When guitarist Clay Ross and accordionist Rob Curto stepped out on stage in front of ten thousand party-ready Brazilians in the northeastern city of Recife, they weren’t quite sure what to expect. It was their first ever show as Matuto.
“A defining moment,” Ross recalls, thinking back to that fateful show in 2009 when he had received a Fullbright grant to perform in Brazil, and had invited the Portuguese-speaking, forró expert Curto to join the project. They had played together in various configurations around Brooklyn’s wildly cross-cultural music scene, but had never worked together so closely.
“There, on that massive stage, during the apex of Carnaval, through our jazz-influenced originals and bluegrass barnburners our ‘little project’ became the new center of our musical worlds,” recounts Ross. “Feeling that crowd stomp along, with their Brazilian dosey-doe and joyful abandon, was truly special. Since then, we’ve toured the world recreating that moment.” It was that moment when Matuto (Brazilian slang for “country boy”) knew they were onto something.
That serendipitous, dance floor-friendly something remains delightfully open ended, a question the band poses about culture’s mutability and migratory habits, about what it means to embrace and treasure sounds from outside the musical world you were born into. It’s a question that’s unfolded throughout many centuries of African and European co-mingling in the Americas, from Brazil to the American South.
“The tension of cultural intersection is an exciting place to exist. It’s what makes our musical choices feel relevant and exciting,” Ross reflects. “With the music we can ask: What does it mean to be human? Why create imaginary borders? Music offers a safe place to live with these questions.”
Matuto’s songs can sway hips just as easily as spark insights. On stage, instruments (accordion, guitar, bass, drums, cavaquinho, zabumba, and triangle) whirl around the core of Matuto’s sound: the syncopations of Brazilian music and the folk traditions of the American South. It’s Bluegrass meets Brazil. It’s an unlikely combination on paper, but on the dance floor, it just feels right.
You’ll hear Brazil in the rich tones of Rob Curto’s forró accordion playing, in the rural rhythms of maracatu (from the Pernambuco region), in the urban beats of Rio’s samba, and in the intricate, chorinho-inspired melodies. All of this balanced with clear connections to American jazz, blues, bluegrass, and folk.
The band’s core members share a combined obsession with connecting the dots between Brazil, rural America, and creative reinterpretation of long-standing party-hardy forms. In 2002, South Carolina native Clay Ross moved to New York to pursue a jazz career, but just a few years later found himself in Recife, Brazil, immersed in the region’s folkloric music. Returning to New York, he began looking for like-minded conspirators, finding the perfect match for his love of Brazilian music in renowned accordionist Rob Curto (Forró for All). Born in New York, Curto is widely regarded as forró’s (NE Brazil’s accordion-driven country roots music) foremost ambassador in the States. He spent years living and playing in Brazil, completely absorbing and interpreting the country’s musical traditions.
Since that Carnival coup in Recife, the U.S.-based group has toured North America and Brazil, playing hundreds of shows each year, from popular American world music and folk festivals to major Brazilian celebrations. They have been featured showcase artists at the prestigious annual world music gathering WOMEX and have toured as U.S. State Department musical ambassadors in Africa, Europe, and The Middle East.
Tapping NYC’s diverse jazz, roots, and world music scenes, they have recorded three highly regarded albums including most recently The Africa Suite, a series of original pieces based on the band’s engagement with the people, sounds, and traditions on the road as ambassadors. The Africa Suite focuses the band’s fascination with the cultural push and pull between Africa and the Americas, creating a musical snapshot of the five countries on its 2013 State Department-sponsored tour.
Matuto revels in cultures colliding and in the ongoing exchange of ideas. They know its history is not without tension, but those very tensions can fire creative expression and good times. “We’re questioning the boundaries and borders of the present and past” muses Ross. “We can’t always answer these questions, but we can let them guide us towards new possibilities through music.”