Tom Zé and his music have been featured in three documentaries, Dunn’s biography will be the first book-length monograph on this monumental Brazilian figure.

While this book’s focus on a single artist might appear to be narrower in scope than his prior works Brutality Garden (UNC Press, 2001), the first monograph published outside of Brazil about Tropicália music, and its sequel, Contracultura: Alternative Arts and Social Transformation in Authoritarian Brazil (UNC Press, 2016), Dunn describes his latest project as telling “a larger story with a longer narrative arc about modernity, migration, citizenship, and culture in Brazil.” He has signed a contract with the University of North Carolina Press and the tentative publication date for Stray Dog in the Milky Way: Tom Zé and Brazilian Popular Music is Fall 2022.