After roaming the country, Purcellville musician returns to his roots
By John McNeilly
The mythological tale of the artist who roams the planet, unburdened by worldly possessions, taking cosmic risks in search of mystical inspiration, is an all-too-familiar literary and cultural paradigm.
Mateo Monk has lived it.
Monk, a Purcellville resident, who’s achieved notable music industry success, including performing and recording with D.C.-based music legends, Thievery Corporation, and their offshoot roots reggae project, The Archives, also has a strong regional following among the music festivals and wineries crowd.
Before all that, though, Monk was just a middle-schooler who played saxophone in the school band. Like a lot of preteens, he hung with the gig a bit before giving it up for skateboards and girls. Music didn’t completely lose its sway, though. Inspired by his musically oriented pals, Monk latched onto the guitar in 10th grade.
“Obsessively attacked it,” he says.
But it was a year later as a student at Robinson High School in Fairfax (where he grew up) that Monk’s musical ambition formally took shape.
In 1992, he attended his first Grateful Dead show at the Capital Center.
“The Dead showed me there’s this whole other level of music that’s not only magic, but also celebration and spirit. They revealed the subtle power and abstract beauty of the language of music and that validated everything for me. I thought, ‘Yeah, I want to participate in spreading that around,’” says Monk.
He also credits Phish, who emerged after the death of Jerry Garcia, as a major influence in his career. “Musical Jedi’s,” he reverently refers to them.
It’s at this point that Monk’s journey sounds like the stuff of a troubadour legend.
After determining completing music school wasn't for him, Monk bought a van and headed to the Midwest. He busked, taught himself to play flute, worked odd jobs and made just enough to survive. When that petered out, and with his disgruntlement with life becoming all-pervasive, he threw his fate to the wind and headed to Mexico.
In a Mexican plaza, Monk played saxophone daily, making enough money for food and rent.
“It was the time of my life, really. I had no more money than the coins in my pocket, nor did I need more. It was absolute freedom and it gave me the time I needed to explore music,” he says.
Monk ended up in a part of Mexico where non-traditional music wasn’t readily available. Hungering for music to listen to besides his own, he discovered a vendor obsessed with selling rare Bob Marley bootleg performances on cassette.
Monk devoured them.
“These were the only cassettes I had for a year-and-a-half,” Monk says, laughing. “And I was also in a serious song-writing phase, so it was natural for me, especially with Marley’s lyrics, to write in those rhythms. It really sunk into me.”
He says the tapes also dramatically opened his eyes to the social, political and spiritual power of music, especially living in the midst of stark poverty.
After a year-and-a-half, while honing his craft and enduring some tough times in Mexico, Monk was ready to begin anew. He relocated to New Mexico, determined to let the universe take him where it wanted, he says.
Monk camped out in friends’ yards (even pitched a tent on a roof), worked a series of unpleasant jobs, and continued elaborating his musical vision.
“And the universe came to my aid,” Monk says, smiling.
He connected with a kindred musical spirit and formed a reggae band that developed a solid following. They moved to Boulder, Colo., which had a burgeoning music scene. After five years of success with the band, Monk then had a fortuitous encounter.
His band’s popularity led to an opportunity to open for his favorite reggae band (“even more so than Bob Marley,” he says), the legendary reggae-roots band, Culture. From that gig, Monk forged a relationship with Culture keyboardist and esteemed record producer, George Kouakou, who’s worked with and produced some of the biggest talents in classic reggae.
Impressed by Monk’s musicality and creativity, Kouakou, a Maryland resident, signed on to produce his first album and encouraged him to move back to his native Northern Virginia, which he did in 2004. The relationship led to Monk working with top D.C. reggae bands and, ultimately, to become intertwined with Thievery Corporation and The Archives. Monk’s engagement in the D.C. music scene also led Kenyatta Hill, son of legendary Culture founder, Joseph Hill, to record one of his original compositions.
“It’s a dream come true to be part of Culture’s legacy,” says Monk.
More recently, Monk has been focusing on his own style of music. Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a solely focused reggae musician, Monk has put together a collection of his favorite live looping performances, which he says captures an organic style of musical composition that keys in on the crowd’s vibe and his own spontaneous style of flute and guitar playing.
He’s confident the album will resonate with those seeking an upbeat, cohesive blend of highly original music, reminiscent of the best of the spontaneous jams of the Grateful Dead and Phish.
“My music has really flowered over the years. It’s the labor of my lifetime. I really believe in my music and I think it’s having a positive impact,” says Monk. “I’m ready to expose it to as many people as I can.”
To learn more about Mateo Monk’s new album, visit http://www.mateomonkmusic.com.