Not Your Typical Duo

Rodrigo y Gabriela work their heavy-metal and busking experiences into their signature style

Rodrigo y Gabriela, one of the hottest acts playing what is (by default) called world music these days, started out as part of a heavy-metal group.

Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero, a pair of 23-year-old Mexican acoustic guitarists now based in Dublin, Ireland, met in the late 1990s while playing in a Mexico City metal band called Tierra Acida (Acid Earth).

"We kept to playing with that band for many years--just pure thrash metal," said Quintero during a recent interview. "But we got kind of tired of trying to become famous and make it with that band. We decided to quit with all that bullshit and become real musicians.

"We seriously wanted to play our guitars and to take our guitars all over the world, without any ambitions to become superstars--just get better at what we were doing. Ironically, when we gave up the idea of getting successful, we finally got a record deal, and it took off from there."

Rodrigo y Gabriela set off for Europe, busking their way around the continent--Spain, Denmark, England, Ireland--living close to poverty and woodshedding for hours with acoustic guitars.

The duo settled in Dublin, which is where their manager and European record label are located.

"It certainly is an opposite culture from the one we grew up with in Mexico, but also, Ireland is the most Latin country in Northern Europe--everyone loves to party and drink. It's always fiesta, fiesta, fiesta."

Sanchez and Quintero, though, don't spend too much time in Ireland anymore, she said. In fact, they don't really have permanent homes.

"If you don't see the sun a lot, you can really go crazy. So when we get off the road for a couple of weeks, we just want to get back down to Mexico and lay on the beach until we have to go back out again."

Rodrigo y Gabriela developed a signature style built around Sanchez's furious finger-picking melodies and solos and Quintero's aggressive rhythms, which she creates by both strumming and drumming on her guitar. The sound is that of rock music with a decided Latin flavor--it is neither flamenco nor mariachi nor bossa nova, the most easily identifiable Latin styles to casual listeners.

"We are also into The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, '60s rock," Quintero said. "We try not to let ourselves be contained by the fucking bullshit of stereotypes. I don't like that. There is a Latin influence in our music, as we do with other styles."

She said they aren't like typical guitarist or guitar duos.

"We don't play a solo and do a harmony, and then switch. We don't do that. We blend the sounds of the two guitars to sound as if we are a whole band. We try to experiment in terms of sounds and rhythms and melodies."

And if in Sanchez's tone and voicings can be heard a subtle jazz influence, it's not intentional, Quintero said.

"We love guitarists like Paco de Lucia and Al di Meola, but that is not us. Me and Rod aren't trained musicians. Everything we hear influences us, but we do only what we can do best, and this is the result."

Further distinguishing Rodrigo y Gabriela from jazz players is the fact they do not improvise, she said.

In a press release from the duo, Sanchez said, "Our solos are exactly what's on the record. As a metal fan and guitarist, you always want to hear the same fucking solo!"

And Quintero said she and Sanchez still adore metal.

"We think it's a great style of music, and it requires a lot skill and a lot of passion to play it," she said. "Although some people who don't know about our background maybe don't know it, we play metal songs in gigs acoustically. It's a very eclectic mixture, with influences from world music, Slayer and classical."

In addition to their original compositions, Rod and Gab also play selected covers of heavy metal songs they have loved since their youth, such as Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" and Metallica's "Orion" on their 2006 American debut album, Rodrigo y Gabriela, on Dave Matthews' label, ATO Records.

The audience at Rodrigo y Gabriela shows is equally diverse. "We have a lot of those pure metalheads, because you know they love any kind of extreme guitar playing, but we also have world music fans and even grannies and little kids."

Performing in the streets not only polished the duo's techniques; it taught them important lessons, Quintero said.

"Basically, you have to face many challenges when you are busking--that if you don't get paid, you don't have money for the next day, that you have to get and keep people's attention so they don't walk away.

"I used to get nervous, too, because the people who stopped would really listen closely; it was like a little gig every 45 minutes. That was bit unnerving. I had to really learn to concentrate. I had to really focus on the music."

The amusing liner notes on Rodrigo y Gabriela refer in passing to the "Spinal Tap years" of playing heavy metal in Mexico. I wondered if Quintero was happy to leave behind that lifestyle.

"In the metal years, we were trying so fucking hard to get gigs and become famous, trying to get to those things harder than we were playing, so that's a sarcastic way of saying it. The promotion should follow the music, not the other way around.

"But the movie Spinal Tap is relevant to so many musicians when you are on the road. Everybody has Spinal Tap moments. We still do."

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