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Os Mutantes 

Dormant for three decades, the founding fathers of Brazil's Tropicália music movement are back

Os Mutantes with DeLeon

10 p.m. Sat., Oct. 17

Tipitina's, 501 Napoleon Ave., 895-8477;

Tickets $20 advance purchase, $25 door

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NINO ANDES
  • Photo by Nino Andes

There is no direct American analogue to the Tropicalistas, the loose collective of artists, actors, writers and musicians who defied the tyrannical rule of militarized Brazil in the 1960s and '70s through the only means available at the time: coordinated, nonviolent displays of avant-garde expression. Bob Dylan and the British Invasion bands would come the closest — if they had been forced to choose between freedom of speech and liberty.

  "I never thought about that in those terms," says Sérgio Dias Baptista, when asked if it's fair to consider psych/rock founding fathers Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes — the São Paulo band Dias started with older brother Arnaldo and singer Rita Lee in 1966 — as the Dylans or Beatles of Brazil. "Os Mutantes, I think it's an entity, something beyond ourselves, beyond the individuals. I think, on this level, maybe it's something that would be close."

  It's quite a concession for the irreverent, seemingly carefree singer/guitarist. Now 58 and on his second go-round in the band (it was inactive, and thought to be defunct, from 1978 to 2006), Dias has the unique vantage of viewing his career highlights in hindsight while continuing to move forward. His Mutantes ("Mutants" in Portuguese) authored two of the Tropicália movement's essential documents: 1968's eponymous debut, a buzzing, freewheeling, distorted-guitar-pop secret handshake that challenged every notion of the mainstream, post-bossa nova Música Popular Brasileira, or MPB; and 1970's A Divina Comédia ou Ando Meio Desligado, whose heavier, druggy tones indicated the Velvet Underground had invaded Sgt. Dias' Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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  The next decade brought attrition (Lee and Arnaldo Baptista left in '72 and '73, respectively, to pursue solo careers) and the band's eventual demise. Dias moved to the U.S. and toured his own material, including a stop at Tipitina's in the early '80s. A decade later, when works by contemporaries Veloso, Gil, Jorge Ben and Tom Zé were catching notice in North America, an Os Mutantes platter fell into the hands of Kurt Cobain, who reached out to the band, imploring it to reunite for Nirvana's In Utero tour.

  "I think he was very impressed by it, and he sent a letter to Arnaldo," Dias says. The request, he adds, while kind, never was considered. "We weren't in contact; I was in America. Things just drift."

  More overtures would follow, the most notable from former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, whose Luaka Bop label issued the band's first retrospective, Everything is Possible: The Best of Os Mutantes, in 1999. The album features 14 tracks personally selected by Byrne. "It was amazing, because we met before, many, many years before, at his first gig in the CBGB's," Dias recalls. "We had a common friend, so I reminded him of this and we had a good laugh about it. I suggested to him some of the songs."

  It took the better part of another decade, but Os Mutantes finally picked up the mantle. A Tropicália celebration in London in 2006 prompted Dias, bassist Baptista and drummer Ronaldo Leme to play their first show together in 33 years. (Lee, whose original departure carried some acrimony, was not present.) Last month, Dias released Haih or Amortecedor (Anti-), his first studio album since 1975 to bear the Os Mutantes name. Cleaner and considerably less gonzo than previous recordings, the LP, which is sung almost entirely in Portuguese, is nonetheless a signature grab bag of prog rock, flighty guitar pop and psychedelic flourishes. It also touches on the band's famously political (if clownishly so) bent, with a forceful introduction by Vladimir Putin and a Latin lounge cut called "Baghdad Blues."

  The new sonic direction can be read as a reflection of the four-decade sea change in Brazil, where Gil, imprisoned and exiled in 1969, was tabbed as the country's Minister of Culture in 2003. "It is beautiful to see your music outlast you," Dias muses. "It's amazing sometimes to revisit and see myself playing what I'm playing now, playing the same stuff that I did when I was 16. And having to admit, 'Wow, that kid was good!'"

  Where before Os Mutantes was forced into hiding, using overdriven effects in order to obscure its antiestablishment lyrics, the band is now free to speak openly and to collaborate with whom it pleases. Enlisting a different cast of players for Haih, Dias queried Tropicália compatriots Tom Zé and Jorge Ben — the latter of whom penned Os Mutantes' first single, "A Minha Menina" — to help him co-write the record. "We started working together, and it was like peanut butter and jelly," Dias says.

  Like riding a bicycle, one wonders? "No, I think it was better," he counters. "The bicycle became a Harley."

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