Sayan Ghosh: Os Mutantes and subversiveness as strength

Sunday, November 17, 2019 - 5:29pm

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Hailing from the metropolis of São Paulo, the Brazilian Tropicália band Os Mutantes’s (which translates to “The Mutants”) 1968 self-titled album somehow sounds as if The Beatles moved to South America and took even more psychedelics. One of the most creative groups to ever come out of the country with a rich musical history rivaling any others, their success was brief at the time they were active, but their name has seen somewhat of a resurgence decades later. 

The group’s origins lie in the relationship that developed between Rita Lee Jones and Arnaldo Baptista when they were both teenagers in the mid 1960s. Along with Arnaldo’s younger brother Sérgio, they formed Os Mutantes in 1965, and within a couple years, they found themselves in the middle of one of Brazil’s burgeoning musical movements. Spearheaded by the singer Caetano Veloso as well as others such as Gilberto Gil and Nara Leão, the Tropicália movement was born. 

At the time, Brazil was under the rule of a brutal military dictatorship which heavily espoused conservative/traditionalist views. Tropicália emerged as a countercultural movement that was at its core musical, but encompassed much more. Veloso, Gil and the other early collaborators wished to infuse the traditional samba and Bossa Nova forms with influences from psychedelic rock.

Ironically, the music, epitomized by the 1968 collaboration album/manifesto Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circensis (Tropicalism, or bread and circuses), seemed to anger both sides of the political spectrum. According to the band’s current label Luaka Bop, the right-wing dictatorship despised its inherent subversiveness, and the left viewed certain elements of it as representing a capitulation to the Anglophone world’s imperialism. 

The genre unfortunately would not live long, as its architects Veloso and Gil were imprisoned and eventually exiled by the end of the decade. While they continued to record and release music in England, the movement itself faltered without their presence and leadership. Groups including Os Mutantes and the Bahia based Novos Baianos carried the flag for a short period, yet the genre never again reached its early peak.

Both the genre’s as well as Os Mutantes’s increase in popularity outside of Brazil stem from a compilation (titled Everything is Possible: The Best of Os Mutantes) released in 1999 by David Byrne on his label, the aforementioned Luaka Bop, as well as name drops by figures such as Kurt Cobain. Bands ever since such as of Montreal have cited the unhinged chaos on the band’s early records. 

Appearing both on “Everything is Possible” and the self-titled “A Minha Menina,” a cover of a song by compatriot Jorge Ben Jor, is as good a poster child as any of this chaos. The distinctive psychedelic fuzz present in the chorus is a result of an ad-hoc pedal “powered by a sewing machine” built by Arnaldo and Sérgio’s older brother. Will Hodgkinson of The Guardian notes that this, as well as other jury-rigged elements of their musical setup, were made necessary due to “the lack of decent musical equipment in 1960s Brazil.” 

“A Minha Menina,” as well as other notable cuts such as “Panis Et Circenses” impressively never collapse under their own weight, considering just how much is thrown onto these tracks. Just as with The Avalanches’s 2000 plunderphonics masterpiece Since I Left You, each new listen of an Os Mutantes track reveals a small detail previously unnoticed. Moreover, it’s impossible to tell whether certain elements were a product of lack of equipment or an act of irreverent genius. 

As with many of their influences such as Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone, heavy drug use and internal dysfunction brought about a premature end, with the subsequent years not proving quite productive for the trio, including episodes such as Arnaldo trying to unsuccessfully escape from a psychiatric institution. However, the band reunited in the early 2000s and continue to display the timelessness of their groundbreaking 1960s output.