Last week I hosted a performance by Brazil's legendary psychedelic rock band Os Mutantes. Despite enjoying mass popularity in Brazil during the 1960s, Mutantes were largely unknown in the United States until the early '90s. That's when American stars from Kurt Cobain to Beck began to champion the group's work, earning them a spot in the pantheon of cult rock icons alongside bands like the Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers.
After the concert I sat down with the group's founder Sérgio Dias Baptista to discuss Mutantes' participation in the Tropicalia movement - - an artistic rebellion against the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil.
Nuvo: How did the return of Os Mutantes come about?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: In 2005, if someone said I'd be playing with Os Mutantes again I would have laughed - no way. When we got back together it was pure accident. In 2006 the Barbican arts center in London was doing a major retrospective of the Tropicalia movement and someone told them the show wouldn't make sense without the participation of Os Mutantes. The curator said "what can I do, they don't exist anymore." Somehow this idea got out to the press and I started getting emails from newspapers and magazines saying "oh you guys are going to play again?" So it started popping up all over the place. Stories came out that we had started rehearsing together and actually we hadn't even spoken. So we started communicating with each other and I spoke with Dino our drummer, who hadn't played for thirty years. But he said "ok, if you want I'll play." That was the sign that this was serious. So we got together, at first we sounded awful but the vibe was there. So we decided to go and do it. We rehearsed for three months, and one month after we started rehearsals an entire U.S. tour had been booked. I couldn't believe it.
Nuvo: You were so young when the Tropicalia movement happened, where you interested in the political agenda or was it just about playing rock music?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: I think both, we were young and restless. Every kid comes up rebelling against something and we really had something to rebel against. The dictatorship was a mess. Many times we were under threat of being arrested and several times we had to leave the stage because we were warned that there was going to be a raid.
There was a perpetual cat and mouse situation between us and the dictatorship, but we never gave in. They used to censor our lyrics, but instead of changing the words we mutilated them. We put a noise on top of it. But when we played live we would sing with the right lyrics.
Nuvo: Your fellow Tropiclistas Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were forced to leave Brazil, did Os Mutantes ever face that pressure?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: We were lucky, because we were too cute. Our image wasn't easy to vilify. They couldn't sell the idea that we were terrorists. Can you imagine this young girl, blue eyed and blonde hair and these two kids with squeaky clean faces were terrorists? There was a big difference in terms of Caetano and Gil and us. I don't think the dictatorship knew what to make of us. We blew their mind, we went totally beyond what they could understand.
Nuvo: Do you remember the first time you heard rock music?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: I definitely remember the first time I was inoculated with rock and roll. I was at my cousin's house, I was about six or seven and I heard "Jailhouse Rock." I was jumping up and down on the couch for the entire afternoon using a pillow for a guitar. Then it was The Beatles, the first time I heard "She Loves You" I got the hair. I was a Beatle from then on.
Nuvo: The Beatles were such a huge influence for you, did you ever get to meet them?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: No, I had a couple chances but I was dumb. In the 60s Ravi Shankar invited me to go study at his school in India. But I was busy working with Os Mutantes and I ended up not going. I could have met George Harrison and everybody. Also, I went to Apple Records in 1968. I put my hand on the door knob, but I didn't dare to open. Sometimes it's better to let a dream be a dream.
Nuvo: How did you meet Ravi Shankar?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: I met him in Sao Paulo, he was there for a concert. Thank god my mother was a fabulous concert pianist and she had an open door to the Municipal Theatre where he played. So I went there and went backstage and I just said point blank, "listen, I need to learn this." He looked at me and said meet me in my hotel tomorrow at 2pm. So I went there and there was a bunch of newspaper guys and journalists. He sent them all away and said "I'm sorry I have to teach a class." So he started to teach me there. I brought my 12 string guitar and I played the hell out of it for him. So we started to interact with each other after he left. He sent me his book and he sent me a sitar.
Nuvo: Can you tell me about the Brazilian influence in your music, you did a couple songs with samba rhythms - but they were written by other songwriters like Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: We listened to everything, we drank from every fountain. Brazil is a kaleidoscope of musical influences. For me samba was a bit boring, but when Gil brought us his sambas we were like, "whoa, this is a different story. Let's do it." It became a huge collaboration and a huge influence, both us for them and them for us. Together it was a perfect dish, like pasta with the right sauce.
Nuvo: You were part of a very important artistic resistance movement; having gone through that period do you think artists can influence social change?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: Of course, just think of Bob Dylan, or movies like Easy Rider and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These things were like a slap in the face to society. I think basically artists are mirrors. A good artist reflects what the person didn't even see at first. We can answer questions that weren't even asked.
Nuvo: Is the new music you're making as rebellious as the original Os Mutantes' work?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: Sure, I'm talking about things like foreclosures and all these things I'm seeing here that affect me. The next album is all about the values you American guys were raised on, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Nuvo: In the 60s Os Mutantes' music was not available outside of Brazil, are you surprised that your music has found this huge international audience and continues to speak to new generations?
Sérgio Dias Baptista: Yes, when we started playing shows in the U.S. I thought the audience would be a bunch of guys my age. But everywhere we went it was kids. It was great, there's nothing more humbling than seeing your music outlive yourself - which is what happened to us. We didn't do anything, there was no record company promoting our music, no publicity. This thing happened because people like you decided to hear the music. That's how I think music is supposed to be. Now I can't stop because of all of you guys, it's a big responsibility when you realize your music is bigger than yourself. You just have to give and give until you die - I have no other choice.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's selection features modern incarnations of the Brazilian Tropicalia sound.
You can download and subscribe to the Cultural Manifesto podcast on Itunes here.
1. Gui Amabis - Orquidea Ruiva
2. Caetano Veloso w/ Prefuse 73 - Terra
3. Criolo - Sucrilhos
4. Superhuman Happiness & Cults - Um Canto de Afoxe Para o Bloco do Ilê Aiyê
5. Caetano Veloso - Base de Guantánamo
6. Seu Jorge & Almaz - Errare Humanum Est.
7. Javelin & Tom Zé - Ogodo Ano 2000
8. Madlib - Upa Neguinho
9. Curumin - Caixa Preta
10. Of Montreal & Os Mutantes - Bat Macumba
11. Metá Metá - Oya
12. Forro in the Dark & Brazilian Girls & Angelique Kidjo - Aquele Abraco
13. Bonde de Role - Pucko
14. Maga Bo - Galope
15. Beck & Seu Jorge - Tropicalia (Mario C 2011 Remix)