Growing Stone: An Album From Two Americas
After nine years of experimenting with Northeastern Brazilian music, Nation Beat has released an album that is as deep as their mixed roots – and is their best album to date. Far from being a fusion album, Growing Stone is a record with a complete unity of sound and style. From forró to swamp rock, maracatu and funk – the rhythms are grounded by the musicians’ own history and years of collaboration. The group is a regular of both American and Brazilian festivals – and their new release Growing Stone on Barbes Records should propel them to new heights.
* * *
Nation Beat plays the best kind of fusion in the world, the kind that doesn’t try to fuse anything. An American/ Brazilian collective, Nation Beat belongs to both sides of the equator. You can catch them on the festival circuit both in Brazil and in the US, and on either side, fans of roots music recognize the band as one of theirs. There is probably no better metaphor than an enthusiastic Willie Nelson calling himself “overwhelmed” upon hearing Nation Beat for the first time. So overwhelmed in fact, that he invited the band to perform with him at Farm Aid – about as literal a celebration of American roots as it gets…
In many ways, Nation Beat’s new album, Growing Stone, is a result of that encounter. It is an album about true roots, about the American south and its Northeastern Brazilian parallels – and not coincidentally, it is dedicated to the American farmer.
“I had an epiphany while I was living in Recife” says drummer and band leader Scott Kettner “I realized that there were many similarities with the music I grew up hearing from the deep American south with the music I was studying every day”. On the recommendation of his teacher Billy Hart, Scott spent a few years in Recife, immersed in Northeastern Brazilian music, and learned to recognize similarities between the two cultures. “I started exploring the common threads between Mardi Gras Indians and coco, maracatu and Second Line, forró with Cajun and zydeco and many more.”
Nine years and three albums later, Scott claims to simply play “Americana music from both Americas”. Nation Beat has become a band with its own vocabulary, one that owes everything to its unique history and nothing to ethnomusicology. As Scott puts it, mixing Brazilian and American music “is no longer a concept but rather a way of life. When I sit down and write a song I’m not thinking about how I can put this rhythm on top of that song and mix it with these chords. I sit down and write – and Brazil and the USA come out naturally because that’s who I am.”
As a result, Growing Stone is not only Nation Beat’s most personal album, but also their most accessible. Fans of American Roots music – from country, to zydeco, blues and second line – will have no problem embracing it. Brazilians, of course, have been embracing American influences for decades with no one calling the result fusion…
It helps that singer and front person Liliana Araujo has had an inverse trajectory to that of Scott Kettner’s. Born and raised in Fortaleza, Brazil, Liliana moved to New York four years ago, at the urging of Scott, with whom she had already been performing in Brazil. An omnivorous musician, Liliana grew up listening to Maura Moreira, Montserrat Caballe and Patti Labelle and she isn’t fazed by cultural or linguistic differences: “When I’m singing, be it Portuguese, French, English, Creole, German or Yiddish… don’t matter, my heart will always be in it. The language is merely a detail.” As a result, Liliana is just as comfortable singing the very Hank Williams-esqe “Whispering Moon” as she is belting out on the more Mangue beat influenced “Puxa Boi”.
The wide palette provided by the eclectic instrumentation allows the band to add contrasting colors but also help stress the common elements in the various styles of music – from fiddle to the clarinet, raebeca, guitars and various percussion. The guest appearances also contribute an extra layer with guests such as Mickey Raphael – Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player – or legendary Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Other guests on the album are Cajun fiddler David Greely, of Mamou Playboys fame, keyboardist Rob Curto (Lila Downs) and Sao Paulo guitarist Joaõ Erbetta whose own mix of Frevo and surf music fits right in the Nation Beat world view.
Growing Stone is a departure from their last album, Legends of a Preacher, which NPR reviewer Banning Eyre called Nation Beat the “the most original and alluring fusion group I have heard in years.” While the allure and originality are certainly still there, years of fusion have given birth to a new organic sound: an American music of blurred origin.
Willie Nelson’s encouragements and support probably played a strong part in this. When listening to the band for the first time, Willie recognized the group’s original voice and its very specifically American identity. He invited them to perform at Farm Aid where he played the entire set with the band, and then spent hours with them in his bus, talking about music and the plight of the American farmer.
“Hanging with Willie Nelson was a very overwhelming experience” says Scott. “He’s an American icon and has been one of my musical heroes since I was a kid. Willie was very encouraging towards us and also very genuine. After playing with us his manager told me that he hasn’t seen Willie smile so much on stage in a long time.” Nation Beat couldn’t have found a better champion. Multiculturalism shouldn’t be another bland buzz word. Be it African, French, Caribbean or Irish – borrowing, mixing and adapting musical traditions from around the world is at the very heart of American Music, and that is exactly what Nation Beat is doing.
Growing Stone is the kind of American album that should make Willie Nelson proud, an album that will appeal to music fans of both Americas…and beyond.