Does the name José Pedro Amaro dos Santos Reis ring a bell with anyone reading this? He was born on September 14, 1956, at the Estrela Military Hospital in Lisbon and died November 30, 2017, in his house from liver failure, a disease he endured since 2001 from hepatitis C.
Recently TAP Air Portugal named their brand-new Airbus 321 after him. They named it Zé Pedro, as he was the guitarist for “Xutos e Pontapés” (a term for kicks and shots in soccer). He was perhaps one of the greatest rock guitarists of his generation, but the world never knew it. He was Portuguese so it is easy to overlook.
If you note a hint of anger in my writing, you are perceptive. I just finished watching “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the Freddy Mercury biopic and was captivated by both the movie and the man which has been nominated for five Oscars.
Shortly afterward I thought of Zé Pedro who passed away without a movie ever being contemplated about his life or that of his band Xutos e Pontapés. On the day of his death and in the following days afterward only Portuguese television carried news of his passing and the impact he had on millions of people. I have only been saddened by a celebrity’s death three times: Joe Strummer (The Clash), David Bowie and Zé Pedro but I only ever met one of them.
In 1978 Zé Pedro was already somewhat known but he was looking to form a band to start playing a new brand of music making waves in the United Kingdom and the US: punk rock. He placed an advert in a newspaper that read “drummer and bassist needed for a punk group” and the rest, as they say, is history.
They went on to transform Portuguese music which until then was all about Fado, big band performers and Portuguese crooners in powder blue suits singing ballads. António Variações cut the path in the 70s for a different sound but Portugal didn’t have a true rock band to call its own. From the minds, hearts and instruments of Zé, Tim, Kalu, Gui, and João Cabeleira was born a sound never heard before in Portugal.
Their first two albums were innovative and while they enjoyed some airplay they hadn’t really “arrived”. The “Cerco” album was critically acclaimed but there was no breakthrough single that could punch through the “Top 40” and go multinational. That all changed with “Circo de Feras” in 1987.
I first heard it when my cousin Alfred came back from the praça (weekly outdoor market) one Thursday morning with a cassette with five guys standing in front of what looked like a cement factory. It looked cheesy to me since they were all in shiny black leather pants and jackets holding their instruments.
I thought “oh here we go some more pimba pimba music”. “Pimba pimba” music was (and continues to be) a popular form of song that sounds like the same three notes played over and over again with someone singing about a lover. It falls into two categories: he/she left me, or he/she is the love of my life. The more unique ones combine both sentiments, but it is always a cookie-cutter genre.
So, my cousin pops it into the Panasonic radio we had in Portugal and the very first song was “Contentores”. The moment the industrial sounds ended, and that bass kicked in with Zé’s guitar riffs I was in ecstasy. Not only was the music excellent but the lyrics were all about people leaving for another country.
For the first time in my life here were Portuguese people singing about something that resonated with me and my family and it sounded amazing. I think we listened to that cassette so many times that the cassette got damaged. I wanted more so I pestered my parents to buy not only “Circo de Feras” but “Cerco” and when I heard “Homem do Leme” it changed my life forever.
Our obsession with Xutos lead us to discover GNR, Delfins, Radio Macau and countless other new artists but Xutos was always special in our hearts. The next year “88” came out and it quickly became my favorite. “Prisao Em Si” became an anthem for me as it spoke to the internal struggle in us all as we imprison ourselves within self-imposed boundaries.
So many songs on that album were anthems for a nation like “À Minha Maneira”, “”As Torres da Cinciberlândia” and “Minha Casinha” which became the unofficial song for the Portuguese national soccer team which went on to win the 2016 UEFA European Cup.
The Portuguese team sang it on live television after they got their trophy and the world got to hear it for the first time. Watching this unfold on TV I didn’t know if my tears were for the team winning or for hearing them sing the song. You know you arrived when Cristiano Ronaldo is singing your song.
So, this man Zé Pedro lit a fire with that ad. A fire that burned an impression in the hearts of Portuguese people everywhere and lit our way through life’s challenging moments. When he died the light inside all Portuguese people dimmed. Sure, Tim is the lead singer and default leader of the band but the heart and soul of Xutos was and will always be Zé Pedro.
I was saddened by his passing, but that emotion was replaced by anger because he was Portuguese and played in a Portuguese band so the world never got to know him and hear the beautiful music he played. The music world is dominated by the English language.
Many bands and artists all over the world struggle with the language barrier. While Mandarin Chinese is number one with 1.1 billion speakers, English is close behind with 983 million, but it represents the vast majority of the consumer market. The United States is the world’s leading consumer market and while we are a “melting pot” the process of ethnic amalgamation has rendered a single language. If lyrics to the music aren’t in English, it won’t get airplay.
So early in their careers, international artists and groups decide on what language they will sing. Prime examples from my generation are artists like A-Ha, The Sugarcubes (and later Bjork), Falco and ABBA and current stars like Shakira, Sigur Ros, and Celine Dion. It is unlikely they would be so popular had they stuck to their native tongue.
Nena Kerner is one of the most popular German artists to ever grace a stage with eighteen albums to her name but was it not for a song about 99 red balloons she would remain anonymous outside of Germany. In 1983 she recorded her breakthrough single in English and considered to be a “one hit wonder” since she never broke into the “Top 40” again. If you transcend the language barrier you will hear many other great Nena songs that would have been clear chart toppers if they were sung in English.
The irony in all of this is that people don’t really ever truly listen to lyrics in the first place and don’t understand their meaning. Take the song “White Wedding” by Billy Idol. It is played at almost every wedding, but Billy Idol’s song is anti-marriage since he wrote the lyrics to protest his sister’s wedding which he considered to be a mistake at the time. The lyrics aren’t cryptic at all, but all people only really listen to the “it’s a nice day for a white wedding” refrain and think “yeah it is a nice day for a wedding”.
My favorite is when couples pick the song “One” by U2 as their wedding song…according to Bono it “isn’t about love, after all; it’s about resignation”. Bono’s inspiration for the song came from the anguish that the band’s guitarist Dave Evans (The Edge) suffered in a tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife.
Xutos decided to only ever sing and play in Portuguese. While many international artists speak and read English it is nevertheless difficult to write lyrics in your non-native tongue. To truly express yourself requires a firm grasp of a language and its various nuances.
I run up against this every day because I am bi-lingual, yet I only ever express myself in English because however proficient I am with the Portuguese language I really don’t have a firm grasp of it. I never studied it in school. Portuguese was my first spoken language, but English was the first language I learned to read and write. While I can read, interpret and enjoy Portuguese literature, lyrics, and poetry that little voice inside my head is an English speaker. No, I am not hearing voices.
What I mean is that we all think in a language and for me that language is English. It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to express myself creatively in Portuguese. Artists cannot just switch languages and translations don’t lend themselves to lyrical rhyming. You must make the best choice to express your work and for many English isn’t the language but to be heard in the music world you must sing in English. If not you will likely only ever enjoy the reception in your native country.
This concept of being heard and being recognized resonated as I recalled something, Zé Pedro told me when I met him in 1994. Xutos played East Side High School (*just blocks from my house) and my cousin and I went to see them. It was glorious to finally see these legends perform right in our backyard.
They went on to play two other concerts at the Portuguese Day feast on Ferry Street in Newark and we went to see them again. The very last concert was my favorite. They played for hours that Sunday night and finished the set with “Contentores” as a fierce thunderstorm rolled in. The rain was pelting us and lightning striking all around, but we didn’t care because we weren’t leaving until they did.
Earlier that day we met the band. They had a security detail that was intent at keeping us away. I told them I wanted to meet the band, but they weren’t letting me though. I was polite and backed off but in leaving I shouted out to the band that I was a big fan.
Zé Pedro was nearest to me with his back and said: “let them come through”. He greeted us and we got him to sign some CDs. He leafed through the “Xutos Ao Vivo” CD booklet and told us about some of the people pictured in the photos. He picked out one of the gentlemen pictured in a photo (part of their stage crew who set up the instruments) and told me that the guy passed away recently.
Zé spoke highly of him and you could tell he was close to the man. He mentioned how the guy was a great guitar player and how he sometimes played backing guitar on their albums. He lamented on the fact that this friend was forever silenced as he was struck down too early in life with AIDS.
Alluding to the episode with his security detail Zé Pedro’s final words to me was “you must always strive to be heard, never let anyone try to shut you down or silence you” or “keep you away” he smiled, thanked us and we parted ways. I must say the words sent a chill down my spine, but at the time I did not know why.
An Oscar-nominated movie about Zé Pedro isn’t very likely but at least when people around the world look up to the sky they might very well see a plane with his name on it. Perhaps they will Google his name, read about him and listen to his music. This ensures he will continue to be heard.