By Joe Ross
October 7, 2014
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 The 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.
The Africa Suite follows up Matuto’s acclaimed sophomore album, The Devil and the Diamond (Motema 2012) and their debut Matuto (Galileo MC 2011). It will be available commercially in digital form only, though true fans can pick up a physical CD at live shows and online at www.matutomusic.com, where various merchandise is also available.
The compelling artwork for The Africa Suite, was created by Ty Wilkins who recently won a coveted Communication Arts Design award for his work on The Devil and The Diamond.
T-shirts featuring Wilkin’s illustrations are also available online here.