By Jordan Levin – The Miami Herald – March 19, 2010
Musical duo Rodrigo y Gabriela’s story is so unlikely you probably wouldn’t make it up for fear of being laughed at. They started as teens in an underground heavy metal band in their native Mexico City, took off for Ireland in their early 20s, and made a living playing guitar on the streets of Europe. Even now that they’ve become world music stars — they’ll hit the Fillmore Miami Beach on Saturday — their uncategorizable mix of metal, flamenco, blues, jazz and other genres, played without vocals, is outside any kind of traditional formula for music or success.
And that’s how they like it, says Rodrigo Sanchez. “We’ve opened the doors to music around the world,” the 36-year-old Mexican guitar virtuoso says from his home in Ixtapa, on Mexico’s Pacific coast. “I think we have helped a little to expand the way you see a rock band and success — if you can call what we have success.”
With 600,000 sales of their 2006 self-titled breakthrough and enthused concert crowds from Japan to South Africa to the United States, Rodrigo and Gabriela are successful by almost any standard. But even when they were playing the sidewalks of Europe, Sanchez says they felt triumphant.
“We always had enough money for our needs, for coffee and Guinness and our friends,” Sanchez says.
Both Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera grew up in middle-class homes in Mexico City, with parents who listened to flamenco, jazz and rock. When Rodrigo was 10, his older brother came home with a Metallica album (Quintera’s aunt turned her on to the same band), firing him up with a love for heavy metal music. The form’s technical prowess and rebellious spirit still inspire him.
” Metal is the only music that unites the world,” Sanchez says. “In any part of the world there’s a metal community.”
In the early ’90s, Sanchez formed a metal band called Tierra Acida with his brother, with Quintera joining in 1993. But when a record deal for Tierra Acida fell through in 1997, the pair left Mexico City for Ixtapa. They earned a living playing beachside bars, but mostly they practiced obsessively for hours.
“When we left Mexico City it was like quitting the relationship with the music industry completely,” Sanchez says. “We didn’t think about what we wanted to do. The only thing we agreed on was not to do anything but to play music.”
Metal turned out to be an astute choice for Rodrigo y Gabriela, says Brad Tolinski, editor of Guitar World Magazine, which has twice featured the pair. Not only does the genre have a large audience among disenfranchised kids around the globe, Tolinski says, but it now demands a level of virtuosity and musicality.
“It seems almost natural what they’re doing,” says Tolinski. “They’re not flamenco players. But they’re both super aggressive and fiery. If you took flamenco guitar and put it through some amplifiers, it could be heavy metal, it’s very rhythmic and aggressive. So musically it makes sense that they would do both.”
At 23, Sanchez and Quintera left for Ireland, thinking they could play bars for a living. When it turned out that Irish pub owners wanted Irish tunes, the duo started playing the streets throughout Europe.
“It was scary sometimes, especially at the beginning,” Sanchez says. “Sometimes someone would steal your money and run. Other times you’d get a lot of money from someone who was rich and wanted to show affection for what you were playing.”
Playing on the street forced them to concentrate even more on their music and soon they found that their own tunes earned more attention than covers.
“We were practicing as if were about to play Radio City Music Hall,” Sanchez says. “Writing music to play on the street — I don’t know where we got that. That was probably the reason we started to come together. It was very natural. We just decided to let the music flow.”
A gig opening for Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, who’d seen them on the street, led the pair to manager Niall Muckian, who started a label to release the duo’s first CD. Their self-titled third album, topped the Irish charts, with sales growing worldwide as the duo toured.
Success has encouraged Rodrigo and Gabriela to be even more adventurous. Their latest album, 11:11, consists of 11 original songs that pay tribute to artists as diverse as Dimebag Darrell, legendary guitarist for metal band Pantera; Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, to flamenco master Paco de Lucia, tango revolutionary Astor Piazzolla and a Palestinian oud group called Le Trio Joubran.
Sanchez heard the last band by chance in Paris. “I was totally blown away,” he says. Sanchez says he and Quintera see it as part of their musical mission to introduce these artists to a wider audience.
“We’ve been fortunate to see them in our lifetime,” Sanchez says. “These musicians don’t care anymore if they are listened to or not, but people need to listen to them. If you bring their music to people, then you are doing something.”