To be clear, Matuto sounds nothing like the Grateful Dead. Still, that doesn’t stop co-founder and 1998 College of Charleston graduate Clay Ross from drawing comparisons between the jam band founding fathers and his own collection of hybrid bluegrass and Brazilian forro-playing musicians.
“If you get into the Grateful Dead, maybe your reasons for listening are one dimensional, but by the time you get into it and come out on the other side, you figure out that you might really like bluegrass or American roots music or ask, ‘Who is this guy, Bob Dylan, or Lead Belly?’ ” Ross explains. “Looking back on the history of my life as a music lover, there’s always been these pivotal bands that open doors and create a bridge to new worlds.”
A native of Anderson, Ross has spent his adult life creating similar bridges.
Since graduating from C of C with a degree in classical composition, he’s traveled extensively with the U.S. Department of State, teaching guitar workshops and hosting concerts and seminars from Eastern Europe to Africa.
Since the mid-1950s, the U.S. has sent musicians overseas to showcase American music in foreign countries, beginning with jazz ambassadors Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
“We send them abroad to have people-to-people connections with citizens around the world through music,” explained a representative with the State Department, emphasizing the itinerary’s mix of school visits, master classes and even music entrepreneurship workshops. In recent years, the emphasis has been on jazz, hip-hop and bluegrass artists.
Last year, the government partnered with American Voices, an organization that provides “cross-cultural engagement to countries in transition,” and launched the American Music Abroad program.
More than 300 bands competed for the chance to spend a month traveling, performing and leading workshops as official representatives of the United States.
Matuto is one of 12 bands chosen for the program’s inaugural year. In March, members will depart for a whirlwind tour of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria and Tunisia.
“We’re visiting places that we would likely never go otherwise,” Ross said. “One of the main things that attracted me to music in the first place is that it’s a universal language that can open doors and open hearts. When I travel to these countries, I see things that no tourist is going to see, and have interactions and create friendships where it’s almost like I’m instantly a local. Music can work magic.”
Going away, coming home
In 2002, Ross left his adopted home in Charleston for a move to New York. He left behind musical ties and relationships with some of the city’s most accomplished jazz artists, including drummer Quentin Baxter and trumpeter Charlton Singleton, both of whom he played with in the original makeup of jazz ensemble Gradual Lean.
Those relationships have been nurtured through Ross’ annual trip to South Carolina at Christmas, during which he typically brings Matuto for a series of shows in Charleston and the Upstate.
This week’s appearances, however, are marked by a mix of reunions, workshops and performances.
Fresh off a trip to Greece and Macedonia to speak at the World Music Expo and just months before heading to Africa with Matuto, Ross returns to the Lowcountry to share his latest projects with a familiar audience.
On Tuesday night, the band will reunite with friends at The Mezz, a recently reopened venue above Sermet’s Downtown on King Street, remembered fondly for the jazz collaborations it hosted at the turn of the century.
“There will be ghosts in the room for sure,” said Ross, his voice rife with anticipation.
The College of Charleston hosts Ross on Wednesday for a student workshop before the band heads out to Awendaw Green for a performance at the weekly outdoor Barn Jam.
Finally, the mini-tour will be anchored by a marquee performance hosted by the Kiawah Island Arts Council at the Seabrook Island House.
“Doing three totally different shows really speaks to the diversity of this group,” Ross said. “Conceptually, when we created this band, our agenda was to not be easily defined. That was hard at the beginning, but we knew that through our musicianship we would overcome peoples’ perceptions and ultimately arrive at a place where we’re playing a lot of different and really interesting venues. In a very microscopic way, this little tour in the Lowcountry exemplifies that; we’re playing a jazz club and a fine arts council and a barn.”
Defining Matuto’s music eludes even the musicians themselves. The name is derived from the Brazilian slang term for “bumpkin,” and many of the rhythms are derived from that country’s forro tradition of dance music.
In addition to Ross’ guitar work, band co-leader and accordionist Rob Curto adds a South American element that’s comparable to the zydeco shuffles of Louisiana and East Texas. They’re rounded out by Skip Ward (bass), Ze Mauricio (percussion), Mazz Swift (violin) and Herbie Hancock Quartet veteran Richie Barshay (drums).
On its 2011 eponymous debut, the group’s song selection ranges from classic Appalachian and Delta blues songs (Norman Blake’s “Church Street Blues,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “John the Revelator”) to instrumentals fit for a Sao Paulo street party (“Dois Nordes Tes”).
In the State Department’s eyes, they’re officially an Americana band, a title that Ross defends with enthusiasm.
“All the influences that we draw from — Brazilian, blues, jazz, folk — each of those things share a common thread in the collision of three cultures: African, indigenous and European. Our vision for this band is to break down barriers and genres,” Ross explains, stopping himself midthought. “I don’t want to get too boring because music is fun. It’s not academic. It’s a party for your head and your heart.”
Ross, however, has made a career of sharing his music in the academic world.
His first State Department tour was in 2006, visiting war-torn places that included the Balkans and Kosovo.
In 2009, he spent six weeks in Brazil with Matuto after receiving a Fulbright grant, studying and honing many of the styles that shape his music today.
When speaking with a class, Ross explains that his main priority is to be a living example of where music can take you, rather than trying to cram technical details into a short seminar.
He bemoans the notion that a young musician has to make it onto a show like “American Idol” or his “existence is meaningless.” His career, Ross expresses, is a living example of how to embrace creativity in music.
“Imagine you’re a kid in Macedonia and your country has, in the last 20 years, gone from a socialist republic to total war to a democracy,” said Ross, breaking down how music serves as a common denominator between otherwise dissonant backgrounds. “We’re sharing something that we’re all passionate about, and how music serves as an example, even in telling the stories of struggle, from the songs of an immigrant worker to farm songs to protest songs during the civil rights movement to the evolution of jazz. Music is an idiom, and a living example of democracy in action. It’s an art form that, at its very root, demonstrates democracy.”
For those who question a government expenditure that sends musicians overseas, Ross’ words may help to answer questions about the purpose of such a program. Although he hesitates to discuss the politics of funding musical ambassadorships, he points out that the costs are a tiny blip in the national budget that he feels is well worth it for the opportunity it brings to create peace in the places he travels.
“I’ve become more aware of how my musicianship can serve and help other people, and that’s been a real blessing,” Ross said. “It can be a very vulnerable place, where I don’t know these people or even speak the same language, but then it works; people are inspired by your willingness to go there, and that’s amazing. At the end of the day, the job is communication, and music is the vehicle.”
For Ross and Matuto, it’s clear that the ambassadorship goes both ways. They seek to inspire, and they draw their own inspiration from the people and places that they visit. And when it comes down to it, those roots began growing here at home.
“I think so much about Charleston and those formative years,” Ross exclaims. “I’m always drawing from that, wherever I am, playing music. It’s like the vibe here is my anchor.”