Hybrid rhythmic engine

By JON GARELICK  |  July 15, 2008

The crowning ceremonies are still going on, but they’ve shifted from patriarchal to matriarchal — from king to queen. The celebrations can include as many as 150 drummers and percussionists, just as many dancers, and a complete royal court.

This ritual will ring a bell for anyone familiar with the Mardi Gras Indian tribes of New Orleans, with their Big Chiefs, elaborate ritualized performances, and community authority. Kettner confirms the similarity: “Each neighborhood has its own maracatu group, each with its own queen, and the queen does have an authority over that community.”

The rhythm itself cuts deep bass drum with snare and bells in a driving, polyrhythmic 4/4. Kettner’s band Maracatu New York stick purely to percussion, but on Legends of the Preacher Nation Beat went for the fusion of Brazil with New Orleans and the American South, so the first thing to hit you on the first track, “A Onde Tem Cerveja Tem Mulher” (“Wherever There Is Beer There Are Women”), is Skye Steele’s slashing country fiddle and Eduardo Guedes’s ringing triangle over the maracatu drum beat, sounds that bring you right into zydeco territory.

The fusion — “the Mississippi and Capibaribe” (the river that runs through Recife) — came about as Kettner and Martins played records for each other and noticed similarities. On Legends of the Preacher, the maracatu rhythms seem able to hold everything: accordion continues to make the Cajun country connection, but on “Nagô Nagô,” the fiddle comes in on top of a very urban funk guitar riff that later breaks for Raphael McGregor’s “sacred” lap steel and one of the purest of the record’s maracatu call-and-response group vocal chants with lead singer Liliana Araújo.

It’s Araújo, a Recife native, who’s the roux of this particular gumbo; the beat and her powerful voice fuse rock and funk guitars, bluegrass banjo breakdowns, English and Portuguese lyrics. This is especially true on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” She can’t quite pronounce “whippoorwill” in the opening line, but she gets over that by going for it, in a fearless performance replete with a Portuguese spoken introduction and a speed rap over nothing but percussion and a rave-up instrumental followed by her soft singing of the verse (“The silence of the falling star . . . ”) over percussion and handclaps. It’s a great arrangement — from bluegrass banjo and fiddle to country lap steel — and a great performance, one in which the singer laughs, cries, and is transformed, as is the music itself.

The album sticks with rustic folk lyrics about dancing, drinking, longing, partygoing. “When the band started writing music for the CD,” Kettner says, “we talked about finding our own folklore, because in a lot of traditional music from New Orleans and the Northeast of Brazil there’s always a theme they’re singing about. It’s usually about themselves or their community, which always envelops some kind of folklore. And we realized we were searching for our folklore. What is our folklore? We’re a bunch of American guys living in Brooklyn playing Brazilian music mixed with country music.”

As the band wrote, a character emerged, and they decided to build on it. “We realized this character was simply a deity with different faces.” In each song, the deity appears as a different character: a preacher in “A Cowboy in Brazil” and “The Preacher,” a king in “Nagô Nagô,” a king and a queen in “Coroa Imperial.”

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