Meet Poranguí, the Arizona-Based One-Man Orchestra

Amir Adib
Poranguí performing at Firefly.
In Pound For The Sound, we get technical with local musicians about what gear they use to create their signature tones.

 Carvalho McGrew was born in São José dos Campos, São Paulo, Brazil, and he's been bouncing between Brazil, Mexico, and Arizona ever since.

His mother, Zilda Carvalho, was born in Brazil, and his father, Gustavo McGrew, was born in Mexico City. Both parents are healers and involved in the arts, and his father started the first bilingual radio station in Tucson, Arizona, called KXEW.

It's safe to say that creativity runs in the family.

McGrew's journey as a musical healer began in Phoenix at Brophy High School. Back then, he was apprenticing with the athletics trainers and considering pursuing a career in Western medicine. He got a full-ride scholarship to Duke University, but deferred and spent his first year out of high school in China. That's where he realized he wanted to be a musical healer and that the business of standard Western medicine wasn't for him. For Poranguí, it is all about the neuroscience and anthropology involved with music and dance and how those reactions play into people's daily lives and create emotional healing and stability.

McGrew speaks Brazilian Portuguese, Spanish, and English. The multi-instrumentalist plays stuff you would find at the MIM in his repertoire. He's a melting pot of cultures within his own being, and it certainly can be felt and heard in his music, rhythmically, sonically, and linguistically. Utilizing loops for several stringed and percussion instruments, as well his body and voice, Poranguí creates improvised musical soundscapes that transport the listener to the cultures of our ancestors, all while tying it together with heavy bass and a vocal processor to give his music a modern, technological twist. Intentionally, no two performances are ever alike.

These days, he's been working the festival circuit hard with his solo act. In fact, there are festival performances scheduled for the remainder of 2017, including stops at Lightning in a Bottle, Sonic Bloom, Northern Nights, and Beloved.

However, before the festival journey begins, Poranguí is performing with his eight-piece batucada outfit, Grupo Liberdade, on Friday, May 12, at the Desert Botanical Garden. New Times caught up with the artist via phone and e-mail.

New Times: What's the secret weapon of your sound? And how did that help you find your "signature" tone?
My goal has always been to keep everything live and improvisational to ensure I capture the unique energy of the moment and specific audience. To keep my sounds organic and as polished as possible, I built an entire custom pedalboard that has been getting refined over the last several years and is in revision seven now. At the core is an 18-channel digital mixer I use for mixing and processing all my different sonic colors via an iPad — then I run them through vocal effect pedals like the TC Helicon VoiceLive, which helps me further process and enhance the sonic qualities and stretch what is possible. I’m always experimenting with new ways to make my “built-in” instruments like voice and body percussion translate in new and unexpected ways such as vocal bass lines and the like.

What's your favorite piece of gear in your collection and why?

Hard to say, as they all play such an essential role. If I had to choose, I would have to say the Behringer XR18 digital mixer has been the game changer for me, as it enabled me to build everything into a compact rig, which was never possible before. It lets me have an iPad mixer on stage to adjust things live and hand a second mixer to a FOH [front of house] engineer to dial me in as well! As a touring one-man orchestra, this has been essential to ensuring my sound translates.

Any special pieces of gear acquired over the years? Any special story, or stories, behind your collection of tools?

Every instrument I use in my live sets has a unique story coming from various cultures and musical traditions I have spent time with during my travels. The agave didge is perhaps one of my deepest allies as it carries the medicine of our desert and the infinite breath in a sound that is truly primordial. I am always in awe how the aboriginal people discovered the original “looper” in a way, as the didge enables the person playing it to create a continuous sound that is healing to both the player and listener. The two string instruments I work with are the West African ngoni from Burkina Faso and the charango which I got during my travel through the Andes of Peru. Both have 10 strings and embody a sound that takes the listener back to these vibrant cultures and ancient homelands. In my performances, I love to tell the story of the people and weave the sounds as a sonic narrative into a contemporary message calling us into action today. Activism through sound. [M]y goal is to inspire and elevate the audience to move into action starting now in this present moment with dance. In essence, this movement is healing and informs all my musical decisions.

After watching your “Festival Reel,” one can really get a sense of the live experience. Can you describe your process for the readers?
The core of my process is improvisation, listening and responding to what’s needed in any given moment. I never make a setlist.

As a solo looping artist, I can go anywhere I need to at the drop of a hat. Similar to my days as a DJ, I can move like a fighter jet dropping in sounds and textures I make live, then spitting impromptu lyrics that meet the vibe of the audience in the moment. If something isn’t working, I just delete it and layer something else, morphing the song into the perfect melody or groove for the moment.

In this way, my artistry becomes more about how to do all this seamlessly without anyone in the audience noticing, making the technology as invisible as possible. This enables me to get completely present with the audience and what is arising in the moment. In essence, I am both musician and producer/sound engineer. The pedalboard becomes an extension of my musical instruments.

In the festival reel, you can hear all the layers I have created on the fly in the various pieces. Once I establish the foundation of track with say percussion, melody, bass and some harmonies, it then becomes a dance, breaking things down and building them up much like a DJ. The best moments always happen when I take risks and put sounds together or ideas I’ve never really tried or tested before. The magic in these moments are what make all the setup and tear-down worth it. My entire analog rig with over 20 world instruments plus integrated mixer/pedalboard takes a solid 2 hours to setup and 1.5 hours to tear down, so even if I hit for 15 minutes, I’m working.

Having a diverse palette of sonic colors to paint songs and soundscapes is essential to my sound and enables me to take an audience to radically different musical worlds, crossing genres and cultures in a single set without the use of any samples or pre-recorded material.

Hence my tag: World Soul Music to Move You!

You are an amazing pandeiro player. In fact, I found this little gem of you teaching a basic samba rhythm. Can you please expand on your love for the pandeiro and your background that made you the player you are today?

The pandeiro is perhaps my most important musical asset, aside from my voice. It is my portable drum kit. With just the pandeiro and my voice, I can create a world of sound to move people, which is helpful when you can’t carry much with you.

When I finished college at Duke, I returned to Brazil to live with my partner at the time in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. I had played pandeiro on a basic level through capoeira, but always had a deep desire to deepen my connection to the instrument. Over the course of a year studying and practicing with a big heavy pandeiro, I slowly built my chops, vocabulary, and the wrist strength to begin commanding this incredibly versatile instrument. You see pandeiro isn’t just a musical instrument, but also a performance prop. In Brazil, the best pandeiro players are also “malabaristas,” or jugglers, who take the pandeiro and do all kinds of physical tricks with it. Really dancing with it while still catching it and never missing a beat. It’s something that has always inspired me as path to self mastery. I know that may sound lofty, but I really feel sound and movement are truly two equally important sides of a whole fully embodied human. To master the pandeiro is also a journey to mastering myself, challenging me to better anchor myself in the flow state as long as possible to essentially get out of the way so Spirit can come through me in the form of inspiration and creativity.

When we spoke you said you viewed yourself as a bridger of worlds through music. What does this mean to you?
Growing up between various worlds culturally, linguistically, and spiritually, I have always had a deep appreciation and understanding for the many differences between people and their cosmology. All the beautiful and valid ways of making sense of the world around and within us though on the surface appearing to be drastically different. We all essentially want to love and be loved. My journey of discovery as a musician and healer has shown me that using sound, which transcends language, the very beauty within these differences can actually be harnessed as raw material for healing individuals and the collective. When a person or audience is deeply moved by sound something visceral happens that is inexpressible by language alone and is capable of creating deep lasting change.

I look at all my looping technology and all the gear I use as an evolved form of fire, taking the instruments and stories of our ancestors from around the world and weaving a tapestry of carefully improvised sound. I am able to bridge these worlds into...transformation and healing. Not to mention a really good time.

click to enlarge Poranguí is like five people in one when he performs. - SEAN STUCHEN
Poranguí is like five people in one when he performs.
Sean Stuchen
Grupo Liberdade has a show at the Botanical Garden this Friday May 12. What can folks expect to see?
This performance will feature my eight-piece batucada band playing various styles of Brazilian folkloric and popular music from around Brazil, including unique originals that fuse Caribbean and Latin influences. Liberdade includes a heavy hitting lineup of percussionists and vocals along with old friend and collaborator Marcos Crego from Havana, Cuba, on keys. Marcos just got off a tour playing for the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and brings a beautiful harmonic foundation to epic batucada drums and folkloric songs. The show usually sells out and will have folks up and moving, so be sure to bring your dancing shoes.

Grupo Liberdade is scheduled to perform at the Desert Botanical Garden on Friday, May 12.