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Photo courtesy of Luaka Bop.

Mutant music

Sure, tropicália is way more than one rock band, and Os Mutantes’ legacy is far deeper than their musical output during this brief cultural and artistic movement. However, the Brazilian band perfectly encapsulated the movement’s reckless cultural cannibalism, absurdist humor, and innovative music. 

published online
Originally published in Issue 31
By Allen Thayer

    Brazil is kind of like your younger sister. She may be more skilled or talented than you, but no matter how much success she achieves among her friends, the opinion she really cares about is yours. She acts like she doesn’t care what you think, but that family stamp of approval means a lot. And when she finally gets it, she flaunts it, doing the same trick over and over, trying to get that reaffirming response again and again.

    Brazil can claim to be one of the few countries other than the U.S. to consume more of its domestic musical output than imports from abroad. Nonetheless, the need for international (read: American and European) acceptance can never be ignored. Every major Brazilian musician or group has faced this dilemma: do they or don’t they make a play for international recognition? Do they feign apathy and keep their domestic cred like bossa nova legend João Gilberto, or do they leverage their cheap, befruited-headdress shtick in the time-honored tradition of Carmen Miranda and Sergio Mendes?

    Os Mutantes rather obliviously did neither. At the vanguard of Brazilians that openly embraced the emerging international pop culture, the members of Os Mutantes shamelessly incorporated current international trends into their psychedelic Brazilian style. Even as they might have seemed to be pandering to non-Brazilians with their fuzzed-out guitars and pop harmonies, their unique mix of classical and cutting-edge sounds from America, Europe, and their home country put them in the ideal position to influence and exploit the emerging pop-culture internationalism, known in late-’60s Brazil as tropicália.

    Sure, tropicália is way more than one rock band, and Os Mutantes’ legacy is far deeper than their musical output during this brief cultural and artistic movement. However, the band perfectly encapsulated the movement’s reckless cultural cannibalism, absurdist humor, and innovative music. Best to just close your eyes and imagine you are watching the televised competition of the International Festival of Song in Rio de Janeiro in 1968:

    Arnaldo Baptista is dressed as a medieval bard with an ostrich feather in his bulbous felt hat. He is armed with a bass guitar invented by his older brother, a mad scientist of amplified stringed instruments. Arnaldo’s younger brother, Sérgio Dias, is stage-right at Brazil’s most famous soccer stadium, Maracana, wearing what appears to be a bullfighter’s costume with a ruffled shirt and a clashing sash tied around his neck. He’s taller than Arnaldo, but he still looks like the kid brother tagging along on his older brother’s musical date. Rita Lee stands in between the brothers Baptista dressed in a white wedding gown, replete with a veil, and in her hand a tambourine. On a stool, she has a tape player with a recording of their good friend Caetano Veloso berating the audience from his disqualifying performance at the festival the week before. She’s prepared to play this tape into the microphone if her band receives the same unappreciative welcome from the hard-line music fans disapproving of Os Mutantes’ absurd costumes and electric guitars. They are singing pitch-perfect three-part harmonies backed by fuzz guitar, thudding bass, and orchestral accompaniment that will take home the best arrangement prize. The song is called “Caminhante Noturno,” and they will end up taking home the fourth-place prize for best composition, but, more importantly, their performance will be witnessed by thousands of Brazilian citizens on this nationally televised performance. 

    Mutantes is a magical band. It is one of those bands that was meant to be. Sérgio Dias
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    Of course, this explosion of creativity and rebelliousness wasn’t happening in a vacuum; similar revolutions were raging across the globe in the late 1960s, most notably in the U.S., France, and the U.K. During these few years, it was as if youth from around the world had the same unified mission to disrupt the conservative political and cultural hegemony with loud music, no small amount of drugs, and, of course, the free love.

    “The tropicália thing was our piece of the action in the world vortex that was happening…that huge revolution in the world,” recalls Sérgio Dias. “Tropicalism was like a kaleidoscope of all of those influences. We didn’t have so much information like today. So we got bits and pieces. Like from the flower power, we just got the flower, we didn’t get the cannon. We were lucky. It was fun.”

    The right people in the right place at the right time. Their location in São Paulo, the most modern of Brazil’s cities, their middle-class background, their cosmopolitan tastes, and their voracious consumption of pop culture all combined to make Os Mutantes the house band for this celebrated cultural and artistic movement. 

    It all developed organically: meeting the right people (Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, and Rogério Duprat), avoiding imprisonment by the military dictatorship (Sérgio: “I believe our image of being clean and young helped us to get away with it”), and never trying to do anything but play music without any notions of celebrity or monetary gain. Rita remembered, “The futuristic sounds we were making happened in a completely natural and spontaneous way; never was anything planned. There was a search for a ‘non-popular’ sound; we never had the intention of making music to be consumed at that time.”(1)

    Not until the late 1990s, decades after their last album as a group, did the band start receiving the accolades they never seemed to care about, thanks to shout-outs from Kurt Cobain, Beck, Sean Lennon, Devendra Banhart, and David Byrne, among others. By now, the Northern Hemisphere critics and niche-music obsessives have thoroughly dredged the depths of the group’s catalog, and now they’re in the classic-rock canon.

    Now, Sérgio, guitar player for the recently re-formed band (including brother Arnaldo and the original drummer, Ronaldo “Dinho” Leme, but without vocalist Rita Lee) can say with confidence that “Mutantes is a magical band. It is one of those bands that was meant to be. Like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix—they had to be. We are proud to be one of those.”

    Before they were a magical band, Os Mutantes were three innocent and oblivious kids with eclectic tastes in search of a new sound. The band’s influences and the story of their early years are relatively unknown in Brazil, let alone in the rest of the world.

    It all starts with two brothers and a girlfriend: Arnaldo Baptista, Sérgio Dias Baptista, and Rita Lee. A third brother Baptista, Cláudio César, played drums during their early years and invented some of the more nontraditional instruments in the band’s arsenal. Beginning on the band’s third album, A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado, there were Dinho and Arnolpho Lima Filho aka “Liminha” on drums and bass, respectively. And then, of course, there’s their George Martin—arranger and producer Rogério Duprat. Tropicalistas Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Tom Zé also make cameos in the band’s story.

    São Paulo was a hotbed of amateur musical activity in the early 1960s. Ironically, the Catholic Church had a big hand in laying the groundwork for Os Mutantes and other São Paulo rockers. Most kids in West São Paulo attended Catholic schools where music education was mandatory, and these schools would frequently host competitive talent shows. Some kids would play piano or accordion, while others decided to form bands and cover the latest pop hits, like a young Rita Lee and three of her pals from school. Here, in the big city, kids had easy access to radio stations and imported records.

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    We were damn lucky that they didn’t arrest us or torture us or do anything like that, because we probably would have lost faith. Sérgio Dias
    Photo courtesy of Sérgio Dias
    Photo courtesy of Sérgio Dias

    Like most of the great rock bands of the 1960s, the Mutantes were all self-taught on their instruments. As part of the first generation of Brazilian rockers, most bands were populated by kids still in high school, and in the case of Sérgio, in middle school. The surf-rock stylings of the Ventures were a huge influence on many of the aspiring bands of West São Paulo. But if they weren’t practicing the latest Ventures or Shadows riffs, the average teenage Paulista was likely strumming a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and singing in hushed tones like their new idol, João Gilberto. These diverse genres intermixed with ease and resulted in fusions similar to the pop-folk of Peter, Paul & Mary, the other gringo import influencing many band formations. Then, in 1964, everything changed. You were either a Beatlemaniac, or you were nobody.

    The future Mutantes were independently making the talent-show rounds when, according to the age-old mating ritual of musical teenagers, the bass-playing Arnaldo offered to give lessons to Rita Lee. Rita had dabbled on the drums, but, in an attempt to better understand her idol, Paul McCartney, she decided to switch to his instrument. The bass-lesson connection soon led to Rita’s vocal group, the Teenage Singers, being backed by Arnaldo’s band, the Wooden Faces. It didn’t take much time before Arnaldo and Rita were dating and their respective bands dissolved, resulting in a new band. O’Seis (the Six) would add the youngest Baptista brother, the thirteen-year-old guitar prodigy, Sérgio.

    “I dropped out from school when I was thirteen.” Sérgio says. “I told my mom that I was a professional—can you imagine? I dared to say that! She was one of the first women in the world to write a concerto for piano and orchestra, and she was an outrageous interpreter and composer. She never forced us to do anything, so when I told her that I didn’t want to go to school, that I was a professional, she said, ‘Oh really? Okay, fine, so if you’re a professional, then you earn your money, as a professional.’ So I started to do classes, and in six months, I was earning almost the same amount of money that she used to give me. Then she bought me my first electric guitar.”

    In 1966, Brazilian rock bands did little more than cover American and English hits, occasionally translating them into Portuguese. O’Seis made an early departure from this mode by experimenting with fusions of poetry, classical, and rock music, bringing them into the avant-garde scene populated by proto-tropicalista Jorge Mautner and their future arranger, Rogério Duprat. O’Seis found some success, appearing frequently as musical guests on numerous youth TV shows. As the featured band on various shows, they backed current and future stars like Roberto Carlos and Tim Maia.

    Against the whims of the brothers Baptista, who would have preferred to cover Beatles tunes, O’Seis band members Raphael Villardi and Rita Lee urged the band to record a pair of original songs for their first single. Both “Suicida” and “Apocalipse” were written by Raphael, with lyrics by Rita and another band acquaintance. The band’s quest for an original sound might have taken them a bit too far into macabre themes and unmarketable rock rhythms; the single tanked and, to this day, is extremely hard to find on vinyl.

    Following some less-than-professional performances, the brothers Baptista and Rita decided that they would have a better chance at success as a trio. It was Brazil’s “Little Prince,” Ronnie Von, who gave this newly formed trio their name and their first moments of fame. In 1966, Von was a rising star in the teenybopper set with his chiseled features and a knack for a Beatles cover. A television station asked Von to host his own show to steal viewers from “king of iê-iê-iê ” Roberto Carlos’s show, Jovem Guarda (Young Guard).

    Desperate for new talent to rival Carlos’s monopoly on the nascent Brazilian rock scene, Von met with Arnaldo, Rita, and Sérgio. They quickly discovered that they were all avid Beatles fans and the brothers and Von shared passions for sci-fi novels and fancy cars. O’Seis was no longer a relevant band name for the remaining trio, so it was Von’s suggestion of “Os Mutantes” that fit the band’s nontraditional sound and appearance. The name came from a popular sci-fi book, both Von and Arnaldo’s favorite, O Império dos Mutantes (The Empire of the Mutants), a Portuguese translation of La Mort Vivante by French author Stefan Wul.

    Using a popular children’s book, Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, as inspiration, Von’s show, O Pequeno Mundo de Ronnie Von (The Little World of Ronnie Von), appealed to teens as well as little children and their babysitters, who often filled the studio audience. Over the course of the next few weeks, the band was prominently featured, performing songs by the Rolling Stones; Peter, Paul & Mary; fugues by Bach; Mozart’s “Marcha Turca” played by two guitars and bass; and a version of “Eleanor Rigby” with a vocal arrangement courtesy of Sérgio and Arnaldo’s mother.

    Os Mutantes were a hit, as was Von’s show. Fairy tales, castles, and baroque pop music were a perfect fit for the newly baptized trio, at least until a new producer took over after only a few weeks. Rita remarked in the band’s first major interview from 1966, “The program, unfortunately, began to become just like all the others. Ronnie won’t do anything except what the directors want. He tried to create a program with renaissance music, bossa nova, everything else, but it didn’t work.”(2)

    By year’s end, the Mutants were no longer affiliated with Ronnie Von’s show, but their performances earned them invitations to perform on other variety shows and gained the attention of other producers, musicians, and directors with more creative aspirations.

    It was during the filming of a musical cameo for the art-house film As Amorosas, directed by Walter Hugo Khouri, that the band met their musical fairy godfather, Rogério Duprat, Khouri’s cousin. Coincidental meetings like these proved crucial to the band’s finding opportunities to let their wildly creative impulses run wild. “The scene was very small at that time,” says Sérgio. “There were no big tours; there were no huge sales of records or anything like that. No market, no nothing. There was television—a few TV programs—and gigs and festivals and all that. But, on the other hand, there were a bunch of people who were closer and were more intimate because of this.”

    Os Mutantes were beginning to find kindred spirits in the music business who recognized the bizarre blend of influences and musical styles of the trio. A TV producer introduced them to Gilberto Gil, a young composer from Bahia who wanted to explore a more experimental sound. Gil was struggling to find the right sound for a new song, “Domingo No Parque” and was looking for inspiration from the Beatles’ newest record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While they found common ground in a shared love of the Beatles, Gil’s use of traditional Brazilian musical forms and the song’s Portuguese lyrics nudged the band out of their comfort zone, but ultimately into the national spotlight.

    Nobody understands us, and that’s wonderful. Arnaldo Baptista
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    Gil knew full well that his modern arrangement for “Domingo No Parque” would ruffle some feathers among the antiestablishment youth that favored traditional Brazilian styles over imported styles and instruments. On the eve of their 1967 debut performance at the Festival da TV Record, Gil decided to give fair warning to his backing band, “advising them that they might experience some difficult moments. He was fairly certain that there would be boos when they took to the stage with a bass and electric guitar, absolute insults to the purists and nationalists. Above all, Gil and the Mutants would be the first to commit this affront in a festival of Brazilian popular music.”(3)

    As if their electric instruments weren’t enough, Os Mutantes debuted their eclectic tastes in fashion during the same performance, dressed in plastic tunics, capes, and silly moustaches. Facing the anticipated boos, Gil and Os Mutantes played on, smiling throughout. Gil’s song took second place, and Os Mutantes went down in Brazilian history as the first to play electric instruments during a prestigious national song competition, much like when Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.

    With regular rehearsals in advance of the festival, the trio became a fixture at the apartments of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, where other key tropicalistas liked to hang. It was at these informal jam sessions that they started to write their own songs in Portuguese, using poetic devices like onomatopoeia and alliteration to embellish their youthful lyrics. Rita and Arnaldo were both at least five years junior to the Bahians, and Sérgio even younger, but Gil and Caetano recognized in them an understanding of international trends that transcended the simple mimicry of the Jovem Guarda stars. While the Bahians were striving for an original and modern sound like what they heard coming from the U.S. and the U.K., Os Mutantes actually “looked like British kids of the Beatles’ generation…. Os Mutantes gave the impression that they lived inside that world.”(4)

    Sérgio asserts that Os Mutantes “were a huge influence on Caetano and Gil, because they were Brazilian writers, and we had that vast [pop culture] information between Rita, Arnaldo, and me.” It’s this very fusion of the Bahians’ concepts mixed with Os Mutantes’ reckless musical innovation that made tropicália a dynamic yet unified movement and not just a historical footnote. 

    A brief look at how the different players talked about the movement supports these divergent yet complementary approaches to the same message. Gil described the loose gathering of musicians, authors, and visual artists as an attempt to “confront the stagnation and seriousness that has installed itself in certain sectors of Brazilian popular music.” And Caetano wanted to create “a crueler language, more real in relation to man.” Arnaldo, on the other hand, said, “It’s more difficult to say to a reporter the word ‘tropicalismo’ than to explain, in detail, what we are doing. I have the impression that the principal characteristic in our tropicalism is the irony that we introduce into all of the closed musical styles. We embrace this irony. And we, Mutants, want to make a music, above all, that is beautiful and free.”(5)

    Clearly, Os Mutantes were far more playful, inspiring the other tropicalistas like Gil to have fun with the music even in the face of a repressive military dictatorship. “When we were kids, we faced a lot of serious repression, and we were under a severe military government—a lot of people being killed, a lot of people tortured,” says Sérgio. “It was heavy, very heavy. And nasty. But when you are a kid, you have this thing, this war inside, this delight of going against whoever says that you can’t. And we were damn lucky that they didn’t arrest us or torture us or do anything like that, because we probably would have lost faith.”

    Tropicália emerged from this confluence of the old-line political extremism and cultural conservatism and the new avant-garde influence of visual artists, arrangers, and poets—with the leadership of acceptable counterculture icons in the form of Caetano and Gil. But to forget the humor and freedom of Os Mutantes is to miss the whole point. The rest of Os Mutantes’ story is well documented by their recordings and band members’ occasional appearances in the gossip tabloids: five albums with the original members, Rita Lee’s solo success, Sérgio’s progressive experiments, and Arnaldo’s psychiatric internment and apparent suicide attempt.

    Arnaldo once commented, “Nobody understands us, and that’s wonderful.” The band’s triumphant return to the stage as part of the 2006 “Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture” show in London was released last year as a two-disc set on Luaka Bop. But just as their audience was beginning to catch up to them, Os Mutantes have morphed once again into a new band without Arnaldo, who dropped out to write his memoirs and pursue his solo recordings. Rita Lee’s pinch hitter, Zelia Duncan (a well-known solo artist in her own right), is also returning to her career. Just as before, Sergio is carrying on the band’s legacy with a recently released song, “Mutantes Depois” (Mutants Later), and their first studio album in thirty-four years is scheduled for release later this year. Maybe we’ll never get the band, but we can at least try to understand where they came from. Now on their second go-round, Os Mutantes are more relevant than ever, with sold-out shows in the U.S. and Europe. The last mutant, Sérgio, reflected after a sold-out show in New York City’s Lincoln Center, “The kids are on to us, and this is beautiful, because I believe an artist is basically the reflection of their audience. It is amazing that, somehow, forty years later, we are a mirror for this generation. It is a beautiful thing.”

    Visit waxpoetics.com for a Record Rundown with Os Mutantes’ Sérgio Dias: fifteen influential records that shaped the band’s sound.

    Notes
    1. Bizz (Brazilian magazine), November 2000, Emerson Gasperin (with reporting by Ricardo Alexandre, Fernando Rosa, Alexandre Matias, and Sergio Barbo).
    2. A Divina Comédia dos Mutantes, Editora 34, 1995, Carlos Calado.
    3. Ibid.
    4. Ibid.
    5. Ibid.