Rob Curto and his band Matuto named their recent album ‘The Devil and the Diamond’, because of the conflict between ‘the desire to move forward and create happiness’, and the yearning of people to be ‘lazy and fall behind’. This inspiring title suits the band’s positive and joyous Brazilian-influenced musical style.

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Matuto. From left to right: Richie Barshay, Michael Loren Lavalle, Rob Curto, Ze Mauricio, Clay Ross & Mazz Swift.
Photo: Vincent Soyez

The members of Matuto founded the group four years ago, after they received a grant from the U.S. government to perform concerts and present workshops in Brazil. Rob Curto had already worked with Clay Ross, and they also knew Richie Barshay, the drummer. The duo found ‘a great group of musicians’, and Rob Curto stated that: ‘…We’ve really grown over these years’. He thinks that their sound has improved a lot.

Rob calls the band’s music ‘Brazilian Bluegrass’. Matuto created this unusual sound by mixing several different influences that the members of the group had ‘lived and studied and entered into’ during many years. These types of music included Brazilian music, North-Eastern Brazilian music, bluegrass music, blues music and North-American roots music.

The strongest influence of the group is Brazilian music. Rob, maestro accordion player, discovered a robust tradition in Brazil of accordion music. This consists of dance music from North-Eastern Brazil. He also noticed the richness and diversity of Brazilian music. It has ‘forro, samba, and other styles that are specific to the North-East of Brazil like maracatu, frevo [and] aferche. It’s ‘sort of countless’, Rob remarked.

Matuto released their first album with the German label Galileo MC a few years ago, and they called this record ‘Matuto’. The name originated from a Brazilian slang reference to a man from the country. Since then, the group has been touring, performing at festivals and ‘getting our sound together’.

The members of the band especially enjoyed their recent five-week tour of Africa. Matuto performed in Mozambique, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana and Senegal. Rob said that this ‘was an incredible experience. We met a lot of great people, heard a lot of great music, and ate fantastic food’.

The tour of Africa had a huge impact on Rob Curto. Rob particularly likes dance and party music, and he loved listening to the joyful African sounds. He found Zydeco music and the Zouglou music of Cote d’Ivoire inspiring, because it is great party music. He said that: ‘…They start playing, and it’s kind of warming up the room, and then by 2:00 a.m. it’s amazing’.

The tour also helped to ‘bond’ the group. Rob was very proud of how the band ‘worked together as a unit in everything that we did’. He finds that extremely important, and he is sure that this will help the band in the future.
The tour wasn’t just work, however. The group also enjoyed some amusing incidents in Africa. Clay Ross related how he ordered ‘a bite to eat’ in Mozambique in the hotel lobby. When he refused to have a drink, the Africans called him ‘cabrito’ (goat). This was because the goat chews the food, and the food tends to stay in its mouth! The Africans also called the bass player ‘the rabbit’, because they weren’t used to vegetarians. They apparently found him hard to feed, because he didn’t want to eat meat!

The group also enjoyed their performances at the San Juan Festivities in Hasifi, Brazil last year. Rob recounted that he sang a song by the famous Brazilian singer and accordion player Luis Gonzaga, and ‘these Brazilians in the front row’ sang right along with him. He said that: “We felt really accepted by people there, and that was a highlight’.

One of the reasons that Rob found this experience special was because the band greatly admires Luiz Gonzaga. Gonzaga came from one of the poorest parts of Brazil, and became a spokesman for the people of North-Eastern Brazil through his music. He also found a wide audience for his accordion music.

The members of Matuto regard Bill Monroe, the ‘father of bluegrass music’, as another hero and inspiration. He and Gonzaga ‘were experts at what they did, and they played really well, and they were adventurous musicians that pushed the boundaries of their instrument, and they defined genres in a way. They both wrote songs about their life and about things that were true to them, and they both were eternal optimists, you know, in spite of challenging circumstances’. They also respect Bill Monroe’s drive and determination, because he ‘used to go around building tents, and like drive the stakes into the ground himself to make shows happen’.

Rob and Clay compose the songs for the band. The inspiration for their songs comes from trying to be better people. Clay Ross stated that: ‘We both really want to sing about positive things to aspire to or things that inspire people, something spiritual, to have some idea that will make us feel better while we’re singing it, and hopefully make other people feel better when they hear it. Musically, it’s all those influences from Brazil, from American roots music’.
The band’s last album, ‘The Devil and the Diamond’, has won widespread praise from the critics. They produced this record themselves in New York, and they worked with the label Mortima. The group is happy with this musical label, because it provides lots of support and artistic freedom. The band also has an agent, but they want to find the ‘right managing team’, and they realise that this will take some time.

When asked about the future, Clay said that he’d like to perform in Central America and the Caribbean. He thinks that Matuto would be inspired by the music of these countries, and that they could expand on it. He also said that he thinks that the band ‘just keeps getting better. I think our best stuff is yet to come’. Matuto certainly has a bright future ahead of it.