Okay, so once again I hope the New York Times does not feel impelled to sue me for swiping their material, but (despite the fact that it's a few years behind the curve...) this April 15, 2001 article on Os Mutantes was just too informative to allow it to be swallowed up by the cyber-ether. As a show of good faith to the newspaper, I'll also set a link to their website archive... though sadly such things have a way of changing suddenly and without notice.
Here, also, is the text of the article, with whatever graphics I can scrounge up that seem appropriate.
April 15, 2001 - SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Songs that Rita Lee recorded back in the 1960's have suddenly emerged as hipster favorites on college radio stations in the United States.
Beck christened one of his releases Mutations as an homage to the group that launched her career, Os Mutantes. And another prominent admirer, Sean Ono Lennon, designed the cover of an English- language album the group made, which was recently released here, three decades after the original tapes were thought to have been lost.
It certainly has taken a while, but the world outside Brazil may finally have caught up to Ms. Lee and Os Mutantes, the Beatles-inspired rock 'n' roll group that she and two teenage neighbors founded here in 1966. Now 53 and regarded as Brazil's premier female pop singer-songwriter, Ms. Lee said she found the Os Mutantes' belated discovery abroad "amusing and gratifying, but at the same time not all that surprising."
"The bottom line is that we were light-years ahead of everyone else," Ms. Lee, a rangy redhead, said in an interview at her apartment here. "We were so innocent back then that we weren't even fully aware of what we were doing, and that gave our music a tremendous honesty. Everything we did was spontaneous and natural in a way that is simply not possible today, and I think that people have come to value that and respond to it passionately."
Along with Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Tom Ze, Os Mutantes was part of the Tropicalist movement, which emerged in Brazil in the late 1960's, intent on bringing electric instruments and rock influences into Brazilian popular music, no matter who might be offended. With their cut-and-paste, collage mentality and their penchant for irony, the Tropicalists defined an aesthetic that dominates much of today's pop music.
"I think Os Mutantes was the first major rock group in any country to have a truly international sound that mixed psychedelia with Latin rhythms, avant-garde classical elements, found sounds, studio technology, surrealistic lyrics and sampling," said Chris McGowan, co-author of The Brazilian Sound (Temple University Press, 1998). "When Americans mix and match musical elements from different cultures, it sounds a little artificial, but the Mutantes had an incredible capacity to absorb musical influences, reinterpret or comment on them ironically and yet fuse them in a very natural, organic way."
Most of the founders of the Tropicalist movement came from Bahia, a northeastern state that conveys the same sort of rootsy musical authenticity to Brazilians that the Deep South does to Americans. But in "Sampa," one of the most famous of his songs, Mr. Veloso describes Ms. Lee as "the most complete translation" of Sao Paulo, an often alienating metropolis of some 18 million people, which he has referred to as "the richest and least characteristic of Brazil."
Charles Perrone, co-editor of Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization (University Press of Florida, 2001), said: "More than anyone else in Brazilian popular music, Rita Lee may represent the modern cosmopolitan big city, the awareness of international popular culture and the inevitable arrival of technology and its transition into popular music and culture. She is definitely not part of that ethnic rural Bahia samba scene that people typically think of when they think of Brazil."
Today the astonishment the music caused may be gone, but the group's vanguard reputation remains, especially among younger foreign listeners, who came to Os Mutantes long after its heyday. To hear the four albums the group released between 1968 and 1972 is to encounter not only songs that nowadays would be called deconstructions of Brazilian classics, but also ballads that are precursors to Queen, bluesy parodies of Janis Joplin and hints of Santana and Frank Zappa.
Kurt Cobain was so much an admirer of the group that when Nirvana played in Brazil, he sent a fan letter to Arnaldo Baptista, the Mutantes's gifted but troubled keyboard player and bassist and Ms. Lee's former husband. But the contemporary foreign artist who perhaps most identifies with the Mutantes sound and the group's "anthropophagic" aesthetic is Beck.
"Hearing Os Mutantes for the first time was one of those revelatory moments you live for as a musician, when you find something that you have been wanting to hear for years but never thought existed," he said in an interview. "I made records like Odelay because there was a certain sound and sensibility that I wanted to achieve, and it was eerie to find that they had already done it 30 years ago, in a totally shocking but beautiful and satisfying way."
Ms. Lee also recognizes the kinship with Beck. When her son Beto first played Beck's music for her, she said with a wry laugh, "I thought I was having a lysergic flashback."
But what is merely a canny artistic strategy for today's artists, Ms. Lee added, was a political necessity for Os Mutantes. Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship when the group recorded, and all of its songs had to be submitted to government censors.
"Our whole thing was playing pranks and defying authority, but you had to be careful in those days because friends were disappearing or being forced into exile, and the cops would often come in and bust up our shows," she said. "We had to be creative but evasive to avoid the repression, and so we'd tell each other, 'Let's make this song complicated so that nobody understands it.' "
By 1972, though, Ms. Lee had grown weary of that approach and was ready to move on. "I left because the rest of the band wanted to go in a progressive rock direction, like Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer, and I thought that trying to copy that was kind of boring," she said. "I felt the rest of the band was becoming more and more foreign influenced, and I was in search of Brazil, Brazil, Brazil."
Ms. Lee felt impelled to move away from pure rock 'n' roll and assert the Brazilian roots of her music, she acknowledges, in part because of her unusual background. Her full name is Rita Lee Jones, and her father's family originally came to Brazil from Alabama, "slaves and all," after the Civil War; they settled in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo and even today maintain certain Southern customs. English was her second language as a child, and she grew up listening to records sent as gifts from relatives in the United States.
"I used to tell people that I was descended from Robert E. Lee, or that I was related to the people who make Lee jeans," she said. "It was all a great big goof, of course, but when I heard Elvis for the first time, he didn't seem at all foreign to me. I really did feel as if he were a cousin of mine."
Since breaking away from Os Mutantes to become a solo artist, Ms. Lee has had a more conventional career: as Mr. McGowan put it, "sort of like Phil Collins leaving Genesis and becoming a light pop superstar."
"If you don't speak Portuguese, " Mr. McGowan said, "her music seems on the surface to be just happy pop-rock, but the lyrics continue to be subversive and often touch on issues of sex, drugs, poverty and religion in a provocative and rebellious way."
The two other founding members of Os Mutantes have had far less visible careers. Influenced by John McLaughlin, the guitarist Sergio Dias moved toward jazz-rock fusion and has recorded with the Indian violinist Shankar and the former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera; his brother Arnaldo has largely been inactive since suffering brain injuries in 1982 while trying to escape from a mental hospital, where he had been sent because of drug problems.
In her current incarnation, Ms. Lee is seen as a major influence on an entire generation of younger female singer-songwriter-bandleaders whom she jokingly calls "my nieces": Cassia Eller, Zelia Duncan, Marisa Monte, Adriana Calcanhoto and Marina Lima. Unlike most of the girls at Ms. Lee's high school, she recalled: "I didn't want to marry a Beatle. I wanted to be a Beatle." And with Os Mutantes, she was a feminist from the start, insisting not just on singing but also on composing and playing keyboards, flute and guitar.
But the most pleasant recent surprise to come her way, Ms. Lee said, is the unexpected reappearance of Technicolor, the mostly English- language album that Os Mutantes recorded in 1970 in an effort to break into the international market. The record, which has become a cult item both here and abroad since its release last year with the suitably psychedelic cover designed by Mr. Lennon, "shows us a bit more mature and polished, but with our imaginations in full flight," she said.
"Even today I don't know what really happened with this record," Ms. Lee added. "We were in Paris to open a show at the Olympia, and this English producer showed up and asked us if we wanted to make a record. We did everything in a week, and then the guy disappeared -- and the record with him for 30 years - until they began looking through the archives at the record company here in Brazil for things to put in a box set."
Nevertheless, don't expect a Mutantes reunion anytime soon. Offers have been made here in Brazil and even in the United States, where the group never performed, but Ms. Lee said she was not interested.
"The songs themselves are timeless, and a lot of our instruments have been preserved somewhere, so I suppose it could be done," she said. "But it's hard enough being the spokesman for Os Mutantes, and I feel uncomfortable with that role sometimes. We never sought commercial success then, and it wouldn't feel natural to do it now. Os Mutantes was the expression of a particular time and place, and no one will ever be able to recreate that again."
Main Brazil Index