In Conversation: Sérgio Dias of Os Mutantes Talks the Olympics, Brazilian Politics

The titan of Tropicália and psych rock has a few thoughts on the state of his home country.

The 2016 Summer Olympics have come and gone, and, incredibly, the most shocking thing to happen outside of the competitive field involved Ryan Lochte, a bathroom, and the lingering effects of hair dye. It may be hard to remember now that the torch has been extinguished on a surprisingly memorable set of Games, but there were serious fears in the months leading up to the opening ceremony that the struggling Brazilian infrastructure might not be able to serve the country’s own citizens, much less the crowds that would descend on Rio for the Games. Combine that with the continuing Zika crisis, the fact that the State of Rio declared a state of “public calamity” in June, ongoing concerns over the cleanliness of the water, and—oh yeah—the fact that President Dilma Rousseff is nearing the end of an impeachment trial while her replacement (and political rival) Michel Temer attempts to push through regressive policies that would not meet the muster of the people.

So yeah, it’s been a long summer for Brazil.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that Brazil has been in crisis mode. Following a 1964 coup d’etat, the country was ruled by a military junta (a condition that lasted until 1985). Their regressive control led to widespread protest and eventually to the creation of Tropicália, a music and art movement spearheaded by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Caetano and Gil, as they’re respectively called by Brazilians, would eventually be exiled to London, but not before they made stars out of the São Paulo group Os Mutantes, who backed Caetano and Gil at a number of highly contentious concerts before their own particularly Brazilian take on Beatles-esque psychedelia won them international fame.

Despite its mellifluous melodies, Tropicália is defiantly political music that arose directly from turmoil in a moment not dissimilar to Brazil’s present; both musically and politically, it presented a challenge to Brazil’s status quo, and it met with passionate reactions from supporters and detractors alike. Back in June, a few weeks after Temer assumed power, we called up Os Mutantes’s Sérgio Dias to get his take on the current state of his home country and whether the 2016 Summer Olympics would ultimately prove to be a good thing for Rio or not. As we spoke, he was on tour with the current incarnation of Mutantes in Berlin, and he himself currently lives in Las Vegas as an American citizen, but it was clear that Brazil is never far from his heart or his mind.

How do you explain what’s going on in Brazil right now?

This is basically the ripple effect of what happened with the coup d’etat in Brazil in 1964. The problem is that once the military “gave” the power to the people—or to the politicians—they institutionalized corruption. It spread like a cancer that you can’t control, so it’s all over the place. There’s no sense anymore of what’s right or wrong. This is the worst disease that can happen in a community. It affects everything: socio-political things, the police, the law, the judicial system; everything is really tarnished by all this.

It’s really sad. I saw yesterday that people were protesting against Michel Temer. OK, get out Temer, but then there’s going to be another one, then another one, then another one. It’ll take a couple of generations to fix this thing. It’s a very serious matter. But it’s great that people are manifesting.

So are you saying that you think the coup in 1964 created a culture of instability in Brazil?

Totally. They basically destroyed all of the culture, education, everything. That was basically America’s fear during the Cold War: they didn’t want Brazil to become a Cuba or any other place in South America. After Brazil in ’64, all of the other countries in South America fell like dominoes. I believe the CIA was there and was effective. They basically controlled the culture of this country. Culture and education is the number one thing that can make people aware [of the world] and know what they’re living for.

What was it like growing up in São Paulo before the coup?

It was great. It was fantastic. São Paulo was a lovely, gorgeous town. Now it’s totally overpopulated. To be able to make São Paulo livable now they’d have to flatten half of the place and redo the structure of traffic and everything. It’s sad; it was a beautiful city.

If I understand correctly, with Tropicália, you were trying to do that very thing, right? Talk about the inherent beauty of Brazil and Brazilian culture while also bringing it to the international stage.

“I am hoping that the mask falls and exposes everything in a very clear way of what kind of government we have, what kind of institutions we have.”

No, not really. We never really thought about international. Not even Gil and Caetano. We were busy doing our stuff in Brazil. We never had dreams of becoming an international band. It was just a thing that happened through our music. We were focused in the moment that we were living through. And we were kids! I was like sixteen when I was playing with Gil for the first time.

What was that like?

Kids are anarchists by definition; that’s the best thing you have as a child is to be able to think you’re immortal—you don’t fear. That was a great asset for us. But then when Gil and Caetano were arrested, we really got the wake up call.

I know a bit about Brazil, but my understanding of it as a place is limited to your records and a tiny bit of reading. One of the things I think is interesting about World Cup and the Olympics is that they, for better or worse, present a louder picture of a society to the world.

Yeah, I think this is an excellent thing. When we had the World Cup, that started there. I thought, “This is gonna be great.” Then we have the Olympics. [I thought,] “This is going to be the best time to show the world what the hell is happening here.”

I remember I had an interview with a radio guy in France, a socio-political guy, and he was saying how great Brazil’s economy was, and I said, “I beg to differ; it’s chaos there.” They had a picture in Le Figaro or something like that with a kid jumping with a Brazilian t-shirt and in the back, all of the favelas. They don’t realize what the hell is happening. They think because people are doing good in terms of profits, that this will affect the population of Brazil. No: there’s no jobs, there’s no culture, there’s no place to play. It’s a very chaotic moment.

I really believe in this generation, [though]. I think they’re doing a great job. The factor of the Internet is very important. It’s great: it can show the crystal-clear reality without censorship or anything. It gets a little bit too diluted, but now, for example, we’re having hard talks about Dilma.

One of the biggest problems is that the last three governments have promised a lot in terms of economics. People were putting money in Brazil, and they didn’t pay the bill. So everybody lost a lot. How can they now remake the economic situation in Brazil without the belief of the international [community]?

Brazilians in São Paulo protest Dilma Rousseff in late 2015 / photo courtesy of Agência Brasil

Do you think the Olympics are good for Brazil culturally? Do they present a good portrait of what Brazilian life truly is?

It’s a beautiful and great thing, the Olympics, that shouldn’t be mixed with politics. It’s something that should be a commemoration of all countries and the human race. [At the same time,] I’m passing by the stadium right now where Hitler had to swallow the fact of black guys [racing] [Editor’s note: American sprinter Jesse Owens’s four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics were an obvious rebuke to Hitler’s claims of the physical supremacy of Nazi Germany]. So it is political whether we want it to be or not. I am hoping that the mask falls and exposes everything in a very clear way of what kind of government we have, what kind of institutions we have. This has to change, otherwise it’s going to be a total collapse. Or we might face a civilian revolution, you know?

Does that seem like a plausible outcome at this point?

Well, I don’t know. You see in [the French Revolution]: they killed everybody and then they ended up with an emperor. So what’s the point? Of course, there have been very positive revolutions throughout world history. Take the American Revolution; America went to war against the Brits to get freedom, and those things are sometimes necessary. Since being here in Berlin and thinking about the five or six guys who made this fucking mess—Mussolini, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Tojo—are behind all of this nonsense and total destruction and that ended up with the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then we were paused, because everyone said, “Oh, we could die now.”

Your love for Brazil is very apparent. Is it hard for you to be so far away while all of this is going on?

Not really, because I did what I had to do. I did my part; I still do. What I’m doing now is—because of our music, I’m giving this interview now and we’re talking about serious matters, not about, like, what kind of shoes I wear at the show. We’re doing our part, but I’m not sixteen anymore, I’m sixty-five. So now it’s up to the other kids to be able to do this and push it. But they’re doing very well. Before I was a little bit pissed because they were just on the Internet, but now they’re on the streets, which is great.

I heard that the first protests against Dilma were the biggest protests São Paulo had ever had.

As you see, the great thing about the Internet is that now the little guy is starting to know what it’s all about. He can learn and realize that he can start the butterfly effect. We had the revolution in São Paulo for the constitution because we didn’t have a constitution in 1932, and that started with four students who were killed. That was the fuse for the revolution then. São Paulo fought against the entire country. We lost, but we got a constitution. Sometimes you have to shed blood for what you believe. FL

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