TRAVERSE CITY — There are many paths to exploring grass roots music.
Matuto, a New York-based band that plays tonight at Milliken Auditorium searches with guitar, fiddle, accordion, Brazilian percussion drums, plus a unique mix of rhythm that offers everything from Louisiana swamp music and Appalachian bluegrass to Dixieland beats jazz and fórro — a northeastern Brazilian music that includes many dance styles and musical beats.
“We’re part of a new generation of musicians in different countries and contexts who are mixing lots of things together,” said accordionist Rob Curto. “It’s so easy today to have contact with any kind of music in the world. YouTube and video have opened up a lot of possibilities. We try to present a show that’s really fun, uplifting and makes people feel good.”
Curto is considered one of forró’s foremost emissaries in the United States. He spent years living and playing in Brazil, absorbing and interpreting the country’s musical traditions.
“Matuto” is Brazilian slang for “country bumpkin.” The band was founded several years ago by bluegrass and jazz guitarist Clay Ross, who grew up in South Carolina, and moved to New York in 2002 as a 23-year-old jazz musician. It was in that stewpot of music influences that he met Curto and Brazilian musicians and began to immerse himself in Latin music.
Sometimes the path that takes you far away eventually can also lead you closer to home. That’s what happened to Ross.
In 2009 he and Curto won a Fulbright grant for a six-week residency in Recife, a port city along the northeastern tip of Brazil, the point closest to Africa. One day, he heard something that reminded him of a bluegrass fiddle tune. Bluegrass was something he’d rejected early in his music career as he was growing up in the South .
“A lot of the rural music that I was exposed to as a kid I associated with a sort of xenophobia and racism,” he told Public Radio International in 2011 during an interview.
It was in Recife that he realized that American and Brazilian music had the same roots. Both Brazil and the American South had been hubs of the transatlantic slave trade. Both had experienced the cultural collision of being settled by European colonialists. Both were influenced by the music of African slaves and native people.
That Brazilian fiddle tune opened doors to music he had closed off and led him to start his band with Curto in New York and opened doors to music he had closed off, he said.
Matuto played more than 150 shows last year, including a five-week spring tour across Africa that meandered through Mozambique, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon and Senegal as “American Musical Ambassadors” for the U.S. State Department.
Before Matuto started the tour across West Africa visiting schools, orphanages and jamming with local musicians, they put the names of the five African countries in a hat and each drew a name. After they each wrote music based on the country they had drawn and compiled them in a piece called “African Suite,” which debuted in June at the Kennedy Center with the release of their 2013 album, “The Devil and The Diamond.”
Tonight’s performance starts 8 p.m.
Tickets to the evening performance are $25 in advance, $28 at the door and $22 for museum members. Tickets can be purchased by calling the museum box office at 995-1553 or online at www.dennosmuseum.org, also at 1-800-836-0717 or www.MyNorthTickets.com.