Print this Page

World Music Features

Os Mutantes

By Tad Hendrickson
Published March 9, 2007

Os Mutantes, made up of Rita Lee Jones and brothers Arnaldo and Sérgio Baptista, rarely played outside Brazil before breaking up. Risking jail, kidnapping and torture, the band somehow managed to flourish as an audacious teen sensation and foment the rockin’ Tropicalia rebellion.

Unless Antonio Carlos Jobim comes back from the grave between now and year’s end, 2006’s biggest Brazilian music story is bound to be the return of the legendary Os Mutantes to the concert stage. Part of the pop-art insurgency known as Tropicalia, alongside Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa, Os Mutantes flipped off the oppressive military regime by dressing in outrageous costumes and playing Beatle-inspired rock ’n’ roll with overtones of Dadaism, funneling it all through a wholly Brazilian aesthetic.

As the country’s military junta cracked down, Brazil’s Tropicalia musicians, poets and artists pushed back by treasonously corrupting the youth with their work. While Veloso and Gil were arrested in 1968 and exiled for four years, they went on to enjoy global renown as musicians and spokesmen for Brazilian culture.

Os Mutantes, made up of Rita Lee Jones and brothers Arnaldo and Sérgio Baptista, rarely played outside Brazil before breaking up. Risking jail, kidnapping and torture, the band somehow managed to flourish as an audacious teen sensation and fomented rockin’ rebellion. The band’s influence is felt to this day in their home country’s pop music (Bebel Gilberto’s 2004 version of “Baby” was borrowed wholesale from the Mutantes), and their wildly imaginative sound has caught the ear of such modern day Anglo and American musicians as David Byrne, Beck and Stereolab. Thievery Corporation and the Flaming Lips, both of which played the Hollywood Bowl with the reunited group, are admirers, too.

Rita Lee went on to a highly successful career in music and television, releasing two solo albums, one of which has just been reissued on CD, and Sérgio became a famed producer and guitarist. Arnaldo continued to make music after he left the band, but battled mental health issues exacerbated by heavy drug use. After being hospitalized in psychiatric ward, he tried unsuccessfully to kill himself by jumping out a fifth-story window in 1982.

Like many legendary acts, myth and truth blend together when it comes to Os Mutantes. There are the cold hard facts that the seminal band existed, creating mind-bending music, and ceased to exist. And for the last 30-plus years, the music and the stories are all there’s been.

There have been repeated calls for a reunion over the years, but until 2006 they went unheeded, even (as legend has it) when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain sent a letter to the band in 1993. “I don’t know if it was true,” says Sérgio from his studio in Sao Paulo. “I didn’t receive any message from him. They say that he sent a letter to my brother Arnaldo, but I’m not sure about that. I didn’t receive any information about it and can’t really confirm it.”

Sérgio can confirm that he and Arnaldo did get the band back together for the first time in three decades. Two questions that come to mind are why, and why now? But the guitarist offers few concrete answers.

“I have no idea, man. It is magical. The thing is that it feels right, but that sounds so shallow. When the wheel of fortune turns and you are aware, you have to use that [knowledge] as your companion. So when you perceive that it is complete and real, the reason why is the magic. Who would know we’d be at this point after meeting at my house two months ago?”

Rita Lee was not on hand for the band’s select 2006 shows (they played London, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles), but Sérgio says that he remains on good terms with the singer, who has gone on to become one of the biggest stars in Brazilian rock.

“We email each other and I spoke to her husband, but she couldn’t do this stuff. She’s busy right now. She just became a grandma and she’s in love with the kid and just stole the kid from the mother. And she’s doing some other stuff. So the schedules would be very hard to accommodate. You cannot stop your life because of something else like this [reunion]