At a recent wedding reception, Brazilian-American supergroup Matuto brought a weary crowd to its feet. Lead singer and guitarist Clay Ross, a friend of the newlyweds, lead the audience in a sing-along to the group’s euphoric theme song, “Matuto Chant,” hushing the band and then directing a series of ecstatic crescendos. As the lights came up and the room was slowly dismantled, Ross and the crowd continued to sing the wordless chorus, in a kind of meditative, musical mass prayer.
In the oft-maligned genre of “world music,” Matuto accomplish the near-impossible: they make music that is at once familiar and truly multicultural. This feat may have as much to do with the band’s New York City roots as its far-flung influences.
Ross, a South Carolina native, moved to New York in 2002 to pursue a jazz career, but soon found his way to Brazil, where he studied the region’s traditional music. He founded Matuto with accordionist Rob Curto, a New York City native and master of the Brazilian music style forró. To round out the lineup, they drafted a collection of New York-based musicians with pedigrees as illustrious as they are diverse: Brazilian percussionist Ze Mauricio, innovative jazz drummer Richie Barshay, bassist Michael Loren Lavalle, and violinist Mazz Swift. Matuto released their self-titled debut in 2011 and followed up with “The Devil and the Diamond” in 2013. Both albums chase the same musical strains, with syncopated Brazilian beats, bluesy bass grooves, improvised fiddle breaks, a rakish accordion presence, and Ross’s disarming vocals. Matuto are fond of infusing American folksongs and standards with big, danceable beats, and of bringing inventive arrangements to intricate Brazilian tunes.
It is onstage, however, where they do their best work. Ross is a charismatic, unaffected bandleader who directs an incredible amount of energy towards the audience, his performance style verging on religious experience. When he sings “Matuto Chant,” he sings it, with all his heart, to the crowd:
“We ain’t going nowhere no time soon/ We’re still hungry for some more/ There’s still music left to play/ I’ve still got some things to say/ Through our love there’s nothing you and I can’t do/ You carry me, I’ll carry you.”