If the legendary Andrés Segovia had ever decided to rock out in a stadium, it might have sounded something like this. Think Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" – in a fast-fingered, Latin style.
Young guitarists Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez emerged in Mexico City in the late 1990s, joining up in a thrash-metal band called Tierra Acida. They also strummed gentler fare for tourists, performing original songs and acoustic covers of favorites by such groups as Metallica and Megadeth – renditions so stylized that they were sometimes mistaken for traditional folk music.
By the start of this decade the duo had drifted to Europe, busking in Dublin's Temple Bar district to survive. In 2002 they scored a private pressing of their early works, and in 2004 they made a second CD, "Live, Manchester and Dublin," the first live instrumental album to crack Ireland's Top 10. They began to stun concert audiences across Europe with their stand-apart fusion of rock, jazz, and Latin sounds.
Last summer they teamed with producer John Leckie on a studio album, "Rodrigo y Gabriela," which beat both Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash this spring to become No. 1 on the Irish charts. It hits US stores Oct. 3 on ATO Records – and it includes "Stairway to Heaven" as you've never heard it before.
A companion DVD requires slow-motion viewing to be fully appreciated. Quintero lays down rhythm with a loose, splayed- finger strumming and percussive hits to the body of her guitar. Sanchez adds melodies with staccato picking that leaves his fingers a blur.
As much as they appreciate tradition, the two bridle at inevitable comparisons to flamenco. To them, says Sanchez, their work is rhythmic guitar music born of a range of influences. "We don't think too much about it," says Sanchez. The elaborate covers? Tributes, he says, that can open ears. "If [listeners] like our Metallica cover, they might realize that Metallica has something special that they couldn't see before."
The pair's playing astounds.
"Close up, their almost telepathic understanding and digital dexterity defies belief," wrote a reviewer this spring after a sold-out show in Manchester, England.
The Monitor caught the artists by phone this week on the New York leg of their current tour (see www.rodgab.com).
How important to you is finding new cultural territory?
We don't go around with a Mexican flag, or with any Latin flag. I'm proud to be Mexican but it's not about that. It's very important for us to reach new territories because we learn a little bit about the cultures and that inspires us to write more music.
When you play a place like Ireland, with its folk tradition, do you find audiences open to your brand of fusion?
It's very weird, Ireland feels like home. In Mexico the album's going to just be out now, and Ireland is where we've been based for three or four years. But the people who [like] the music are the same kind of people all over the world. It's not like a specific target of people that go – it's just music lovers. It's not like, OK, we're going to have a world-music audience. That's not even how we're classified. We're more into the rock theme. We play rock festivals in Europe. That's the way it naturally evolved.
Gabriela has equated acoustic with "freedom." Do you find it more expressive than electronic music?
Yeah. What Gabriela meant was just that with an acoustic guitar you can travel [easily] around the world and basically do what we did, which was just playing wherever we were, at a restaurant or on the street. [But] she has developed a distinctive way to play the guitar, using the right hand as a percussion instrument. It's very unique. She's following nobody's rules.
Do you come across purists from the Spanish guitar or metal scenes who don't like what you're doing?
The metal heads are more open than the flamenco [community]. We often mention that we don't play flamenco because some flamenco-lovers have confused the music we play with flamenco. And we clarify that as much as we can.... We even wrote a note in the album [liner]. And that opens up a different level for people who do love flamenco; they can see us in a different way.
You often comment that you're tired of being asked to label your music, but...
Well, just a mix of rhythms that influenced [us]. As Mexicans ... we grew up listening to American thrash metal, but at the same time we were listening to salsa, we were listening to tango, to flamenco. Everything came together organically.