Tag Archives: brazil

Two Narratives Entwined: Gil and Veloso

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil have made history and song together for more than a half century. In the mid-’60s, they fomented the Tropicalia revolution in their native Brazil. They were imprisoned and exiled for their troubles, an experience documented in Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, Veloso’s memoir, one of the best and most important music autobiographies you’ll ever read.

The two elder statesmen have reunited for a tour, which brought them to the cavernous Microsoft Theater in LA last night. It was just the two of them and their acoustic guitars on the mammoth stage — two graying septuagenarians — with sometimes the audience joining along. Veloso’s voice in particular gets more hauntingly beautiful every time I see him; he may now be my favorite artist of all time (sorry Bruce). Having been a “soft Brazilian singer” (to borrow a phrase from one of his songs) — albeit one fond of static disruptions and eruptions — his whole life, he hasn’t blown out his cords one bit. If anything, they’ve become more supple, precisely tuned instruments. Gil, the former culture minister, sounds a bit raspier, but when he took the high notes and Caetano the low, the paired melodies took my breath away.

It made me think of a comment Carrie Brownstein had made earlier that day, in her on-stage conversation with LA Times critic Lorraine Ali, at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, about how she and Corin Tucker offer two narratives instead of the usual one as the front people of Sleater-Kinney. Veloso’s and Gil’s narratives have long entwined in a dialogue about race, colonialism, pop culture, and politics. Thinking of a way to explain to others the importance of the show, I thought it’s like seeing Dylan and Marley on stage together — if Dylan could carry a tune. These men are giants, who sing mostly in Portuguese, but also in Spanish and English. And then, sure enough, they closed with Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Maybe I was reading into it, but was the refrain — “Every little thing’s going to be all right” — a message to the many Brazilians in the audience, as their country goes through perhaps the most intense political and economic tumult since the 1960s? The leftist regime that Gil was once a part of is under investigation and attack, in a country whose cultural icons still remember how it felt to be locked up by a military dictatorship.

But that was a subtext in an evening that was all about two of the most beautiful voices you might never hear together again, singing a half-century’s worth of songs of freedom.

 

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Brazilian girls (and boys)

os-mutantes1Brazil is one of the most musically rich countries in the planet, right up there with the U.S. and Cuba. Two documentaries I saw this week at the Brazilian Film Festival of Miami reminded me of this again. In The Mystery of Samba, Marisa Monte takes the viewer through a neighborhood in Portela, interviewing old samba musicians from the 1950s and ’60s, discovering rare songs, talking about sex and romance. It’s the Brazilian Buena Vista Music Club. The music was beautiful, but scenes could have used more context, especially for an American audience who might not even know what samba is (it’s sort of like the Brazilian blues, a postcolonial folkloric tradition).

Loki — Arnaldo Baptista was a much stranger, even more poignant documentary of musical history and loss. Baptista was a founding member of Os Mutantes, the seminal Tropicalismo band of the ’60s — call him the Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. But his Nico — Rita Lee — broke his heart, and acid warped his mind. He eventually hurled himself out the fourth-floor window of an insane asylum. He lived, and a fan nursed him back to health and sanity, becoming his wife. There’s a great line from a record producer in there, talking about Baptista at his wackiest, to the effect of: “Believing in flying saucers and spaceships is one thing. But wanting to build your own flying saucer is a much more complicated matter.”

Both films were sponsored by the amazing Rhythm Foundation, btw.

And here’s an article I wrote when Os Mutantes reunited in 2006:

Publication:  THE MIAMI HERALD
Published:    Sunday, July 30, 2006
Edition:      Final
Section:      Tropical Life
Page:         1M

Headline:     BRAZILIAN LEGENDS COMING TO MIAMI
ByLines:      BY EVELYN McDONNELL, emcdonnell@MiamiHerald.com

In 1967, brothers Arnaldo and Sérgio Dias Baptista and Arnaldo’s girlfriend, Rita Lee, visited the
United States. The counterculture was in full swing, and the Brazilians were awestruck by the sights
and sounds they witnessed in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco: thousands mobbing Wilshire
Boulevard, rock and light shows at the Fillmore, a hippie flashing Sérgio two fingers in a V.
“It was the first time someone did the peace sign to me,” Sérgio recalled over the phone from Sao
Paulo recently. “I didn’t know what it was. It was so beautiful to see the great joy and the great
party that was happening in the U.S.”

Almost four decades later, the brothers are coming back, but not as tourists. For the first time
ever, they’ll be performing in the United States with Os Mutantes, the legendary rock band they
formed in the ’60s. The highly anticipated tour brings the Brazilians to the Manuel Artime Theater
on Wednesday.
Os Mutantes – who broke up in the ’70s in a tangle of political oppression, broken hearts and
drug psychosis – are the Velvet Underground/Jefferson Airplane/Pink Floyd/Fugs of Brazil. Their
albums were central to the country’s historic Tropicália cultural and political movement and
continue to have a global impact. Kurt Cobain begged the group to reunite and open for Nirvana in
’93; Beck’s ’98 CD Mutations was an homage to the group; Sean Ono Lennon did artwork for the 2000
issuing of their Tecnicolor album. This tour, which launched at London’s Barbican arts center May 22
and includes a stop at Chicago’s influential indie-rock Pitchfork festival, is being hailed as the
musical event of the summer.
“What they did was extremely important and influential not only for Brazilian music but for music
in the U.S. and England,” says Gene de Souza, host of the show Café Brasil on WDNA 88.9 FM and
development director of the Rhythm Foundation, one of the promoters of Mutantes’ Miami show.
Sérgio says he is both delighted and somewhat mystified by the growing interest in his band’s
work.
“What did this was the music itself,” he says. “Now it’s like it pulled us back to give. I don’t
know what’s the reason for this. I think maybe the way that we did the music: We were so young. When
you’re young you have this feeling of indestructibility, of being immortal. The beautiful things
that were happening during the ’50s and ’60s – the seasoning of the stew of Mutantes is all the
postwar thing. We saw the Sputnik come up. We saw everything [getting] started. It was such an
energetic era: Television, and then satellites, all in a very short period of time. The Beatles. The
Mamas and the Papas. There were so many people, so much art in such a small period of time. This is
what influenced the way we created the music.
“Maybe this is what survived us. After the ’80s and ’90s, there was so much control over the
music, control over the composition. Maybe people are looking for something more humane.”
SOME SHOCKERS
If Os Mutantes (the name means The Mutants in Portuguese) saw a vision of paradise in America,
back home in Sao Paulo, they were trying to create their own alternative to an increasingly
confining military state. They were lucky to have a popular forum: Mutantes appeared weekly on a
Brazilian TV show hosted by the brothers’ godfather. Their performances, in which they would wear
strange costumes and be surrounded by cattle skulls, shocked audiences used to seeing Brazilians in
suits imitating the Platters. “A lot of people thought it was crazy, but a lot thought it was
genius,” de Souza says. “They changed everything that came afterwards.”
Os Mutantes’ ’68 self-titled debut was one of the first expressions of Tropicália, the
counterculture movement they founded along with Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil.
Tropicália was Brazil’s version of the French student movement of ’68 and San Francisco’s Haight
Ashbury heyday – except Brazilians lived under a military dictatorship. Gil and Veloso were
arrested, imprisoned and exiled. Os Mutantes felt constant pressure and wound up relocating to a
commune outside Sao Paulo.
IRREVERENT ALBUMS
Maybe they escaped their colleagues’ extreme fates because the government couldn’t figure them
out. Mutantes’ albums were irreverent, experimental, and sometimes just bizarre. The elder Baptista
brother, Claudio, created weird instruments (which Mutantes still play today). On Desculpe, Babe,
Sérgio sang through a cocoa can dubbed the Voice Box. They often mocked Brazilian and other Latin
styles; people on the left sometimes accused them of selling out their national identity to Western
influences.
“I love America so deeply,” Sérgio admits, recalling watching NASA films of rockets in the ’60s.
“America was such a beautiful big brother to be able to look up to: The beauty of America which
lives still in our hearts and in the heart of every American, which is the original ideas of
Jefferson and Adams.”
Outré as Mutantes could be, their love of top 40 also inspired pure pop pleasures, mostly in
Lee’s breathy, bossa nova/folk vocals on songs like Baby and Panis Et Circenses. Long before
Brazilian Girls or other contemporary multinational bands, Mutantes sang in four languages on
Tecnicolor, which was recorded in ’70 but not released until ’00.
In ’72, Lee left the group; a year later, she and Arnaldo ended their two-year marriage. She went
on to become an international star. The brothers and drummer Dinho carried on together for a couple
years, until Arnaldo, his brain saturated with LSD, left. Sérgio put together two other versions of
Mutantes but gave up by decade’s end. He lived in New York in the ’80s, working as a studio and
touring musician.
He left just before interest in Mutantes waxed hot. By the early ’90s, David Byrne’s Luaka Bop
label was helping revive interest in all things Brazilian and Tropicália; in ’99, they released the
Mutantes compilation Everything Is Possible! Artists from David Bowie to L7 to Stereolab were citing
the long-dead band’s brilliance, and clamoring for a revival.
TOLL OF DRUGS
But some things weren’t possible. Years of drugs had damaged Arnaldo so severely that he wound up
in a mental hospital. One day, he plummeted out of the institution’s window and wound up in a coma
for two months.
“He just said that he tried to run away,” says his brother. “But he didn’t realize that the
window was in a door, and it was on the fourth floor.”
The Barbican brought Mutantes back together. The center invited the group to close its Tropicália
exhibit. Once Sérgio was able to get Arnaldo and Dinho to agree to that show, the American tour
promptly fell in place, even though they had not all played together since ’73.
Sérgio says he invited Lee to join them: “She said some bulls – – – , pardon my French. She said
she became a grandmother and now she has to take care of the kid or something like that. She
graciously declined.”
The guitarist turned to Zélia Duncan, a Brazilian rocker. She has fit in so well with the group,
Sérgio says she is an official Mutante: “It’s hard to consider Mutantes without her now.”
His brother is doing great, Sérgio says. “He’s definitely a different person than he was. But
musically the spirit is all there. It’s beautiful to see him coming out and giving all that he’s
got. It’s beautiful to see him across the stage and just look at him, just to be able to have this
complicity of look. To know what we lived together. Because what you guys see is just the tip of the
iceberg.”
Mutantes are making a CD and DVD of the Barbican show. Comparing the recordings to old Mutantes
live tapes, Sérgio says he’s amazed how unchanged the group sounds: “The band is the same. The
feeling of the band is amazing. It’s really really the way as it was.”
Listening to a Mutantes CD is like traveling in a time tunnel, to another place and time. But
when they play here Wednesday, they won’t be teenagers anymore, and it won’t be the ’60s.
The United States he tours won’t be the country he traveled almost four decades ago. “America
became the fatherland. Now as a father, he needs to be respected because of his qualities, not
because of his strength or might.”
Mutantes’ spokesman speaks of his band’s formative days not with yuppie nostalgia, but with a
belief in history.
“The beautiful thing about that time is that there was no Internet or satellites or connection
like we have today. At the same time in a spontaneous way there was troubles and solutions in all of
those countries. The beauty, it popped up simultaneously in the arts. The timing of the thing was
really very strong. It’s like the coming of a race. Maybe we are all mutants.”
Who: Os Mutantes When: 8 p.m. Wednesday Where: Manuel Artime Theater, 900 SW First St., Miami
Tickets: $35 in advance at http://www.epoplife.com, $40 at the door Info: 305-672-5202, 305-576-7242 or
http://www.rhythmfoundation.com  ON THE RADIO
Check out the Os Mutantes Special on Cafe Brasil with Gene de Souza from 6-8 tonight on 88.9 FM
Serious Jazz, http://www.seriousjazz.org. Program includes Os Mutantes music, an interview with guitarist
Sergio Dias, plus classic Tropicália from Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and more. MiamiHerald.com:
Click on Today’s Extras for online-only clips of songs by Os Mutantes

Keywords:
Illustrations:  Color photo: Os Mutantes (a)
Captions:        OS MUTANTES: Their ’60s albums were central to Brazil’s historic Tropicália cultural and political
movement.

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