Brazilian bassist and producer Liminha worked with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes

"Old Brazilian music and bossa nova was fantastic, but people used to make lists of things that were forbidden, including having electric guitars on song festivals."

by David Katz

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Liminha. Photo by Mario Luiz Thompson/Arquivo.

Os Mutantes bassist Liminha (born Arnolpho Lima Jr.) is one of the multi-talented individuals responsible for shaping Brazilian music over the last forty years. Everyone in Brazil knows Liminha for his production work with Gilberto Gil—it spans about thirty years—but Mr. Lima is a versatile and influential musician in his own right. When I reach Nas Nuvens, the esteemed studio he and Gil established in the 1980s, I find that there are so many gold and platinum discs saluting Liminha’s talents that the walls of his office are not able to hold them all. And in addition to the array of instruments that seem to lurk in every corner, I was pleased to find the analog reel-to-reel that remains Liminha’s preferred method of capturing his magical productions. It is this old school sensibility, coupled with an open-mindedness and willingness to try new things, that has resulted in hits for everyone from João Gilberto and Jorge Ben to younger innovators like Ed Motta and Nação Zumbi.

Nas Nuvens is housed in a secluded spot, tucked into a hillside in one of Rio’s better neighborhoods. In its relaxed environs on a Sunday afternoon, I find that the only things to worry about are the mangoes occasionally dropping off the roof, and the toxic sand flies that seek the fine wine my host is kind enough to share with me. Over the course of the evening, Liminha regales me with tales of making music since the late 1960s. What follows are some of the highlights, focusing on his early years as the bassist for Os Mutantes, one of the most notorious tropicália acts.

 

 

Originally published as “Teenage Mutant” on July 13, 2010

 

 

How did you become involved in music?

My mother was a piano teacher, and my father was a pharmacist who played violin, guitar, and mandolin. He wasn’t able to read music, so he improv-ed a lot. I started on acoustic guitar—a sort of dobro guitar—when I was ten. I remember I went to a college park with my sister for a party for the end of the year, and I said, “Man, I have to go to this college, because I want to step on that stage.” So the next year, I was at the college, and we put a band together with five acoustic guitars. Then, when I was thirteen years old, my father gave me a bass—just a piece of wood with no frets—but electric bass at that time was a very professional thing, so I felt I had taken another step. My mother used to lock my bass up, and I was only allowed to play on the weekends, because I started doing pretty bad in school. It was just music, music, music, music. Then I started to play in many garage bands, and eventually I had a covers band called Baobás. We used to play songs by Merseybeat groups like the Dave Clark Five, a little Beatles, the Turtles, Paul Revere, plus the Kinks, the Doors—in fact, I remember the first time I went to the studio, I recorded a cover of “Light My Fire.”

When did things reach another level?

Caetano Veloso was searching for a band to support him, and I don’t remember how, but he showed up at the place where we used to rehearse, and then he contracted us to be his support band. So that was my first professional work as a musician, when I was around seventeen, in 1967 or ’68. And that was the beginning of the movement that he was creating together with Gilberto Gil, called tropicália. We were the second band that played with him on song festivals, which were competitions shown on TV.

You joined Os Mutantes shortly thereafter. How did it happen?

I met Sérgio Dias before, when I was sixteen, and we played together. I was very impressed, because he was a really brilliant guitarist, years ahead of his time. So we became friends, and when I started playing with Caetano, we played on TV shows, and we started to share the bill on programs like [O Cassino do] Chacrinha, a TV show hosted by a crazy clown. After I left Baobás, I was invited to play on a song festival with Gilberto Gil. Gil went to one of our rehearsals with Caetano, and I remember we were rehearsing his song, “Bat Macumba,” and he was watching me playing, and we exchanged smiles. So for this song festival, we put together a duo called Gil and Gilá: Gilberto Gil was playing accordion, and I was playing my father’s acoustic ten-string guitar, and Os Mutantes were there, playing their songs. So that was the first time that I played with them. Then they invited me for another song festival, to play the same acoustic guitar.

Caetano Veloso wasn’t using Os Baobás anymore?

I don’t know what happened, but Caetano stopped [performing] with the band. I remember I recorded two singles with Baobás. The second single was Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” and that’s the first time I played a Fender—a white Fender Mustang with a pickguard. But going back to Mutantes, after I played on the second song festival with them, one day I came home and my mom said, “Two crazy guys in a crazy car came here and asked you to call them.” So I asked her, “What? What were the guys like?” And she said, “I guess it’s that band, Mutantes. Two crazy guys and one girl in a Ford Fairlane with a crazy paint job.” And boy, I was in the sky, because I was always saying to my girlfriend, “My dream is one day I’m gonna play with Mutantes.” And then the dream comes true! I joined Mutantes at the end of ’69, and in 1970, we went to Paris and spent one month there, playing every night at L’Olympia.

Was that your first time outside Brazil?

Yeah, and it was a cultural shock! What happened was, they called Elis Regina, but at the last moment, she couldn’t make it, so we went there, which was a great experience. At that time, I was dying to move to London, because London was the center of the world, everything was happening there, but as soon as we finished in Paris, we had to come back to Brazil, because we had a contract with Globo TV to do a series of musical performances. So I came back, and we started recording.

What was tropicália all about, and how did Os Mutantes relate to it?

The tropicália movement was very ahead of its time, because in Brazil, the musical scene was a little bit conservative—people didn’t like electric guitars. Old Brazilian music and bossa nova was fantastic, but people used to make lists of things that are forbidden, including having electric guitars on song festivals. And Os Mutantes, we are so noisy! But the great thing about Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso is that they are anxious for change. They decided, “We love João Gilberto, bossa nova, Dorival Caymmi, Tom Jobim, but we also love rock and roll, the Beatles, George Martin. We love what’s happening all over the world.” So tropicália is very important, because they broke all the rules. And the sound… if George Martin was the maestro in producing, then Rogério Duprat, the guy who writes songs for orchestras—and for Gilberto Gil, Caetano, and Os Mutantes—he was our George Martin, and Rogério Duprat was a fantastic guy. So the importance of tropicália was that a new music had come. If it didn’t, we would probably just stick with the acoustic thing.

Tropicália emerged during the era of repression, and Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso were arrested by the military government and sent into exile. Did tropicália make you a target?

It was very difficult. If you write lyrics, there’s a government department that you have to send your lyrics to for approval. Chico Buarque even used a pseudonym for one song. It was terrible, it was really hard, and when I look back on it now, I think, “How can we have lived that kind of life?” They took Gil and Caetano away because they were the heads of the movement, but the movement was not a political thing the way they think it was. So it was terrible. It was so unfair with Gilberto and Caetano, but at the same time, I think the experience of living out of Brazil for those two years that they spent in London became a very constructive, very prolific time for them, because they learned a lot. And only if you lived in London at that time could you get all that different information. So I guess, in the end, it was good for them, too. It was sad, but it was good.

How long did you remain in Os Mutantes? Their later prog rock phase sounds troubled.

I was there until the drummer, Dinho Leme, left the band. It was hard, you know, because I guess Mutantes really finished when Rita Lee left the band. She was married to Arnaldo Baptista, and the marriage was not good, so it was hard to stay together. Rita used to say, “They fired me,” but I cried a lot when she left the band, because she was my partner. She was like a sister. She was very, very open, so I lost a partner when she left. I went to London with her in ’72, just Rita, me, my girlfriend, and another girl, and it was fantastic! One month just doing everything, seeing Jeff Beck and Joe Cocker. I went to Crystal Palace to see Edgar Winter, and you have no idea how tough that impact was, because it was the first time I heard a live sound outdoors, and the sound was perfect. And I took some acid, and it was something else. Can you imagine, at twenty years old, you’re there… and I don’t know how they even allowed me into the country, because I had big hair, and I changed the color of my hair, put red coloring. But it was fantastic, man, fantastic…

So you think Rita Lee’s departure was the beginning of the end for Os Mutantes?

Yeah. It’s like when you’re almost dying, but all of a sudden, you have more life; you’re supposed to be dead, but we still had some life after Rita left the band. I think what made Mutantes go down was after we listened to Yes, the first Yes album. I love the albums Yes, Fragile, and Close to the Edge. And Chris Squire, he’s a genius, but that progressive rock was not related to Mutantes, because we had a sort of irreverence and humor, and with Rita gone, it changed the sound. Then I remember I bought a Mellotron for Arnaldo when I was in London, and as a progressive rock band, live, we were good, but when I listened to the album, I didn’t like the songs—I didn’t like anything, and I’d rather stay with the old material. With Os Mutantes, I guess five albums are great, but then, when Arnaldo left the band, that was terrible—everything was gone. I remember I came back from London with Rita in September ’72, and after the beginning of ’73, I guess she left the band, and Arnaldo left a month later. Then I left the band in ’74.

Was the drug use also problematic?

Well, we were very radical about drugs. Drugs, for us, was something that we were expecting to change the world. We were criticizing the whole system, with our macrobiotic foods, and we just smoked pot and took acid—no cocaine, no drinks. I remember when I went to Crystal Palace, I saw a guy drinking a beer, and I said, “Wow, what a straight thing, man! Drinking and taking acid, what? No way, man!” Because for us, it was a sort of spiritual thing, an esoteric thing. We were always expecting to see flying saucers, and we were with a crazy humor, but we were serious about our philosophy. But, certainly, the drugs were a problem. That’s why Arnaldo and Rita went so crazy.

Os Mutantes first re-formed in 2006 to perform at a celebration of tropicália at the Barbican in London. Were you involved?

They invited me to do it, but in my mind, we are sort of mythic, because Kurt Cobain mentioned Mutantes when he was asked, “What kind of Brazilian music [do] you like?” And David Byrne, Sean Lennon, there’s a lot of people that like Mutantes, but Mutantes was that Mutantes, with Rita, Arnaldo, and Sérgio. And if you don’t have the three of them, it’s just not Mutantes anymore, because Mutantes is not just the music. It was attitude, behavior, irreverence, and the lyrics. We were young at that time, and if you step onstage now just to reproduce the music with different guys, it’s not the same thing. So when they called me to do that, I went to see my friends, because I hadn’t seen Arnaldo for more than ten years, and Sérgio and Arnaldo, they didn’t talk for much longer than that. The manager called Rita to invite her too, and Rita was very nice, but she said, “I’m in a different moment of my life, so good luck for you, but I can’t go.” And I respect Rita a lot, because she is very important for Brazilian music—she wrote great songs, and she’s part of the history of Brazilian music. So I decided not to go, but maybe if she said, “Yes, I’ll go,” I would have gone, too.

After they did the DVD, I got together with Sérgio and Dinho at the MTV awards in Brazil, and it was very nice to see old friends. And the manager said, “We have to put the band together, because there are shows to do out of the country.” And I was a little touched by that situation, so a few weeks later, I called Sérgio and said, “Hey, Sérgio, are you sitting down? Okay, why don’t we try it?” After Mutantes, I did a lot. Mutantes was like my university, and after that, I’ve had so many years producing the greatest Brazilian artists—I did much, much more than Mutantes, so that’s why I never thought about putting Mutantes back together. But then I went to São Paolo, and we played for four days. But it’s not the same thing, so there’s no way to keep going—not for me. I respect [Sérgio], because he retouches his life, and he’s a fantastic guitar player, and a great singer too, and all those songs, all that material—he’s the best guy to do it. Nobody can do better than him, as he’s the owner of Mutantes, and that’s central.

 

 

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