The planet of the mutants

Pub date July 18, 2006
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

It’s been nearly 40 years since Sérgio Dias Baptista of Os Mutantes saw Ten Years After at the Fillmore, but he still has, well, vivid memories of his first visit to San Francisco as a naive 17-year-old. He remembers sitting on a bench at a park in Haight-Ashbury and seeing a man on a faraway hilltop slowly walking toward him, until the man finally arrived — to offer Dias what he claims was his first joint. “I think it was also the first time someone showed me a peace sign, and I didn’t understand what was that,” the ebullient guitarist says. “I thought it stood for ‘Victory.’”
Dias hopes to bring some “nice ‘inner weather’” to a much different United States this week, when the antic victorious peacefulness of Os Mutantes takes over the same venue where he once saw Nottingham’s finest. “It’s going to be, like, ‘Whoa!’” he predicts. “Flashbacks all over the place!”
Imagine if the Monkees or Sonny and Cher were true subversives rather than sedatives and you have a glimmer of Os Mutantes’ initial censor-baiting carnival-esque presence on Brazilian TV shows such as The Small World of Ronnie Von. If fellow tropicalistas Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were the Bahians with bossa nova roots, then Dias, his brother Arnaldo, and Arnaldo’s girlfriend Rita Lee Jones — a vocalist known for her spontaneous raids of network costume wardrobes — were the Tropicália movement’s outrageous São Paulo–based rock ’n’ roll wing. With a pianist-composer for a mother and a tenor singer–poet for a father, the Dias brothers lived and breathed music. “Working 10 or 12 hours a day on songs became a normal thing for us,” says Dias, who wears a cape on the front of the group’s first album and an alien skullcap on the back of their second. “The level of expectation was high, but without any demands. That was very good for our technical development.”
This amazing development, overseen by Karlheinz Stockhausen–influenced producer Rogério Duprat — the George Martin or Phil Spector or Jack Nitzsche or Pierre Henry of Tropicalismo — can be heard on the group’s triple crown of classics, 1968’s Os Mutantes, 1969’s Mutantes, and 1970’s A Divina Comédia, ou Ando Meio Desligado. “There was no psychedelia — Brazil received information in kaleidoscope,” Dias asserts, using a favorite interview metaphor. Whether generated by drugs or by cultural conduits, the kaleidoscopic sound of Os Mutantes’ first three records ranges from Ventures-like guitar riffing (“I have to thank [Ventures guitarist] Nokie Edwards for hours of pleasure,” says Dias) to hallucinatory and surreal choral passages (such as Os Mutantes’ time stopper “O Relógio”) and Janis Joplin–like freak-outs about domestic appliances (the third album’s “Meu Refrigerador Não Funciona,” or “My Refrigerator Doesn’t Work”).
A reaction to international pop culture inspired by modernist poet Oswald de Andrade’s “Cannibalist Manifesto,” the sound of Os Mutantes and their fellow Tropicalistas wasn’t music to the ears of Brazil’s military dictatorship or to those of younger music fans who adhered to post–bossa nova nationalist tradition or derivative Jovem Guarda rock. In October 1967, at TV Records’ Second Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, both Veloso (performing “Alegria, Alegria,” which name-drops Coca-Cola) and Gil (performing “Domingo No Parque” with Os Mutantes) received the type of reaction Bob Dylan had recently gotten for going electric. “It felt good. You pull out your fists and think, ‘OK, they’re against us, so let’s show them the way,’” Dias says when asked about the era’s battles against forces of repression. “When you’re young, you think you’re indestructible or immortal.”
Tropicalismo’s figureheads soon learned otherwise. The following year brought the landmark compilation Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis, recorded the same month as the massive protests in Paris, its title fusing Veloso’s anthem “Tropicália” (which mentions the Brigitte Bardot film Viva Maria) and Os Mutantes’ “Panis et Circensis.” Turning a catchphrase from the May revolts into a song (“É Proibido Proibir”), Veloso soon faced an onslaught of eggs and tomatoes as well as boos during performances. In December 1968, Brazilian president Artur da Costa e Silva imprisoned Veloso and Gil, who were later exiled to England. One could say Os Mutantes got off lucky in comparison, as they were still able to flout the Federal Censorship Department through the gothic-vault morbidity of A Divina Comédia’s cover art and through mocking sound effects on TV. “It was a dark period, but we fought with a smile,” says Dias, who doesn’t miss a chance to compare Brazil’s Fifth Institutional Act with the United States’ Patriot Act. “We were jokers, but we were serious jokers.”
Today, eight years after Beck’s best album, Mutations (featuring the single “Tropicalia”), Os Mutantes and their contemporaries are surfing another deserved cosmic wave of younger-generation wonderment, and it’s more apparent than ever that the movement’s major musical artists covered each other’s tracks in a way that emphasized — rather than hid — their unity and intent. The recent Soul Jazz comp Tropicália: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound begins with Gil’s “Bat Macumba” and closes with the Os Mutantes version. Through moments like Gal Costa’s gorgeous “Baby” (another Veloso composition also covered by Os Mutantes), the lesser-known but perhaps superior collection Tropicália Gold, on Universal, highlights the music’s oft-overlooked links to bossa nova and the ties between Tropicalismo îe-îe-îe and Françoise Hardy’s languid yé-yé. Veloso’s autobiography, Tropical Truth, gives shout-outs to Jean-Luc Godard, but Serge Gainsbourg had to have been just as much an influence on Veloso’s lyrics and the whiz-bang! noises on Os Mutantes recordings such as A Divina Comédia’s “Chão de Estrelas.”
Since he laments that Al Jazeera isn’t readily available in Brazil, Sérgio Dias might be the first to note that Brazilian TV and popular music ain’t always what they used to be, regardless of the fact that Gil is now the country’s Minister of Culture. For example, the ’90s brought the bizarre blond ambition of Playboy playmate–turned–pop star and kids TV host Xuxa — not exactly the girl Os Mutantes had in mind when they “shoo shoo”-ed through Jorge Ben’s “A Minha Menina.” But the Dias brothers still have many reasons to celebrate. Earlier this year, a Tropicália exhibition at the Barbican in London brought the movement’s visual artists, including the late Hélio Oiticica (who coined the term Tropicália), together with their current technicolor children such as Assume Vivid Astro Focus. It also led to a live performance by Os Mutantes with new vocalist Zélia Duncan — the first time the Dias brothers appeared onstage together in over three decades. Devendra Banhart, who had written to the group asking to be their roadie, was the opening act.
“I felt like the guys going into the arena,” says Dias. “It was such a burst of energy — it was outrageous. After the show, the audience stood yelling ‘Mutantes!’ for 10 minutes. It’s such a humbling situation, to think about people wanting this 30 years later. It makes me want to bow to the universe.” SFBG
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