Busking in glory - the journey of Rodrigo y Gabriela

Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela honed their craft on the streets of Dublin for years before their acoustic fusion finally caught on, writes Jonathan Maloney

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2012, 12:55pm

Mexico might be known for many things, from tacos to tequila, but apart from guitarist Carlos Santana, most people would be hard-pressed to name a single Mexican musician or singer.

The runaway success of Rodrigo y Gabriela's 2006 self-titled second album has gone some way to changing that, with the Mexican acoustic duo appearing on The Tonight Show hosted by Conan O'Brien, being featured on an official Starbucks album, and touring worldwide almost continuously. Listening to their intricate, beautiful and engaging music now, you might think it had always been smooth sailing for this enigmatic, animal-loving vegan duo - but you'd be wrong. And Hong Kong will have a chance to find out why when they play here on January 8.

After having their unlikely beginning in Mexico City's hard and fast thrash-metal scene, Rodrigo Sanchez and his partner, Gabriela Quintero, experienced the same growing pains that most bands go through. "Gab and I used to play in heavy metal bands in Mexico back in the 1990s. For a foreign band, it was great in Mexico, but for a local metal band it was tough. It was pretty underground; quite a rough environment. We probably spent more time rehearsing than playing gigs - if we had one gig a month that would be busy," says Sanchez.

Although Sanchez doesn't come from a musical family, he was surrounded by jazz, tango and rock from a young age, and was also influenced by a bass-guitar-playing older brother. An unexpected piece of advice from a friend also helped point the two in the right direction. "After Gab and I started playing together in the mid-1990s, it was about four or five years before we left Mexico and went to Ireland. A friend had told us that Dublin was a great city for music, so we started playing acoustic music while busking in Dublin - and it all kind of started there," he says.

Busking on the streets of Dublin may not be glamorous, but it was an important first step towards international recognition for Rodrigo y Gabriela. These humble roots are still apparent in the music they play and - crucially - the people they still are today. "We experienced what it was like to play on the street and it made us really learn a lot as musicians," Sanchez says. "I think that's the best kind of learning or school - the ones where you really need to learn concentration in order to keep your ego down. It was really interesting and we met a lot of very good people there."

But even although they were surrounded by admirers and living in a beautiful city, the learning curve was steep - and extended. It took another seven years before they established themselves in 2006 with their acclaimed second album, Rodrigo y Gabriela. "We didn't really speak any English when we first went there. It was tough. We landed in Dublin in 1999 and stayed there for a year and a half. Then we went to Denmark for a few months before going to Barcelona for a few months, but eventually we came back to Ireland. It took years before we established ourselves."

Featuring acoustic covers of Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven and Metallica's Orion, as well as standout songs Tamacun and Diablo Rojo, the album debuted at No1 on the Irish albums chart and No53 on the British albums chart, before leading to a record deal in the US that finally took the duo to international stardom.

Rodrigo y Gabriela's latest album, Area 52, features diverse string collaborations with the 13-piece Cuban orchestra C.U.B.A., Anoushka Shankar, daughter of the late Ravi Shankar, on sitar, and Palestinian brothers Le Trio Joubran on oud. Despite the array of instrumentation, the duo's music is best described as an intricate blend of traditional Mexican and Spanish rhythms with the percussion and melodies of something far more modern, raw and more rock.

Many listeners would point to Mexican, Spanish, and maybe even specific flamenco rhythms and percussion in the duo's music, but Sanchez says this isn't intentional. "Whatever we understand of Mexican or Spanish music is quite intuitive. When I was younger, I didn't really like Mexican music at all, but now I understand it better. Some of it is great, but I wouldn't know the names of the rhythms. It must be in our subconscious - we love flamenco, but don't know much about it technically. We definitely don't have the ability to play it traditionally because it really is incredibly complicated."

While the duo are perhaps best known for acoustic covers of classic songs played while perched on stools on a sparsely decorated stage, many are unaware of how much behind-the-scenes work is needed to strip their live shows of the echo, reverb and distortion that can come from amplifying a live gig - particularly one as intricate as theirs. "Although there are only two of us on stage, all of the technical aspects of what we do on stage means there's a lot more than just us," Sanchez says.

"We usually surprise the organisers in [the host] country with just how many people - technicians and others we bring - are involved in making our sound. The system is complicated. We have to travel with a lot of guitars and rigging, and we have a lot of micro cameras that are positioned on the guitars and around us to give the audience a different view of us playing.

"It is pretty draining when we are on tour and we play 25 shows in 35 days - every night has to be precise. We can't rely on other musicians. We are very exposed as a duo. It's very clear that when we play, Gab plays all the percussion and rhythms and I play all the melodies."

Rodrigo y Gabriela's upcoming Asian tour starts on December 29, taking in a host of festivals across Australia as well as a show at Sydney Opera House on January 2, before playing at the Kowloon Bay International Trade and Exhibition Centre on January 8, and then on to gigs in Japan.

Hong Kong represents a new direction for the duo. "We try to view each gig on its own, in a unique way. It's not really about us - it's about the event that is happening that night and the audience that has come out to see us. It was hard at the beginning, but now that we understand that we have become more comfortable with it. It removes any restrictions and can set you free, actually. It helps you to see what you're doing in the right way."

Rodrigo y Gabriela, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, Jan 8, 8pm, HK$390 (advance, from HK$450 (door).