Where the Mississippi and the Capibaribe Meet

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If someone asked you: “what does the South of the United States and the Northeast of Brazil have in common?,” most people (myself included) would go blank. But Scott Kettner and his band, Nation Beat have found an evident and unmistakable link: their music. From the “Mississippi River to the Capibaribe River”, this Brooklyn-based band merges traditional New Orleans’ music –jazz, blues, country, zydeco, funk, and rock –  with regional rhythms from northeast Brazil, such as maracatu, forró, and baião. After studying jazz at The New School University, Scott became intrigued with other rhythms from Brazil, and decided to move to Recife in the state of Pernambuco. Here, with percussion master Jorge Martins, Scott was introduced to an unimaginable diversity of beats from this northeast region, especially, the Afro-Brazilian rhythm, “Maracatu de Baque Virado.”

Combining the traditional, rural styles that Jorge was teaching him, with his own background in American jazz, blues, country, funk, and rock, Scott came up with the idea of Nation Beat. A six-member act, (well, seven if you count Jorge Martins, who is regarded as the band’s mentor),  Scott founded Nation Beat in 2002, and also started  Maracatu New York -the first music school in the United States dedicated to the musical styles found in Recife.

Now, six years later, Nation Beat has already released two albums, and is signed to Modiba Productions, an “international, social activist” music label and production company based in Manhattan.  Legends of the Preacher, Nation Beat’s newest album, was released in July, and is an intoxicating cross-cultural experiment! From singer Liliana Araújo’s, soulful, stunning voice, to the collaboration with Grammy-award winners, The Klezmatics, Legends of the Preacher is an unbelievable hybrid of melodies, from bluegrass, jazz, urban funk, and country, to brazilian maracatu, and instruments such as the fiddle, the accordion, the drum set, and the lap steel guitar. We sat down with Scott over some beers in his neighborhood in Crown Heights to talk about how a guy from Florida ended up living in the favelas of Recife, founding the first maracatu group in the US, and wanting to collaborate with another Brooklyn band, The Beastie Boys.

Remezcla:  Let’s start from the beginning- how did your interest in Brazilian music begin?
Scott Kettner
: I began studying jazz at The New School University and my drum set teacher, Billy Hart, who’s a really famous jazz drummer that  played with Miles Davis, Jobim, Stan Getz,  was teaching me Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms like samba and bossa nova. But, after a couple of years of studying with him I started wondering if there were more styles of  rhythms from Brazil, and he mentioned maracatu from the northeast.  I was at his house, so, I stand up, point to the drum set, and ask him “Well, show me, how does it go!?” He goes, “I don’t know how to play it, I just know it’s a bad ass rhythm that you’ve got to go learn, come back, and teach it to me!”

RE: Did you move to Brazil after that?
SK: Yes, basically. I first went for a few weeks to Sao Paulo, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and then to Recife, in Pernambuco. There, I was introduced to Jorge Martins da Silva, who became my mentor, and for that one week that I was in Recife, I went to the favelas with Jorge everyday where he was giving maracatu classes to the street children. You know, we couldn’t communicate because I didn’t speak Portuguese, he didn’t speak English, but we hit it off at a musical level very well. Then I came back to New York, but I was so depressed, sad, and I wanted to be back in Brazil, you know, the people, the music, everything was beautiful. So, I just decided to move there for a year. I spent half a year in Sao Paulo, and then I moved up to Recife.  It was there that Jorge was teaching me everything he knew about maracatu, forro, voco, baião, and  since maracatu comes from a poor community in the favelas, we lived in the favelas, and I was connected not only to the music but the culture, where the music is coming from.

RE: So basically it was there that you started to make connections with different musical styles?

SK: He was playing a lot of cd’s for me, and I started playing him a lot of my cd’s from jazz, New Orleans music, country music, and we started to notice the connections between all this different styles of music, from the rural styles of music from the north east of Brazil to the south of the United States.  Jorge always says that we started to conceptualize how we could join the Mississippi River with the Capibaribe River, which is the river that runs through Recife, and that is how I came up with the idea of Nation Beat.

RE: It’s amazing how you got interested in maracatu, because it wasn’t a very well known style of music in New York a couple of years ago.
SK:Yeah, people were flirting with it, but when I came back from Brazil I founded the first maracatu group in the United States. I was the first person to organize a maracatu, called Maracatu New York.

RE: Tell me about the singer [a Brazilian Idol finalist,] Liliana Araujo. She wasn’t with Nation Beat when it first started, right?
SK: We met her when we were recording our first CD, Maracatuniversal. The whole gang traveled to Recife to record that album, and while we were there, we met her through a friend, and we recommended her to sing back up for us.  But when she came into the studio to sing back up, we were all like “goddamn!,” we need her in our band.   It just took us a few years to get the visa, immigrations things, but she’s been here for a year now.

RE: Are the members of Nation Beat all from Brazil?
SK:No, Liliana and Eduardo Guedes are Brazilian. Jorge is like our seventh member, he co-produced the first record, he’s kind of our cultural connection, attache, mentor, so we consider him like a member of a group. Our violinist, Skye Steel, is Puerto Rican/American,and Raphael McGregor, he’s American…the rest of us are American.

RE: Are you constantly checking the music scene in Brazil?
SK: Every year I go to Brazil, I’m always searching for new influences, new styles of music that I don’t know a lot about, or that I haven’t heard yet, because Pernambuco is such a unique place, you have all this different groups of people that came together and formed all this different cultural manifestations.

RE: Tell me about the new album, Legends of the Preacher– where does the name come from?

SK: When we were writing the songs for the cd we were searching for our own folklore, we were searching for a folklore that kind of described our concept. You know, we’re Brazilian and we’re American, and we’re fusing this music together. Cause if you think about it, there’s always some kind of folklore behind the traditional music, so we started searching for our own folklore, and in the songs we started realizing that there was a deity that kept appearing as a different character.  There were songs where the deity was preacher, a king  or a queen, or the deity was us. So we started using this theme to write lyrics to. Each song is a legend, is song is like a story of this deity, you know, of the preacher.

RE: Who writes the lyrics?

SK: Liliana wrote most of the lyrics, she writes the Portuguese lyrics, and I do most of the songwriting.

RE: How did the collaboration with the Klezmatics come up?
SK: Well I’ve been collaborating with Frank London (band leader of the Klezmatics) for the past three years, with Maracatu New York. So he called me a few years ago with this concept of combining klezmer (music from Eastern Europe, particularly from Jewish communities)  with northeastern Brazilian rhythms. We did it a few times and it worked really well, it just really fit. So, when we started organizing the recording sessions for this cd, Eric Herman, from Modiba, recommended that we contact Frank about a possible collaboration with The Klezmatics. So I talked to Frank, and he and I agreed that musically and artistically, it made a lot of sense and it fit really well.

RE: What type of music would you like to explore more?

SK: I’ve been personally thinking about getting more into Cajun music, but it’s hard t
o say what’s going to be the major influence for the next record, we’re traveling so much, we’re listening to so many different styles of music that ultimately one of those is just going to spark.  It’s inevitable, but i can’t say which one of those is going to be that spark that lights the next CD.

RE: How do people react when they hear Nation Beat play? With so many different styles of music at the same time, it may be shocking for some.

SK: A lot of times what happens is when we’re playing a CDfor the first time, people don’t know what we’re about, in the past, I’ve been like, “why aren’t people, dancing!? Why don’t people get it?” But I forget that I’ve been doing this for like six years, so it’s so natural to me, but when we go to the Mid West,  and people haven’t heard anything like this, people are a little bit shocked at the beginning. I think that it’s music that a lot of the American audience can relate to because of the jazz, the New Orleans, and the the Cajun influence that we have in our music, but when they hear the drums, and they hear the rhythms that’s what throws everybody off.

RE: You tour a lot, so you’ve played in many different styles of places. Do you have a preference?

SK: Hmm, that’s a good question, I mean, there’s like two different styles of places i like playing. I like playing in small, inside, like sweaty kind of places where everybody’s dancing, and everybody’s close, you know, really personal, but I also like playing in theaters, with big stages, because you get to explore a different creative side in the theater. It becomes more about the presentation and the music rather than just the energy of making people dance. You know, you start to explore a different side about what you do.

RE: I hear that part of the proceeds that Nation Beat makes go to helping out favelas in Recife?

SK: It goes more specifically to a school in Recife. Jorge Matins, my mentor,  it goes to his school in Recife, it’s called Corpos Percussivos, which is a magnet school in the center of Recife, that takes the kids from the streets and gives them free music classes, free language classes, and they’re some of the kinds that are touring Europe now. So 10% of our cd sales, go to Corpos Percussivos.

RE: Any good Brazilian restaurants in New York that you want to recommend?

SK: Oh man, I don’t know, they’re all so expensive! Go to Brazil and eat the food there! There’s a place, it just opened up on 14th st between 5th and 6th ave, Mr. Skewer & Co. It’s like a fast food Brazilian place, you go up and you order in the counter . They had churrasco, the guy barbecuing, you know, it looked decent.

RE: Is there somebody or some group that you would like to collaborate with?
SK:  Well, we talked about collaborating with the Beastie Boys, but I don’t know if they would want to.That would be so awesome, two bands out of Brooklyn, so yeah, that’s kind of like our far-fetched dream. I guess I have three goals right now: collaborating with the Beastie Boys, Cajun musicians and New Orleans’ musicians.