Clay Ross and Matuto / Nation Beat

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Clay Ross and Matuto
Clay Ross and Matuto
Artist release ( )

Nation Beat
Legends of the Preacher
Modiba (

In the 1990s, musicians from the often-overlooked Brazilian state of Pernambuco began to experiment by mixing their local traditional styles with contemporary elements of rock and rap. Now a new mini-movement is afoot, with New York-based musicians pulling in elements of this Brazilian “country music” with American music, though borrowing from traditional rather than rock.

The latest is guitarist Clay Ross and Matuto who combine rock, blues, gospel and bluegrass with the playful polyrhythms of northeastern Brazil. Their self-titled release comes on the heels of the 2008 debut of Nation Beat, brainchild of percussionist Scott Kettner: their album, Legends of the Preacher, principally marries rural sounds from the American southeast and the Brazilian northeast.

Ross is a guest player on Nation Beat’s album and Kettner plays throughout Matuto’s. While both albums have a similar thesis, the resulting sounds are idiosyncratic in their own distinct ways. Ross’s album is more guitar-focused: his acoustic fingerpicking the centerpiece of the wonderful “Remember Calabash” and his electric, searing leads, which start off the busy opener “Recife.” Playing off Kettner’s subtly complex pandeiro playing, Ross invents a personal mix of cultures.

Nation Beat gets a huge lift with the deep, rich vocals of Brazil native Liliana Araújo who tosses the New York band’s sound firmly into the South American way. Ross provides his own vocals for Matuto, which gives the music a more personal stamp, but his vocals don’t always lift the music as Araújo’s do or as his own guitar-playing does for that matter. Nation Beat is also difficult to pigeonhole, but it has a bigger, rock-ier sound.

Amalgamating cultures gets even more complicated on some Nation Beat tunes. On “Nago Nago,” the band starts with an old-school funk riff, suddenly switching between genres as fiddles then a slide guitar kick in for some southern-fried rock, which gives way to a drum-and-chant section. On “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the old Hank Williams weepy gets shaken up, with swinging country fiddles swapping leads over Kettner’s forro-style triangle and dense Afro-Bahian drums, with Araújo eventually breaking in with a rap-like embolada. The Klezmatics join up for three songs, sending Nation Beat far afield, playing one Yiddish tune that still fits comfortably into the album.

Ross also surprises: his loping “Banks of the Ohio” takes a traditional (if somewhat Tarantino-esque) American tune about love gone bad, and sets it to the accordion-led sound of Pernambuco and his gospel-ly take on Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator,” has testifying vocals moving to a nor’easter of a Brazilian percussion storm including a twangy berimbau and agogo set of bells.

Nation Beat’s Kettner was a jazz drummer who was put on the trail of northeastern music by a jazz mentor, then fell in love with its complex rhythms and vibrant energy. He organized Nation Beat back home in New York City, adding the final piece of the puzzle with vocalist Araújo.

Ross grew up in South Carolina and pursued a career in jazz guitar. Moving to New York City, he discovered the beauty and power possible in simpler Brazilian northeastern folk music, in contrast to the harmonically complex music he had been playing. Studying northeastern Brazilian music (eventually playing with Cyro Baptista’s Beat the Donkey), Ross came full circle, rediscovering the folk music of his native region. With Matuto (which is Brazilian slang for a country bumpkin), Ross pulls together the various strains of his personal musical sojourn.

Both albums could appeal to the tongue-in-chic crowd as well as those who go for rootsier, heartfelt music. The concept seems jokey – and at times is indeed playful - but both bands go at the music with a serious commitment that displays a desire to get it right, even when they are straddling two cultural heritages. - Marty Lipp You can download a few songs from these artists on their web sites:

CDs available from Amazon:
Nation Beat

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