UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 22: Sergio DIAS and Os Mutantes during a 2006 concert in the United Kingdom. (Photo by Robin Little/Redferns/Getty Images)

How I fell in love with Os Mutantes

July 16, 2013 | By Brian Fores | All Things Music Licensing, Music

Brazilian Rockers now part of Guestlist by Getty Images

I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that was both large and musical. Not only was my mother a gifted pianist, my father had a serious passion for classical music and a record collection to match. Being the son of Cuban immigrants, I also got a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban music – the piano pieces of Ernesto Lecuona were often at my mother’s fingertips and his stature as a composer was a source of cultural pride.

Being the youngest of nine kids (yes, nine!), I inherited some great influences, particularly from an older brother who is an avid record collector himself and expert in all things rock’n’roll, from garage, psych, British folk (Pentangle is a favorite) to the birth of punk and beyond – the man is a walking encyclopedia of popular music. By the time I was 12, I’d heard Elvis, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who and the Doors, among others. It’s no mere act of poser-ism when I say that my first cassette tape was Hendrix’s famed Band of Gypsies album, I was 12 or 13.

I absorbed a lot, but I hadn’t fully formed my own tastes. Being a child of the ’90s, I was undeniably swept up in that musical moment (one that seems to be enjoying a renaissance oh by the way); Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and yes, I don’t care what people say, Smashing Pumpkins. I was on Randall’s Island for the 1994 Lollapalooza when the Pumpkins were the headliners, but it was really the Beastie Boys who stole the show.

I digress. Perhaps the artist that had the greatest impression on me from that era and has stuck with me all these years later is Beck. His clever word-play, sense of irony, lo-fi aesthetics and cohesive synthesis of disparate genres remain ground-breaking, and his influence is undeniable in ways small and large within today’s indie music scene – MGMT and Foxygen are two prime examples.

But while most people will cite Odelay as his apex, for me, the album that has always been a favorite is Mutations. This largely acoustic release, with its psychedelic textures and country and folk inflections really got inside my head and has stayed there ever since. Mutations, it would seem, is a reference to Brazilian rock icons Os Mutantes (The Mutants), a band that has had a major influence on Beck as well as many other rock luminaries, from David Byrne and Devendra Banhart to The Flaming Lips and Kurt Cobain, who famously tried to contact founding member Arnaldo Baptista while Nirvana was on tour in Brazil. In particular, one song on Mutations, “Tropicalia,” bears not only the rhythms and instrumentation of that Brazilian style, but also the name of the artistic and political movement of which Os Mutantes were an integral part.

Intrigued, I dug deeper and promptly got on a train from my then-digs in NJ to a West Village record shop (hey y’all, this is before streaming services were everywhere and the compact disc was dead!) where I found their first two albums, Os Mutantes and Mutantes, released in ’68 and ’69 respectively. I excitedly rushed home and popped them into the CD player.

At the first horn blasts of “Panis Et Circenses” I thought, “Ok, South American Sgt. Peppers.” Clearly these guys had heard the Beatles. However, that comparison does not do the record justice. As I settled in, I realized this was something altogether different, and understood what Beck meant when he said that in Os Mutantes he heard a certain sensibility he’d been trying to achieve, a sensibility that had driven his masterpiece, Odeley – only 30 years earlier!

What I heard was a kaleidoscopic mixture of Brazilian music and rock’n’roll, raunchy guitar solos (“A Minha Menina”) countered by moments of surreal beauty (“O Relógio”), and a fearless experimentalism and collage-like approach that is closer to John Zorn than the Beatles. Here was the lo-fi aesthetic that foreshadowed the Punk DIY mindset and the kind of home-recording approach being championed by indie rock bands like Woods and so many others today. To add to that, Os Mutantes’ absurdist pop and sense of irony through cultural commentary and political critique are nearly woven into the fabric of today’s indie rock. They can be both playful and fun, yet heavy and deep at the same time, no easy trick to pull off.

After decades of silence, the band reunited and released Haih…Ou Amortecedor… in 2009. While neither iconic singer Rita Lee nor founding member Arnaldo Baptista were present, the remaining original member, Sérgio Dias, carried on the Mutantes tradition in spectacular fashion, and the album – which featured contributions from Brazilian legends Tom Zé and Jorge Ben – received wide critical acclaim. In 2013 we saw the release of Fool Metal Jack, whose title track is a grotesque anti-war screed; cuts like “Look Out” and “Valse LSD” maintain the band’s stature as psychedelic heavyweights; elsewhere, “To Make It Beautiful” and “Eu Descubri,” written by Brazilian icon Gilberto Gil, bring a touch of light-psych balladry to the release.

For a band that has traversed more than four decades of rock history, from virtual obscurity outside of Brazil for many years to world-wide recognition, and survived the loss of founding members, their original sound remains remarkably intact while still moving forward and discovering new territory. Currently on tour, the band remains more relevant and energetic than ever.

To hear Os Mutantes’ songs available for license through Getty Images’ Guestlist, click here.

Editor’s note: Brian Fores is a Content Specialist for Getty Images Music.

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  • Larry Peterson

    Fabulous article. Brian Fores is obviously an insightful and talented musician in his own right and has been able to give us all a glimpse into the South American world of music, a place most North Americans, rarely get to see. Well done, Brian. Thank you.