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In late '60s Brazil, people wondered if OS MUTANTES (Portuguese for "The Mutants") hadn't come from another planet. Rita Lee and brothers Sérgio and Arnaldo Baptista not only dressed as freaky characters onstage, but their psychedelic, electric, and wacky music was light-years ahead of any music coming out of Brazil at the time.
Rita Lee Jones and Arnaldo Baptista met when they were 16 in 1964 in São Paulo. Rita was a member of an all-female vocal group that covered Beatles songs, and Arnaldo was the bass player in a band cloning the instrumental rock of the Ventures. Arnaldo's younger brother Sérgio, a 15-year-old guitar wizard, was recruited and the trio made it official in 1966 with their first TV performance as Os Mutantes.
Considered daring, strange, and provocative, the band recorded their first album in 1968, with a wildly imaginative sense of spirit. They chose, for example, to substitute a can of bug spray for the hi-hat, which was just the first in a series of outlandish inventions that the band developed in the studio amid giggles and guffaws.
The trio was introduced to singer/songwriter Gilberto Gil at 1967's Festival of Brazilian Popular Music, where Os Mutantes made a tremendous impact. The fact that the band used electric guitars - a first at an event traditionally dedicated to Brazilian popular music - shocked and irritated the leftist university crowd. Booed, the Mutantes were accused of having sold themselves to North American imperialists.
Soon after, the Mutantes, along with other Brazilian musicians, poets, and artists, became part of a feisty art movement, Tropicália, which questioned not only Brazilian music of the time, but Brazilian culture as a whole. Besides Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé, and Gal Costa were part of this group that eventually changed Brazilian music. And Os Mutantes had an edge - they sampled invented instruments and electronic effects, including oddly distorted guitar; on the 1969 song "Babe," Sérgio distorted his voice through a rubber hose connected to a hot chocolate can with a tiny speaker inside. This ingenious object was later baptized the now famous Voice Box.
In 1971 Jardim Elétrico was made but unfortunately never released. The album, the group's fifth, was a sign of a radical turn in the band's trajectory, and after Rita Lee's departure in 1972, the band immersed themselves in progressive rock. Through several lineups, Os Mutantes recorded three more albums before finally dissolving in 1978.
Since then, all three original members have remained active in music - but not together. So after nearly 30 years, the reunion "was kind of magic," says Sérgio. "It is an act of God…." In truth, Luaka Bop's Yale Evelev, David Byrne, and booking agent Tom Windish held the candle and got the first live shows booked - beginning with a May 24 show at the Barbican in London, part of the Barbican's "Tropicalia" festival.
The band, which has never before played in the United States, no longer includes Rita Lee, but is the original brothers Baptista (with female vocalist Zélia Duncan featured on the Rita parts), along with seven auxiliary musicians and their signature outrageous costumes. They come to the Hollywood Bowl as only their second show in the States (they play New York's Webster Hall on July 21), and then continue with four more American dates before deciding their next move.
In conjunction with the tour and the re-release of all the band's albums, the influence of Os Mutantes is being championed as never before. Having emerged as über-fans are indie-credsters including the Flaming Lips, Beck, Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian, L7, Fiery Furnaces, and Redd Kross. Earlier, Kurt Cobain had requested (to no avail) Os Mutantes to support Nirvana on tour.