Back in 1993, when Nirvana played in Brazil, Kurt Cobain wrote a letter to a keyboard player and bassist by the name of Arnaldo Baptista, asking him to please reunite his long-defunct band. The band in question: Os Mutantes. If you're not big into Latin rock, you might not know the group — but artists you listen to and love were no doubt deeply influenced by it. Among them is Beck, who describes listening to Os Mutantes for the first time as "one of those revelatory moments you live for as a musician, when you find something that you have been wanting to hear for years but never thought existed.
"I made records like Odelay because there was a certain sound and sensibility that I wanted to achieve," Beck says, "and it was eerie to find that they had already done it 30 years ago, in a totally shocking but beautiful and satisfying way."
What is Os Mutantes? Rewind to Brazil in the late '60s and '70s, when that country, like much of Latin America, was in the grasp of a repressive military dictatorship. It was also a time of identity crisis, with industrialization rapidly changing the cultural and sexual revolutions horrifying the elders. Rock 'n' roll had seduced the youth of Latin America, but it was a complicated and at times uneasy relationship. Many sectors of society saw rock music as yet another form of foreign influence and cultural imperialism, and were eager to incorporate traditional sounds into the genre, including folk, native sounds and a discussion of the Latin American experience.
Case in point, Tropicália: a Brazilian movement of that era which blended bossa nova, blues, jazz, British psychedelic rock, samba, funk, folk, African influences and Portuguese fado. The movement was led by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa... and Os Mutantes. If you haven't heard these names before, check them out: Their sound was and is fun, experimental, wild and sensual, yet socially conscious.
A lot of Latin rock has been criticized for imitating Anglo rock. This is often the case, but many music lovers know what Cobain, Beck and David Byrne were saying: that Latin America has also been fertile ground for musical innovators, a laboratory for explosive musical concoctions that blend Latin sounds with rock, jazz, funk and more. Os Mutantes paved that way, and not just for other Latin rockers: Listen to the group and you'll hear a clear ancestor to Queen and Janis Joplin. And non-Portuguese speakers beware: There's a deeply subversive political aspect to Os Mutantes' lyrics, which were bizarre and complex enough to escape government censorship.
What's wonderful about the tribute album El Justiciero, Cha, Cha, Cha is that the artists who perform the covers are as groundbreaking as Os Mutantes' members were in their time. They are the artists whose work Os Mutantes made possible, which gives a satisfying, full-circle feeling to the record. You can tell it's a good one when the first three tracks blow you away: Argentine group La Manzana Cromática Protoplasmática performs a thrilling, musical-theater-style rendition of "Ave Lúcifer." Colombia's Aterciopelados is breathtaking in "Vida de Cachorro." And Uruguayan singer Martin Buscaglia's "Beso Exagerado" is so '70s, so freaky, so funky, it forced me to exert all the restraint possible to keep from getting up on my desk and dancing.
Here's hoping you have less will power than me.
El Justiciero, Cha, Cha, Cha will stream here in its entirety until Nov. 9. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.