Taking a bite of Os Mutantes

(Front left to right: Sergio, Rita, Arnaldo.)

"To have known rock as something relatively contemptible during the decisive years of our intellectual growth and, on the other hand, to have had bossa nova as the soundtrack of our rebellion signifies for Brazilians of my generation the right to imagine an ambitious intervention in the future of the world, a right that immediately begins to be lived as a duty." -- Caetano Veloso (born 1942), Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.[1]

Of course I can understand why you would think that the Brazilian rock band Os Mutantes ("The Mutants")[2] should be political, that is to say, politically radical. (We want everything to be politically radical, don't we?) The band's core consisted of three "politically alienated teenagers"[3] -- Arnaldo Baptista (born in 1948), his younger brother, Sergio (1951), and Arnaldo's childhood sweetheart, Rita Lee Jones (1947) -- all of whom came from Pompeia, a relatively well-off neighborhood in Sao Paolo, the richest and least typical of Brazilian regions, and they formed their band just two years after the ouster of the country's Leftist President, Joao Goulart, and his replacement by Brazil's military forces, which first installed Humberto de Alencar Castello Branco (1 April 1964 to 1967), Artur da Costa e Silva (1967-1969), and then Emilio Garrastazu Medici (1969-1974) as president.

Furthermore, Os Mutantes actively participated in Tropicalia (sometimes called Tropicalismo), which was both a form of total art[4] -- using elements drawn from gallery installations, the cinema, theatre, poetry and music in an "anthrophagic" manner[5] -- and a "syncretic" style of music that (anthrophagically) drew upon and mixed together elements from bossa nova, Bahian folk, Portuguese fado, Afro-Cuban dance music and Anglo-American rock 'n' roll. The first musical manifestation of Tropicalia was the 1968 album entitled Tropicalia, ou Panis et Circenses, which included recordings by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Nara Leao, Gal Costa and Os Mutantes. That same year, Os Mutantes -- "fleshed out" by their older brother, Claudio Cesar, who played drums and created electronic sound-effects using homemade devices -- released their self-titled debut album, which included "mutated" versions of three songs from Tropicalia, ou Panis et Circenses ("Batmakumba," "Bread and Circuses," and "Baby").

Before I go on, I know you'll want me to make precise what I mean by "mutated." With the exception of "Baby," which was simply transformed into a pop song by the use of (slightly) distorted electric guitars and "bluesy" organ parts, I mean that these songs were hijacked and corrupted: in a word, detourned. The best example is "Batmakumba" (macumba is the Brazilian equivalent of Haitian "voodoo"). In its original version,[6] "Batmakumba" is, shall we say, a sketch or a description of a magic spell. But in the Os Mutantes' version, which is dominated -- pushed off-center, nearly ruined -- by an incredibly distorted guitar playing percussive, spluttering notes, the listener feels that the demon is actually coming to life, rising and dancing.

The military reacted quickly and decisively, not just to Tropicalia, but to everything potentially subversive or "pro-Communist": in December 1968, it imposed "Institutional Act #5," which abolished habeas corpus, closed Congress, and sharply curtailed freedom of speech. The following year, the "leaders" of the Tropicalia movement -- Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso -- were arrested and imprisoned, and then ordered out of the country. Like these two men, the members of Os Mutantes were highly controversial, and not just among the military. According to Rita Lee, their performances were greeted by "a mix of surprise, indignation, excitement . . . and tomatoes!" Not only did the members of the group dress "like [space] aliens, Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and Dulcinea, [a] pregnant bride, toreros, indians, [and] beggars," but each performance also included "an intentional 'offense against authority.'" The music itself was considered threatening because "at the time it was a kind of sacrilege performing MPB [Brazilian Popular Music] using any electronic instruments."[7] The use of electric guitars, in particular, opened the groups' members up to denunciations from Leftist nationalists that they were pro-American. In the words of the poet Augusto de Campos, writing in 1968: "Most people have not understood that rock has undergone a transformation in its Brazilian translation and is not, at its best, simply an imitation of imported rock."[8]

And yet Os Mutantes were not suppressed. In 1969, they were allowed to release their second album, entitled Mutantes and recorded in late 1968. Indeed, they continued to release an album every year until 1972/1973, when Rita Lee left to pursue her solo career (begun in 1970) and then Arnaldo Baptista dropped out due to psychological problems brought upon by excessive use of LSD.[9] Unfortunately, these problems began to surface as early as 1971, and -- to the precise extent that Arnaldo began to hog the spotlight -- the last two Os Mutantes records (Jardim Eletrico, 1971, and Mutantes e Seus Cometas no Pais do Baurets, 1972), as well as Rita Lee's second solo album (Hoje e o primero dia do resto da sua vida, 1972), are much less enjoyable than the group's first three.

Why weren't Os Mutantes suppressed? Unlike the other members of the Tropicalia movement, who were "folk" musicians, they were rock 'n' rollers. Their second album (a bit weak, to tell the truth) only contained one song ("Dios mil e um") that was in or like the Tropicalia style; their great third album, A Divina Comedia ou Ando Meio Desligado, contained none at all. Os Mutantes' strongest similarities ("influences") were still vocal groups like Peter Paul and Mary, and the Mamas and the Poppas; guitar-driven psychedelic bands like Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience; "orchestral" pop bands like the Beatles and the Beach Boys; and French and Italian non-rock pop singers from the early 1960s.

Furthermore, unlike Gilberto Gil, the members of Os Mutantes were not Bahian or dark-skinned; unlike Gil and Caetano Veloso, they did not participate in political marches and demonstrations, nor they did write overtly political songs.[10] Interviewed in 1997, Sergio Dias said, "I believe our image of being clean and young helped us to get away with it." At least in the early days, Os Mutantes' innocent look wasn't simply an image. In the words of Veloso, "they looked like three angels"; they possessed "nuance and delicacy"; they mixed together "anarchy and decorum" and "freedom and puritanism." All this was lost when Arnaldo began to upstage Rita.

Finally, Os Mutantes were not suppressed because they knew how to sell out. In 1968, they made a series of "wacky" TV commercials for Shell Oil: not only did they compose a "jingle" and allow snatches of their songs to be used, but they also dressed up (as legionnaires, the crew from Don Quixote, the pregnant bride, her boyfriend and her outraged father, cowboys and Indians, and American surfers) and "acted" in them. Furthermore, the slogan of this series of ads -- Algo Mais Em Sua Vida (Something more for your life) -- echoes or inspired their love song "Algo Mais," which appears on Mutantes. But easily the worst aspect of these perhaps very profitable, certainly highly calculated and (now) very embarrassing decisions is the self-justification that the bossa nova composer Nelson Motta provided for the second album's liner notes: "He who lives in a consumer society has two alternatives: either participate or be devoured by it. There is no escape from these options. The jingle by Os Mutantes, which I simply refer to as 'music,' is better, infinitely better, than the majority of the songs that are in the public squares and bus stops."[11] I do not find this "argument" at all convincing. Would it not be, uh, rather interesting to see the "consumer society" try to "devour" anthrophagic mutants? I'm sure you know the difference: musicians sell their music because it has use-value to their listeners; while sell-outs sell their image (the music being secondary) because this image has exchange-value for corporations. And I know the irony isn't lost on you: none of the musicians who have championed Os Mutantes' music over the years -- Kurt Cobain, Beck, David Byrne, Arto Lindsay and the members of Stereolab, among others -- are sell-outs.

But "radical politics" isn't everything. None of the musicians who have refused to "sell out" have made music as exciting and fun as Os Mutantes'. In their very best songs -- "A Minha Menina," "Bat Macumba," and "Trem Fantasma" from their first album; "Dois mil e um" from their second album; and "Ando Meio Desligado," "Quem Tem Medo de Brincar de Amor" and "Jogo da Calcada" from their third -- Os Mutantes are melodic and up-tempo, exuberant and charming. You love where they are but you can also see where they are going. The future is bright. More than anything else, Os Mutantes are seductive. Just look at the slight, knowing smile that plays on Rita Lee's lips as she sings "Quem tem Medo de Brincar de Amor" in front of a group of strangely quiet, "thoughtful" and slightly embarrassed college students in 1969[12]: is that not a vision of Eve's smile when she first offered Adam a bite of the apple?

-- Bill Not Bored
20 August 2007

[1] Written in Portuguese and published in 1997, this book was translated into English by Isabel de Sena and published by Knopf in 2002.

[2] The name was taken from the Portuguese translation (O Imperio dos Mutantes) of Stefan Wul's science-fiction novel La Mort Vivant, originally published in French in 1958.

[3] Interview conducted in 1997 (by Carlos Colado?) with Rita Lee and posted by Luaka Bop Records, which released the Everything is Possible! compilation in 1999.

[4] It appears that the word "Tropicalia" was first used in April 1967 as the title for an art installation by Helio Oiticia (1937-1980).

[5] See Oswald de Andrade's Manifesto Antropofago ("Cannibal Manifesto"), from 1928.

[6] Click here to listen to it.

[7] Interview conducted in 1997 (by Carlos Colado?) with Rita Lee and posted by Luaka Bop Records.

[8] Quoted in Caetano Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.

[9] Sergio Dias continued to record under the name "Os Mutantes" until 1978. Minus Rita Lee, who refused to participate, the group reformed in 2006 and has toured England and the United States.

[10] See the English translations of their lyrics: they mostly wrote songs about love and (lost) innocence. While it is true that they occasionally recorded overtly political songs by other artists -- notably "Chao de Estrelas" (by Silvio Caldas and Orestes Barbosa) -- they did so in a burlesque fashion, as if to draw mustaches on them.

[11] This translation comes from the Omplatten CD reissue.

[12] Do a search on You Tube for the song's title. There are two versions: one with OK video and bad sound, the other with bad video and OK sound. Play them both!

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