World Psychedelic Classics Vol. 1 – Os Mutantes

Tripping out on Tim Maia is quite a common occurrence here at Audio Snobbery (Exhibit A: Tripping Out on Tim Maia), but today I would like to tell you the story of one particular trip that sent me down a rabbit hole that would change the course of musical history forever… 

…well not quite, BUT it did lead to my discovery of the World Psychedelic Classics series and it’s mysterious but undeniably cool creator: Luaka Bop Records.

It was one of my very first Tim Maia trips. I was bobbing my head and slapping the air bass to O Caminho do Bem when I noticed that I was not listening to the album of its release (Racional, Vol. 2), but to something called World Psychedelic Classics 4: Nobody Can Live Forever: The Existential Soul of Tim Maia, which was released in 2012 as a compilation. There I sat confused until the dots connected and I realised ‘if there is a World Psychedelic Classics 4, there must be at least another 3…’ and sure enough I looked it up and there were not 3 but 4 other potentially equally psychedelic albums and compilations for me to obsess over. My love affair with Luaka Bop was born. 

Like many of the most incredible things in life it all started with a playlist (cough, like Audio Snobbery, cough) or back in those days a mixtape. The year was 1988, and the beautiful mind responsible was Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Byrne had been making mixtapes of his favourite Tropicalismo tracks to share with his friends when he realised the world probably needed to hear them as well. One thing led to another and these mixtapes turned into a fully fledged record label, created solely for the purpose it seems of tripping out on eclectic music from around the world (with Brazil, unsurprisingly front and centre).

For the uninitiated, Tropicalismo (also known as Tropicalia) was an artistic movement from Brazil that began in the 60s and took its musical shape from the mish mash of Brazilian and foreign imported sounds. If traditional Brazilian music had got together with African rhythms and American and British pop rock and psychedelia, then the resulting love child would be Tropicalismo. 

Of course one could not showcase Tropicalismo without Os Mutantes, which brings us to our first volume of the World Psychedelic Classics series: Everything is Possible, The Best of Os Mutantes. Os Mutantes were the urban response to the movement, which had previously been dominated by the country’s musical overlords in Bahia, a fitting tropical paradise in the Northeast of Brazil. These included Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Tom Zé to name a few (more on them later). The original, and easily the most prolific, Mutantes were brothers Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias Baptista and lead singer Rita Lee, (much more on her later). 

The São Paulo group is often compared to the Beatles, and after giving them a listen you will see why. Now, I know what you’re thinking “is this clown really trying to draw parallels with the Beatles? He must have fully lost it” and you’re absolutely right, but before  you send any hate mail, or gather with pitchforks outside of my house, hear me out. These guys were extremely creative in their approach to making music. Every song seems to use a completely different line up of instruments: from a standard 3 piece to a full blown orchestra to a single mandolin, ukulele or banjo and everything in between. The vocals also vary along a similar wide spectrum in key, harmony and language. The result is an incredibly broad range of sounds that can’t really be put into the box of a single genre. Now, what’s impressive is that in this range they were able to find a unique signature that makes them surprisingly easy to identify, much like…..well, The Beatles. 

The compilation in question is a carefully curated selection of some of the most iconic tracks the group produced in their first 3 studio albums. Byrne chose these songs based on what he thought would sound sweetest to a non-Brazilian ear. My personal favourites include: Baby, Bat Macumba, and of course Minha Menina however, I highly recommend you give this whole thing a listen, it will be some of the best 50 minutes you spend this week. With the aforementioned range on full display, the collection spans 14 songs and includes Rita’s stunning pipes in Portuguese, English and French. Very psychedelic indeed.   

Os Mutantes have survived multiple decades, countless personnel changes and a hiatus long enough to send even the most iconic musicians into oblivion, and while the current iteration only includes one original member (Sergio) it makes me happy to know the group has managed to mutate and survive all these years. During their golden era Os Mutantes were quite the ubiquitous force in some of Brazil’s best musical years, adding that unique signature of theirs to some of the country’s all time legends’ best work like Jorge Ben Jor, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Of course the opposite was also true (my 3 favourite tracks on this album were actually originally written by Caetano, Gilberto and Jorge respectively). I’ll put it this way, if I had a musical time machine and could go visit any era, then the tropicalismo era in Brazil would be right up there, no question.

[So that wraps up volume 1 of our World Psychedelic Classics series. Stay tuned for the following volumes as we continue to explore some of Byrne’s favourites and venture further down the Luaka Bop rabbit hole. See you soon dear friends. Next stop: California…]