Notions of a lasting reunion were fleeting when Os Mutantes reconvened in 2006. Dormant for 28 years, the fabled Brazilian tropicalia ensemble began a second life with a sort of reawakening performance at London's Barbican Arts Centre.
For Sergio Dias, resurrecting the band meant being able to enlist a brigade of younger collaborators. His brother, bassist-keyboardist Arnaldo Baptista, was equally eager but would eventually leave the realigned unit in 2007. Singer Rita Lee, the third of the band's original members, chose not to participate in the reunion.
So it fell to Dias to keep alive Os Mutantes' brand of tropicalia — a mix of animated pop, indigenous stylistic inspiration, politically streaked story lines and improvisation that surfaced as an artistic movement in Brazil in the late '60s.
"When we first agreed to play for the Barbican, we thought it was going to be for one concert," Dias said. "Then a small but very solid tour lined up. In America, we were getting booked at all of these important places, like opening for The Flaming Lips at the Hollywood Bowl, playing the Pitchfork Festival in Seattle and eventually playing at the Fillmore, which was a dream for me. And this was all before we had played one note. We weren't even a band again yet, but all these people were eager to hear us. I couldn't understand it."
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Even at the height of the tropicalia movement, Os Mutantes was sailing well under the artistic radar, mostly because its records never received wide distribution in the United States. It nonetheless garnered a modest but devout following on these shores. Among Os Mutantes' American fans were Kurt Cobain, who tried, unsuccessfully, to initiate a reunion concert in 1993; and David Byrne, who oversaw the band's 1999 compilation album Everything Is Possible.
Curiously, veteran fans are the ones who aren't making the biggest fuss over the new Os Mutantes lineup that Dias has assembled or over Haih ... Or Amortecedor ..., the first full album of new studio material under the band's name in three decades. Instead, far younger audiences — such as the one expected for Sunday night's Boomslang finale performance at Buster's — are tuning in to the band's often playful experimentation.
"It's a beautiful thing to put out a record sung entirely in Portuguese and have these kids accepting it and enjoying it," Dias said. "To have the freedom to do whatever we wanted, that's the beauty of these times. I don't think we could have done something like this in the '80s or '90s."
But that's fine with Dias. Freedom, in his book, does not translate into nostalgia. Despite his band's extensive history, he views Os Mutantes very much as artistic voice of the here and now.
"Even at the first date back together at the Barbican, the first thing I said was, 'Let's do a new album,'" he said. "We didn't want to conceive a band that lives on through some music we did 30 or 40 years ago.
"Music is not about thinking. It's about feeling. We understand music as a free concept, an open canvas. You're allowed to do whatever you want."