In nineteen-sixties Brazil, the band challenged the military class with experimental art. Now it has found relevance with a new generation.
February 27, 2017 | By Matthew Trammel
In 1968, when the Brazilian band Os Mutantes performed the discordant “É Proibido Proibir” (“Prohibiting Is Prohibited”), with the singer Caetano Veloso, for an audience of conservative students at the Festival International de Canção, in Rio, the crowd bristled, and many turned their backs. Veloso, as he recalled in his memoir, looked out and shouted, “God is loose!”
Two years after that pivotal concert, Os Mutantes were still concerned with higher powers. On “Ave, Lúcifer,” from the band’s third album, the members Arnaldo Baptista and Rita Lee consider whether Satan was just another one of Eden’s pleasures. “Mas tragam Lúcifer pra mim / Em uma bandeja pra mim,” Lee sings, demanding that the serpent be brought to her on a tray. Her hypnotic description of the blasphemous scene lures listeners toward the final question: Why would God put Satan in the garden in the first place?
Through the tail end of the nineteen-sixties in Brazil, a cluster of bands, artists, poets, and filmmakers known as the Tropicália movement challenged the country’s growing military class with subversive art and experimentation. At its center was Os Mutantes, a sprawling psychedelic-rock band started by Sérgio Dias and his brother Baptista, and fronted glamorously by the red-haired Lee. Barely out of their teens, and stoked by cyclical military coups, Pink Floyd, and DC Comics, the musicians melded American rock, British pop, and Brazilian bossa nova, ornamenting political messages as suavely as Harrison and Hendrix. As censorship spread throughout the country, authorities struggled to decipher the band’s politics through its intricate costumes and quirky, shifting arrangements of guitar, harpsichord, brass, and woodwinds.
As the decade turned, Brazilian arts buckled under the weight of suppression, and the Tropicália moment seemed to pass. Lee faced a bout of depression, while Dias and Baptista burrowed deeper into their prog-rock experiments. The group soon disbanded, but its albums became critical texts for provocateurs like David Byrne and Kurt Cobain, and have gained Holy Grail status with collectors—original pressings of early Mutantes records list for upward of a thousand dollars.
The band’s relevance with a new generation became apparent to Dias during a 2008 reunion; young fans had eagerly latched onto the material, forming the global audience that Dias had hoped to reach as a São Paulo teen-ager weaned on “Revolver.” The founding member performs vocals and guitar with a reimagined lineup, including a new lead vocalist, Esmeria Bulgari, at Webster Hall, on Feb. 27. ♦