Spotlight Series: Matuto

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A truly innovative musical experience is set to dazzle Levitteers at the Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury and Levitt AMP Utica Music Series this Labor Day weekend, thanks to Charleston-via-New York-via-Brazil outfit Matuto! Melding the sounds of American Appalachia, bluegrass, Brazilian folk and Pan-Latin rhythms, this critically-acclaimed and globally-minded troupe of musicians have toured internationally, playing at festivals and venues like The Kennedy Center, Expressions of Brazil Festival, Chicago World Music Festival and more. Earlier this month, they graced the stage at The Levitt Pavilion for The Performing Arts in Westport – now, they’re taking the stage at Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury this Sunday at 4PM, and at Kopernik Park in Utica on Labor Day at 6PM!

The story of Matuto’s worldly spirit has domestic beginnings — lead guitarist, vocalist and accomplished multi-instrumentalist Clay Ross grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, where he came up on the local bluegrass and folk scene. Growing up, Ross craved diversity in musical experiences, but remained unsatisfied in the bubble of South Carolina — in an interview with PRI, he describes his frustration: “A lot of the rural music that I was exposed to as a kid I associated with a sort of xenophobia and racism. Growing up in the south, I had cousins and other family members that had opinions that I didn’t necessarily agree with.”

Ross embarked on a journey to New York City to pursue his jazz career, determined to expand his musical horizons. It was here he immersed himself in a cultural melting pot like no other. He particularly fell into love with Brazilian music and dance styles, such as Chorinho, Forró, and Samba. Forró was especially important, thanks to accordionist Rob Curto, one of Ross’ first connections in New York and a premier musician in the genre.

Ross and Curto travelled to Recife, Brazil after winning a prestigious Fulbright grant in 2009 to perform in and research the music of Brazil’s Pernambuco region. They performed onstagefor Carnaval, the Brazilian festival marking the beginning of Lent — where hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets for vibrant cultural celebrations. Audience members couldn’t help but swing and dance to their unlikely yet seamless blend of jazz, bluegrass and traditional Brazilian rhythms. Inspired by how well their vision for cross-genre experimentation unfolded, Ross and Curto returned to New York with plans to record and develop a full-blown musical project—and so began Matuto.

Whether it’s the band’s self-titled debut album, which was released in 2011, or their 2013 album The Devil and The Diamond, the virtuosity and mix of genres in Matuto’s music is stunning. Western drums and Brazilian percussion like cavaquinho, zabumba and triangle create lush percussion, while a suite of guitars, fiddles and accordion create irresistable melodies. Hearing a song like “Horse Eat Corn,” one is transported through a lilting, rollicking soundscape that is entirely fresh and borderless.

Ross was able to articulate the beauty of being able to re-contextualize such a wide variety of musical narratives in an interview with RVA MagFor him, it’s about music’s ability to transcend cultures: “It comes down to communication. You’re communicating by giving people something to dance to, or you’re communicating by telling a story…you’re sharing something that people haven’t experienced before.”

“Matuto” loosely translates to “backwoods hillbilly” or “country boy” in Brazilian Portuguese. Contrary to the usually derogatory interpretation of the term, the band’s name is instead a succinct way to characterize the folkloric spirit, storytelling and value for traditions that connect Brazil to Ross’ native Charleston. There’s a grassroots, home-grown aesthetic to bluegrass, rural American folk, forró and maracatu alike, and Matuto has exemplified the wonders of cross-pollination in these genres. And it doesn’t hurt that Matuto’s music is infectious and dancefloor-ready! Get ready for a thrilling Appalachian Carnaval experience at not one, but TWO Levitt AMP concert sites this holiday weekend!