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Three Decades of Brazil’s Rita Lee

Rita Lee has been around for more than 30 years. Her first appearance was when her band, Os Mutantes, backed Gilberto Gil at the 1967 International Music Festival in Brazil when the latter performed “Domingo No Parque” (A Sunday at The Park), a performance that is remembered mostly for its controversy.

It was the first time that a popular musician from Brazil had appeared on stage with an electric band, and purists in the audience reacted negatively in pretty much the same manner that the crowd at the Newport Music Festival in 1965 booed Bob Dylan for the same reason.

The following year, Os Mutantes were back on the national scene by participating in Tropicalia, the Caetano Veloso/Gilberto Gil project that today is regarded as Brazil’s response to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

After her breakup with the band in 1973 (she was forced out after her fallout with bandleader Arnaldo Baptista), she went on into a successful solo career as a singer/songwriter that brought her fans several hits through three decades.

Lee has influenced many musicians over the years, and her earlier tunes often come back in the voices of other performers.

In 2002, Bahia-born Daniela Mercury had a huge hit with a remake of “Mutante” (Mutant), a 1980s Lee composition. In the early 90s, Marisa Monte covered the Mutantes’ “Ando Meio Desligado” (I Feel Disconnected), and more recently Maria Rita hit the airwaves with “Agora Só Falta Você” (Now You Are the Only Thing Missing).

Rita Lee is now back with a new album and tour, which hit American shores in September, kicking off with an appearance at New York’s Town Hall on September 22.

The new album, entitled Balacobaco (an untranslatable word that means something like “a big party”), was recently nominated for best rock album in the latest edition of The Latin Grammys.

Balacobaco is her first CD of original music since the release of 2000’s 3001, which had been considered her rockiest album in years.

On this album, Lee rocks less than she had done in earlier albums.

The opening song, “Amor e Sexo”(Love and Sex), a comparison between the virtues of a longtime love affair versus casual sex:

Amor é livro – Sexo é esporte/Sexo é escolha – Amor é sorte/Amor é pensamento, teorema/Amor é novela – Sexo é cinema/Sexo é imaginação, fantasia/Amor é prosa – Sexo é poesia/O amor nos torna patéticos/Sexo é uma selva de epiléticos…

Love is a book – Sex is sport/Sex is choice – Love is luck/Love is thought, a theoreme/Love is a soap opera – Sex is a movie/Sex is imagination, fantasy/Love is prose – Sex is poetry/Love makes fools out of us/Sex is a forest of seizures…

Despite the playful lyrics, the music itself sounds a bit tired, and the following track, “A Fulana” (The Bitch”), feels empty and uninspired.

However, the following track, “As Mina de Sampa” (The Girls of São Paulo) is a playful ska that pokes fun on the women of São Paulo, Brazil’s industrial and financial center, where Lee was born and raised by a British father and an Italian mother.

To live in São Paulo (as this writer did for 6 years) is sort being in a poor man’s version of an enlarged version of New York (the population there exceeds 20 million people) – there are important museums, show venues and expensive residences which cater to the 5% of the people who can afford those luxuries, while the rest of the populace watches as if from a distance.

“As Mina de Sampa” looks, with a deep sense of humor, to the ambitions of the young women of that large town:

As mina de Sampa querem grana, um cara bacana, de poder/Um jeito americanês de sobreviver/As mina de Sampa são modernas, eternas dondocas/mas pra sambar no pé tem que nascer carioca

The girls from São Paulo want dough, a nice, powerful guy/an American-like way to be/ The girls from São Paulo are modern and spoiled/but to dance the samba, you have to be born in Rio

The best track of the album is “Já Te Falei” (I’ve Told You), a song penned by Marisa Monte, Carlinhos Brown, Arnaldo Antunes and Dadi – the latter being the current bassist of Lee’s current touring band.

Monte, Brown and Antunes are three of the most successful singer/songwriters in Brazil today. Last year, they teamed up for a highly successful album entitled Tribalistas.

This previously unreleased song reached Lee’s hand through Dadi, and she gave it a very personal treatment, but the background vocals give away how much Rita Lee was influenced by the demo Marisa Monte sent her.

After such a great work of art, you expect the next one to be great – and there’s where you’re terribly wrong. “Nave Terra”(Spaceship Earth) is annoying. The words are a bad mockery of the Roman Catholic prayer to Mary, and the words’ constant repetition screams for the remote:

Ave terra, cheia de natureza/O sol é convosco/Bendita sois vós entre os planetas

E bendito é o fruto de vossa semente, vida…

Hail earth, full of nature/The sun is with you/Hallowed are though amongst planets

And hallowed is the fruit of your seed, life…

But alas, the album has other great moments, such as “Tudo Vira Bosta” (Everything Turns To Shit), a Moacyr Franco penned song that tells us how everything in life is ephemeral:

O vinho branco, a cachaça, o chope escuro/o herói e o dedo-duro/O grafite lá no muro, o seu cartão e seu seguro/ quem cobrou e pagou juro, meu passado, meu futuro/ Tudo vira bosta

The white wine, the cachaça and the dark beer/the hero and the snitch/the graffiti on the wall/your credit card and your insurance/those who collect and those who pay interest/ my past and my future/It all turns to shit…

Also very nice is Lee’s subtle bossa nova rendition of the classic Harburg/Arlen tune “Over the Rainbow”.

Instead of aiming for the obvious, Lee enriches the song with clever mellotron insertions behind a beautiful acoustic arrangement (by hubby Roberto de Carvalho, who co-wrote the original material and produced the album), delivering a very enjoyable version of an otherwise tired song.

The album closes with “Hino dos Malucos” (Hymn to The Mad), a cute song that changes from a pop ballad to straight-out rock and roll with lyrics that evoke the better part of being a little out of tune with the world:

Nós os malucos vamos lutar/para neste estado continuar/Nunca sensatos nem condizentes/mas parecemos supercontentes/Nossos neurônios são esquisitos/ Por isso mesmo estamos sempre aflitos…

We the mad will fight/to remain this way/Never sensible nor agreeing/but we seem super-happy/Our neurons are strange/And that is why we seem a little nervous…”

The theme of madness is not new to Lee. Years ago back in her Mutantes years, she wrote “Balada do Louco”(Madman’s Ballad), in which she pretty much explored the same theme much more successfully – but this one at least updates the topic a bit.

Balacobaco is a nice album, and once you learn to ignore its bad moments (that’s what the program feature on our CD players is made for), it becomes quite an enjoyable musical experience – the Grammy nomination is definitely deserving.

Rita Lee
Som Livre/Brazil

This article appeared originally in Gaytoday.com.

Ernest Barteldes is an ESL and Portuguese teacher. In addition to that, he is a freelance writer who has regularly been contributing to The Greenwich Village Gazette since September 1999. His work has also been published by Brazzil, The Staten Island Advance, The Staten Island Register, The SI Muse, The Villager, GLSSite and other publications. He lives in Staten Island, NY. He can be reached at ebarteldes@yahoo.com.


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