One nation under a beat

Boston Globe, July 25, 2008

NEW YORK – It’s about three songs into a live performance by Nation Beat, the exuberant and inquisitive Brooklyn-based band that has pioneered a synthesis of music from northeastern Brazil and the American South, that you realize for good that this is no run-of-the-mill, hippiefied world-beat fusion project.

That’s when, following two rounds of ferocious Brazilian maracatu rhythm pounded out on hand percussions and drum set, the group’s charismatic lead singer, Liliana Araujo, a vision of black Atlantic spirituality and grace in her flowing dress and Afro, announces a song by … Hank Williams.

What follows is a fascinating take on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – a song also featured on Nation Beat’s second album, “Legends of the Preacher,” whose release the band was celebrating last week with a concert at the club S.O.B.’s here. Nation Beat will be at Regattabar on Thursday.

Violinist Skye Steele comes to the forefront while Araujo, who only moved to New York to permanently join the group last year, delivers the plaintive Williams lyrics in a lilting Portuguese accent. The arrangement is recognizable at first, but then the layers of drums come crashing in, and before long the band has the crowd clapping hard to a syncopated beat. Araujo raps over it for a moment, then the wave passes, and the song resolves amid melancholy fiddle strains.

Later in the set a country guitarist joins in on “A Cowboy in Brazil.” Drummer and Nation Beat founder Scott Kettner introduces the song: “It’s about a bunch of us American guys from Brooklyn going down to Brazil and soaking up all this wonderful culture and music,” he says. The lyrics rhyme “maracatu” with “Flatbush Avenue.”

And if that weren’t enough, trumpeter Frank London and members of his nouveau-klezmer ensemble the Klezmatics turn up for a few numbers as well. They, too, appear on “Legends of the Preacher,” still further expanding the sound. “This is music from the northeast,” London tells the crowd. “Northeast Brazil, northeast United States, northeast Poland …”

Is it all too much? Nation Beat perpetrates a music that seems tailored to offend traditionalists of any number of schools and sensibilities. But as Kettner explains a few days after the show, there’s method to the madness – deep thought, musicological investigation, and cultural immersion.

Kettner founded Nation Beat in 2002, along with its sister organization Maracatu New York – at the time, he says, the only school in the United States devoted to the four centuries-old rhythm of Recife, the Brazilian city that was one of the earliest points of colonial settlement and importation of slaves into the New World.

He had recently returned from a year living in the favelas of Recife with a respected local percussionist and teacher, Jorge Martins. A budding jazz drummer, Kettner had landed in this world almost by accident, after studying samba and bossa nova with Billy Hart, one of his teachers at the New School.

“I asked him about other Brazilian rhythms, and he told me about maracatu,” Kettner says of his teacher. “And he said, `You gotta go there and come back and teach it to me.’ And my thought was, if Billy is telling me to check it out, it’s gotta be worth it.”

Kettner turned up in Recife, a bustling port metropolis, disoriented and speaking no Portuguese. But a chain of connections eventually led him to Martins, who took him under his wing and with whom he formed a bond that has turned into a long-running artistic and business partnership.

Playing together and listening to music from each other’s CD collections, Kettner says, the two men formed an instinctive mental map of compelling connections between the music of the Brazilian northeast and that of the American South.

In the accordion and fiddle instrumentation of forro, a more harmonic style from the farmland outside Recife, they saw a cousin of Cajun zydeco. In maracatu, they detected ties to New Orleans’ second-line marching music that matched down to key technical details: “The swing is different, but a lot of the bell patterns are similar, and a lot of the snare drum patterns are the same,” Kettner says.

There were cultural similarities, too. The ceremonial crowning of slave kings and queens in Recife, around which maracatu was born, matches with Mardi Gras tradition. In different ways, Kettner began to find in northeast Brazilian genres affinities with blues, bluegrass, country, and jazz. Even the klezmer dimension has a cultural logic: The first synagogue in the New World was in Recife.

All this gives its impetus to Nation Beat, a collaboration that seeks to both honor tradition and break down its barriers. Of rearranging Hank Williams or Willie Nelson, Kettner says: “It’s a way of paying respect to the artists who gave us our ideas. And it’s also to bring new light to those songs. It’s really hard to do a Hank Williams song; the way he does it is so perfect.” But it’s worth it, he says, to explore what Williams might have done had he had the chance to work with Brazilians.

In teaming up with Araujo, who was living in Fortaleza, eight hours from Recife, when she was introduced to the band through a friend, Kettner says he’s found not only a great singer, but a collaborator who brings that elusive and contested quality, authenticity. “It really kind of solidifies the whole concept,” he says. “She puts her spin on it. She’ll write lyrics in Portuguese to these honky-tonk melodies.”

As a white musician from New York with roots in rural Florida, Kettner knows that his choice to invest his artistic life in maracatu and its offshoots comes with cultural and political baggage. He’s addressed this, he says, by developing Maracatu New York as a cultural exchange, taking Americans to Recife and bringing Martins and others here. “A transistor” between the two, he calls himself.

But with two Nation Beat albums behind his belt, the New York school doing well, and the group having both recorded in Recife with traditional musicians and successfully played festivals and toured there, Kettner isn’t so worried anymore about having to prove he belongs.

“At this point,” he says, “I’ve been doing it long enough that people know I’m serious.”