Os Mutantes

The tropical punch has been spiked with acid rock.

You are now in Mutant territory.

Songs flutter from icy bossa nova to Beatles baroque with the twitch of a conductor’s baton. The vocals are floating eight miles over head, smooth and dark, male and female.

This is pop music at its strangest and most sensual. This is the world of Os Mutantes.

The song below is “Fuga No II,” a personal favourite, and the perfect introduction to the Mutantes magic.

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Formed in 66 by Rita Lee and the brothers Baptista, Os Mutantes were a product of the adolescent explosion that shook the world in the 60s. They had shrapnel wounds from the first blast, when the Beatles had pierced their hearts in high school. From then on, it was only ever a matter of time before they too exploded.

For the first couple of years they played it relatively straight. Sao Paolo wasn’t Swinging London after all. A coup in 64 had installed a right-wing military government, a regime that grew increasingly hostile as economic and social unrest spread across the country.

Pop music in Brazil at the time was the voice of social activism, an idealistic music based almost exclusively on  popular folk styles. A notion of “authenticity” was at the heart of MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira), and it rejected all  imported styles (especially the noise coming from up North).

Not much of a scene for a bunch of freaks like Os Mutantes. While The Beatles could deliver their latest testament straight into the arms of a burgeoning counter-culture, Brazil was buttoned down on both sides.

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As early as 1928 the poet Oswald de Andrade had written a “Cannabalist Manifesto,” urging Brazilian artists not only to engage with international culture, but to devour it, and thereby absorb it into their own culture. In 1967 a group of people followed his advice, and unleashed a wave of cannibal art, music, and poetry in what became known as the Tropicalia movement.

Started by singer/songwriters Gilberto Gil and Caetano Valeso, the musical wing of the Tropicalia movement aimed to create a som universal (universal sound). They weren’t interested in some abstract notion of authenticity; they were looking out to the world; exploring what it could offer them, and asking what they could offer it. They feasted on foreign music as well as snacking in their own back yard.

In 67 the members of Os Mutantes were introduced to Gil and Valeso by Rogerio Duprat, an experimental composer and arranger. He collaborated on almost all of the great records from the Tropicalia movement, bringing to them a very musical sensibility. (Some of his orchestration is up there with George Martin’s. You want trumpet? Boom! Choir anyone?  Shazham!  Indian flute and Harpsichord duet? Poof! All in a day’s work for Duprat. Check out the song below for a taste of what he brought to the table …………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

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Notoriety came for the band, indeed the movement as a whole, in October, 1967, when Os Mutantes appeared as Gil’s backing band at a MPB festival.

Both Gil and Valeso had started off as MPB performers, but an encounter with Sgt Peppers and communal living had sent them sideways since they last performed. Their new direction, and the electric blast the Mutantes unleashed, was altogether too much for the crowd.

To them it was a matter of  treason; a Brazilian echo of Dylan’s “Judas” moment. Electric instruments had never been used at a festival before, it was taboo.

The performance was just the beginning for a run of successes and scandals that lasted nearly two years. Not only did the Tropicalia movement open the doors musically, pissing of many a folk purist along the way, it signified the first blooming of a counter-culture in a country ruled by a military dictatorship. Therein lay the seeds of its destruction.

In 1969, both Gil and Valeso were arrested, on what charge no one knows. It came as part of a larger crackdown, which essentially spelt the end  for the Tropicalia party.  The pair was jailed for a few months and then deported to London, were they continued their careers, their spirits still freaky.

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Os Mutantes’ songs were never as overtly political as Valeso’s or Gil’s, but they still had their share of trouble from the regime. They were threatened a number of times and had to go into hiding. In the face of hostility from the  government, as well as from the pop industry, the band continued to play what they liked.

And what they liked was everything.  The Beatles were always there, lending a classiness to the proceedings, a pop polish, but they likewise reveled in reproducing  the crasser components of American rock, ever the pop tricksters; clowns at a perpetual carnival.

They may have been cosmopolitan and clever but that didn’t stop them drunkenly blasting through Baiao rhythms when they wanted to. They  even dabbled with musique concrete, starting one song with forty-five seconds of singing birds. The eldest Baptista brother, an electrical wizard, built all the Mutantes’ instruments and equipment. He created effects of overwhelming strangeness,  sounds that still strike you with their freshness.

And that’s the best thing about Os Mutantes. Despite being drenched in the sunshine and pot fumes of 60s pop, some of it sounds so modern it defies belief. Os Mutantes were well ahead of their time, prefiguring the sampleaholic tendencies of the 90s by thirty years and creating a great collage  with whatever the hell type of music they fancied.

They were never pompous, never dull. They rocked hard but still kept a wry eye on their efforts, questioning their relationship as Brazilians to these foreign sounds. This lends an edge to this music,  familiar to modern ears, but  missing from most 60s rock which even at its most libertarian and debauched, still sound remained relatively innocent.

Os Mutantes even recorded a genuine pop classic of a song – “A Minha Menina,” guest written and sung on their first album by Brazilian music god, Jorge Ben. It’s awash with fuzzed out guitar and vocal harmonies, taking The Kinks early R&B sound south of the Equator and then partying with it. On a beach. Until dawn. The song was later covered by the Bees and used to sell French cars. Ce la vie.

There was a brief Os Mutantes revival in the 90s, driven by the scarcity of their records, as well as musicians such as Beck, who no doubt responded to their very post-modern approach to music.  David Byrne loved them too, eventually releasing a best of compilation, “Everything Is Possible,” on his Luaka bop label (an essential purchase if you want to know more).

Kurt Cobain was such a fan he begged them to reform so they could open for Nirvana in Brazil. It figures. Nirvana’s music was always half Beatles, half Pistols, combining the innocent 6os sound with a very modern frustration. Os Mutantes also have moments of real darkness among the sunshine, another reason they have aged so well.

Os Mutantes created their own world, a world where they acknowledged their status as a new type of hybrid – a combination of their own culture, and an international one. They also recorded some of the coolest, weirdest, and most smile inducing music of the 60s.

You are now leaving Mutant territory.

Come again soon.

…. Kevin Baker.

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4 comments

  1. Wilzebub · · Reply

    A most informative on a genre of music I never knew existed. Keep up the good work !!

    1. Wilzebub · · Reply

      * piece

    2. Cheers Wilzubub!
      Kevin.

  2. […] like a lot of bands around the world (Os Mutantes in Brazil, and Traffic Sound in Peru, for example) Dara Puspita faced hostility from an […]

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