By Adam Lovinus
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The Rodrigo (Sánchez) y Gabriela (Quintero) story is reason alone to take an interest in the duo. They went from the metal scene in Mexico City to the streets of Dublin, Ireland, with no lodging or cash and eventually earned international recognition. With the atypical musical partners recently receiving face time via MTV and late-night talk shows, as well as abundant critical accolades for their 2006 self-titled album, it's safe to say their gamble worked.
The origin story—as a comic-book nerd would think of it—is of two metalheads in Mexico City trying their luck in a '90s thrash band, Tierra Acida. When Tierra Acida dissolved, Sánchez and Quintero decided to leave Mexico for the unlikely destination of Dublin with a flimsy promise of a place to stay. That promise fell through.
The pair recount their saga in the bonus DVD packaged with their last album. "We ended up playing in the street," says Quintero in an accent that indicates she learned to speak English in Ireland (fuck is "fook," and idiot is "eejit"). "We ran out of money, and we didn't find any places to play. We went to busk, and it was fucking great," she says.
"Busking"—slang for playing music in the street for money—was how the two honed their unique sound and wrote many of their original songs. Their style can be described as either world music with rock balls, or acoustic rock music with Latin heat and technique. As guitarists, Rodrigo y Gabriela create a seamless blend of two different yet complementary styles. Rodrigo generally provides the melody, and Gabriela supports the songs with rhythm and percussion—created by slapping and tapping the body of her guitar and strings while still playing chords. They manage to create a sound imbued with more texture and rhythm than most rock bands do with full stacks and massive drum kits. For proof, check the duo's rendition of Metallica's instrumental "Orion" side-by-side with the original. It's a faithful cover, even minus a drummer and bassist, and just as full.
On the streets, Rodrigo and Gabriela took the virtuosity prized in heavy metal and melded it to qualities too rare in that genre: innovation and open-mindedness.
"The metal thing, all that bullshit—it's really aggressive," says Quintero. "Eventually, if you are playing, you want to grow as a musician. Metal, I like the music, but not the testosteronic bit. So acoustic is different. You can do whatever you really want and play whatever you want on the acoustic guitar. You don't need to plug in. So acoustic equals freedom."
While Western pop/rock and Latin styles have cross-pollinated for years, it's often resulted in little more than standard rock songs with a bit of conga accentuation. The combination Rodrigo y Gabriela honed on the cold streets of Dublin sounds so natural and organic when it hits the ears that it bears little resemblance to other artists' uninspired attempts at blending rock and world music.
It would be logical to align their music with flamenco with the percussive, high-energy style the pair brings to the acoustic guitar. But the musicians themselves don't see it that way.
"Some people think we play flamenco, and that's not true," says Sánchez. "Some people think we play jazz, and that's not true, either. It's a mixture of rhythms and techniques that we have, especially because of the musical background we have in the thrash metal scene."
As Gabriela says, "I hate to think what kind of music I play. All that to me is shit, to be honest. People are going to put a label, so let them put the label. If people want to say we play dance music or disco music . . . I don't care. It doesn't change what I play." Suffice to say, the duo is neither disco nor dance. But for everything they definitely aren't, there are no easy labels for what they are.
After spending their formative period singing for their supper, Rodrigo y Gabriela began to get noticed, leading to gigs at actual venues and a couple of records released through Irish label Rubyworks. The accolades and international tours followed.
Whatever level of success the pair might find, it seems unlikely it will go to their heads. "I think to fulfill yourself as a musician, you have to first fulfill yourself as a person," Sánchez says.
"My definition of success is: Do whatever I want to do as a human being," adds Quintero.