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Rita Lee, Os Mutantes singer and Brazilian rock pioneer, is dead at 75

A fan of the late Rita Lee pays his respects at the public wake in São Paulo, Brazil. His sign makes reference to "Ovelha Negra" (or black sheep in Portuguese), a song from 1975's <em>Fruto Proibido</em>.
Nelson Almeida
/
AFP via Getty Images
A fan of the late Rita Lee pays his respects at the public wake in São Paulo, Brazil. His sign makes reference to "Ovelha Negra" (or black sheep in Portuguese), a song from 1975's Fruto Proibido.

Rita Lee, the Brazilian singer, musician, composer and a founder of Os Mutantes, has died. She was 75.

"We communicate the passing of Rita Lee, in her home, in São Paulo, late last night, surrounded by all the love of her family, as she always wanted," shared Lee's official social media channels, translated from Portuguese. "In this moment of deep sadness, the family is thankful for everyone's affection and love." Her cause of death was not disclosed. In 2021, the artist was diagnosed with lung cancer and went into remission last year.

Rita Lee Jones de Carvalho was born Dec. 31, 1947, in São Paulo to an American Brazilian father and Brazilian mother of Italian descent. Music was an early part of her life, including piano lessons with Magda Tagliaferro. Still a teen, Lee formed Os Mutantes in 1966 with Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias. Inspired by The Beatles and the emerging Tropicália movement in São Paulo, Os Mutantes' psychedelic music included fuzzed-out freak outs underscored by carnivalesque orchestrations, found sounds and pan-Latin rhythms.

''The bottom line is that we were light-years ahead of everyone else,'' Lee told the New York Times in 2001. ''We were so innocent back then that we weren't even fully aware of what we were doing, and that gave our music a tremendous honesty. Everything we did was spontaneous and natural in a way that is simply not possible today, and I think that people have come to value that and respond to it passionately.''

That naive, yet exploratory alchemy was baked into five brilliant albums from 1968 to 1972, not to mention Os Mutantes' studio work for Gilberto Gil on his second, self-titled album. Every song is somehow cool and collected, yet also on the brink of falling apart. With its lyrical repetition and variation, "Bat Macumba," for example, feels like it could be a novelty song for go-go dancers, but its scorched guitar fizz warps listeners into another dimension. "Panis Et Circenses," which appeared on the 1968 compilation and artistic manifesto Tropicália, was written by Gil and Caetano Veloso, but Os Mutantes gives the satirical song — led by Lee's soft-but-commanding voice — a psychedelic gravitas. "We were a magical potion," Dias told Psychedelic Baby Magazine. "We always knew what each other was up to even without talking."

Lee left Os Mutantes in 1972 "in search of Brazil, Brazil, Brazil," to assert her roots. (She was also briefly married to fellow Os Mutantes member Baptista during this time.) You can hear that as early as 1970's Build Up, which was backed by Os Mutantes, but over the decades, her music became more conventional, especially her pop collaborations with Roberto Carvalho, whom she later married. Yet still, there's adventure and deceptive easy-going feeling in those albums — political dissent, sexual exploration and religion remained top of mind.

As fans lined up at the Planetarium at Ibirapuera Park for a public wake, tributes have poured in. "Comadre Rita, Anibal, cabrinha, caprichosa capricorniana, amiga," tweeted Gil. "Rest, my sister. I love you."

Baptista credits Lee for the "circus feel" of Os Mutantes, including its humor, costumes and instruments played, like the theremin. Even the current president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, declared three days of mourning and called Lee "one of the greatest and most brilliant names in Brazilian music."

"The angels sing," Dias shared in a statement. "The archangels lower their eyes and God bows to let her go by... my love... she went to meet love."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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