Song In My Head #58: “Panis et Circenses” by Os Mutantes

I was pretty eager to watch the 2016 Rio Olympics opening ceremony last night, and I definitely found it compelling. (Maybe it’s because I’m one-quarter Azorean Portuguese that I’ve always felt a kinship with Brazil.) The spectacle was beautiful, and it’s always a joy to hear all the Brazilian music. (I was particularly thrilled that Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso participated, though NBC’s reliably scattershot and commercial-stuffed coverage ensured that we barely saw them.) Yet, I saw one gaping absence in the proceedings. After the ceremony, I ran to my record collection to immerse myself in what, for me, is the greatest of the Brazilian bands: Os Mutantes.

How to explain this long-running and deeply influential group to new listeners? Here are the opening paragraphs of my 2006 attempt:

“Once upon a time in São Paulo, Brazil, some teenagers formed a band. It featured visionary wiseacre Arnaldo Baptista on bass and keyboards, and his younger brother, guitar prodigy Sérgio Dias. Budding siren Rita Lee completed the trio, which was christened Os Mutantes, ‘the mutants.’ An inventive, irresistible sound, part of the Tropicália movement, surfaced on its 1968 self-titled debut, evolving through several 1970s releases. Sadly, Os Mutantes remained virtually unknown outside Brazil.

“Today, Os Mutantes includes hipster royalty among its fans. Beck, Stereolab, the Posies, and David Byrne (who released an Os Mutantes best-of on his Luaka Bop label) have all praised the band. Speaking from Santo André, Brazil by phone, Sérgio Dias affirms that this unprecedented recognition touches him deeply. ‘It is a humbling situation to see all these kids, 30 years later, listening to your music and saying ‘Hey, this reflects me.'”

Yes, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sérgio Dias in advance of the band’s first San Francisco appearance in 2006, and I consider it one of the happiest moments of my writing career. I’d had a lot of nerves working up to it, considering that I had to compress the band’s complex history (plus Tropicália) into 600 words. (There were also logistical factors involved, since I didn’t know if I would be conducting the interview by phone or e-mail until the very end. Eventually I had to wing it. More about that shortly.) Luckily, the incredibly gracious Dias put me at ease right away, and we chatted animatedly about everything from the drawbacks of mp3s to the guitarist’s love of thunderstorms. Even though I had a (very!) scary time explaining a $242 international phone call to my editors, I don’t regret a second of it. (Coincidentally, Dias toured with a new Mutantes lineup earlier this year. I’d love to hear about those shows, if anyone out there saw them!)

The band’s genre-bursting variety and lengthy discography can make it hard to choose an ideal starter song. (Many people know their supremely funky garage-style cover of Jorge Ben’s “A Minha Menina,” possibly because it appeared in a fast food commercial during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.) Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to play the opening track from their 1968 debut, which heralded the entire Tropicália movement as well. I present “Panis et Circenses” (“Bread and Circuses”):

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