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Pull the name of a country out of hat. Then compose a piece of music about it.
This playful assignment was the genesis of Matuto’s Africa Suite (EP) (Motema Music; release date:November 4, 2014). About to embark on a five-week, five-country African tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the five-member Appalachia-gone-Afro-Brazilian band decided to create tributes and love letters to the sounds they heard along the way, and the people who welcomed them. They divvied up the task by country, at random, but the results sound anything but.
“It had been our dream to tour in Africa for a long time, and we knew in advance that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We wanted to perform for African audiences, but more importantly, we wanted to allow the people, music, and culture to seep in, to live with us, and to change us,” explains Clay Ross, Matuto singer and guitarist.
From young voices lifted in a song of thanks in Mozambique to hot 70s-era Ivorian beats, from palm wine music and village jams to beloved Cameroonian rhythms, Matuto dived into a sea of African sounds. The resulting songs brought all they experienced home, blending the band’s signature sway and charm into shimmering, uplifting tracks.
“We decided we wouldn’t be too strict about the geography of sound, but in the end, there was just so much information, so many rhythms and sounds, that allowing each individual to focus on one country worked out great,” Ross reflects. “We’re happy with the diversity that it brought to the final work.” It’s a diversity that mirrors the band’s adventures.
The pieces that make up the Africa Suite range from the sweet (“Mozambique,” with its moving chorus of “kanimambo,” “thank you” in Shangaan) to the mysterious (the opening of “Cameroon,” with violinist Mazz Swift’s lyrical playing). Fans of Afropop will catch the winks to Ghanaian highlife and to Ivorian popular music (ziglibithy), but there are plenty of surprises for the African music aficionado, too: “Senegal” bristles with gorgeous rock energy, while drawing on regional styles the band encountered while performing for (and learning from) musicians and listeners in Senegal’s rural south.
The biggest source of inspiration: the people who welcomed the band. Bassist Mike LaValle was moved by the young people they met in an arts center in Mozambique. Accordionist Rob Curto caught the gentle, unedited joy of Accra’s music scene. Ross pays tribute to the positive energy of the powerhouse Ivorian band, Zieti, who hosted and jammed with Matuto.
With all the fresh sounds and friendly receptions, there was ample food for thought and music making. Then the pieces, composed immediately after returning to the US, took on that certain Matuto shine, as passionate playing and clever arrangements gave the diverse ideas a unified feel.
This came, in part, from the band’s unusual instrumentation. “The violin and accordion are not all that common in most African popular music and that led to some creative orchestrations,” notes Ross. “Often we would use the violin and accordion to emulate different rhythmic figures found in African guitar music. Ultimately, like James Brown said, ‘All the instruments are drums.’ We just happen to have an accordion drum in our band!”
They may have had an unexpected sonic palette to play with, but their full-on tour schedule left them no time at home to record. So they did the most logical thing: They recorded impressions of one tour while out on another, tracking the session at Catamount Recording Studios in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
In the crucible of road life, they took pains to dig into and refine their approach to the technically challenging material that informed the pieces. “There is a deep complexity to the polyrhythmic interplay in the music we engaged with on our journey,” Ross says. “In the Suite, there are a lot of musical layers. It was challenging at times to strike the right balance or decide which instrument should play which rhythmic building block. This is where the pieces became truly collaborative efforts, with everyone weighing in to help make these decisions.”
Collaboration lies at the heart of The Africa Suite, and it hasn’t ended with the band’s exit from the studio. The band got a chance to share their work with new friends like Mozambique’s leading music and dance troupe, Wuchene, who danced along to the grooves. Matuto hopes to bring the piece back to Africa, the root of its inspiration, playing it for and with collaborators, and letting the piece grow and evolve as they do.
About The Africa Suite:
“Mozambique” (by bassist Mike LaValle): “After a short concert at an arts-centered school in downtown Maputo, the class sang us a song expressing their gratitude from which I took inspiration for my piece. A simple yet elegant melody using only the word Kanimambo; the Shangaan word for ‘thank you.’”
“Ivory Coast” (by guitarist Clay Ross): “This song was inspired by our collaboration with our local hosts, Zieti, and the lyrics chronicle the people and events from our stay there, especially the grisgris, the positive energy we got from them.”
“Ghana” (by accordionist Rob Curto): “My piece was inspired by a very light and optimistic sense of life I experienced immediately upon arrival in Ghana. The sound and emotion of the music I heard in Accra, especially high life and palm wine music, and of the people I met there, were uplifting and also very gentle. I wanted my piece to express that direct honest feeling, free from much irony or tension.”
“Cameroon” (by drummer Richie Barshay): “The medley captures Matuto’s diverse adventures in Cameroon. From a chanted tribute to its capital city Yaounde, to an upbeat rendition of the popular melody ‘Zaminamina,’ and a groove section dedicated to one of the country’s unique rhythms, bikutsi.”
“Senegal” (by violinist Mazz Swift): “I took my affinity for Rock, set to a specific rhythmic motif we learned from a group of musicians in Ziguinchor, a village we visited in the deep south of Senegal. The piece also utilizes a vocal call and response, which imitates the traditional music of the Djiola people of the Casamance region in Senegal, but is conceptually turned on its head: the voice of a woman is calling and the men responding.”
Recent praise for Matuto:
*“While many bands attempt ambitious fusion projects, few succeed in such an authentic way.” – RootsWorld
*Matuto means “bumpkin” in Brazilian slang, but this band aims for the heights of world-music sophistication.” – Chicago Sun Times
*“The Devil and The Diamond is upbeat and strange, and there is without a doubt nothing like it out there… a truly sensational album by an even more sensational group.” – In Your Speakers