This article was first published on CLUAS in February 2002
Rodrigo y Gabriela
A Profile and interview
"We don't play flamenco and we are not brother and sister."
With that cleared up, Rodrigo sits back and stirs his tea. Across the table sits Gabriela, the second half of a duo that has electrified Irish audiences in recent months. Their virtuoso style, incorporating elements of Latin jazz, funk, folk and metal has formed the basis of their renowned live sets at Dublin's Sugar Club, and is now rapidly making waves in other live venues, having shared bills with the likes of The Frames, Damien Rice and Kila.
"We are not Mexicans either," Rodrigo insists, "we travel and perform as musicians - that's how we see ourselves, and that's how we play. In live performance we want people to enjoy the music as it sounds, not for what it sounds like."
Like most performers, Rodrigo and Gabriela don't like being labelled. For the audiences who first encounter them, they are branded as 'Spanish', 'flamenco', 'Latin', even 'mariachi' ("that's something we're definitely not," Gabriela asserts, but she admits to playing the occasional mariachi tune 'for fun'). Yet their latest album, 'Foc' (it's Spanish for fire) blends jazz with metal, calypso with funk - performed on just two acoustic guitars.
If they're not all this, then, who are Rodrigo and Gabriela, and what is Rodrigo y Gabriela?
Natives of Mexico City, they began their careers as members of Tierra Acida, a metal band which played on the city's underground gig circuit for seven years. Nowadays, it's a time they view with some nostalgia.
"Like a lot of Mexican youth, we were heavily influence by American metal bands - Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera, and also Sepultura," Gabriela explains. "It was a full band, very loud, and for vocals, Rodrigo would just scream. We played this way for seven years."
Then a change occurred. According to their website biography, the genesis of their new sound occurred one morning at dawn on a beach in Ixtapa. A musical rebirth then?
"We both needed something different. After seven years of playing around Mexico we had done the band thing, the metal thing - the Spinal Tap thing!" Rodrigo explains. "It came to a point where we wanted to play a different kind of music, something we could make as our own."
And so the pair decided to depart Mexico. Shunning the States ("we never really thought of going there" - Rodrigo), the pair made their way to Europe. En route to their current base in Dublin, the two lived and played, for various periods of time, in different European cities.
"We went to Sweden, to Denmark, then to Spain, and eventually ended up in Dublin. In between, we played in a lot of places. When we came to Dublin it just seemed right to stay," Gabriela explains.
That was three years ago. Since then, the pair have graduated from busking in Temple Bar and Grafton Street to regular venue appearances in the city, and in different parts of the country. And during this time, they started to assemble their original repertoire.
"To begin with, we played many cover songs, which we enjoyed. Then we began to put in our own songs, and we've built up our repertoire from there. Now we want to build on this, to bring to people an experience of a musical culture, rather than just 'Rodrigo y Gabriela'."
This is a point which seems important to Rodrigo. Throughout our conversation he repeatedly refers to the duo's attempts to promote their music as representative of cultural mix, as a vehicle to entertain and educate. So have Rodrigo and Gabriela become cultural crusaders?
"Well I'm not sure about that," he laughs, "but we like the idea of an audience as a group of people who are interested in music, rather than in just our music. For our last gig in Whelan's this is just what we tried to do. We brought along friends of ours, who play in different ways, and have different sounds, and wanted the gig to be a representation of all these performers as one - not just support, support, main act."
But to Irish audiences at least, Rodrigo y Gabriela have a distinct sound, one which seems to set them apart from the standard band or singer-songwriter format.
"Well sometimes the problem with a rock scene is that people become very obsessive with one band, one sound. They might buy this band's CD and not listen to much beyond that sound. For us, the perfect performance, and the best audience to play to, is one where everyone is open all forms of music - connected to a mix of styles and sounds."
Speaking of which, brings us to the pair's plans for a new recording. Gabriela explains:
"We definitely want to record a live CD. 'Foc' was recorded at home, without microphones - everything was played through the guitar pick-ups. This meant that some of the percussion on the strings sounded very quiet. So it's not the same as our live performance. We also have new material we would like to do."
And what about extending the sound - do the duo plan to play and record with more musicians?
"The two guitars are our range, they are the centre of our sound. There are other types of percussion we may work with, and other instruments. We really enjoy playing with Ronan O Snodaigh [of Kila] and the bodhran player Robbie. And we are lucky to know people in Dublin we can invite round and who'll just play along with us. We can learn and work with very little pressure."
And will Rodrigo reprise his vocal skills?
"If it happens it happens. If there is a place for vocals, lyrics, we will put them in."
And finally, in the midst of this mix of styles and sounds, what are Rodrigo and Gabriela listening to at present?
"The new Garbage album is good, and I'm listening a lot to Tomatito, the Spanish guitarist," Gabriela explains.
And for his part, Rodrigo insists that some things don't change.
"This morning I played Slayer and Megadeth. It was Megadeth's 'Rust in Pieces' - I think it's an EP, and it's got '99 Ways to Die' on it. At the moment, I am slowly buying again all the albums I left in Mexico. It's great to hear these albums again, years later - amazing music!"
And, with that, it's time to go. Later tonight, Rodrigo y Gabriela play in Rathmines - tomorrow they depart for Amsterdam. And then it's back to Dublin to prepare for their eagerly anticipated headline show at the Temple Bar Music Centre - set to be their biggest gig yet in Ireland.
"We're looking forward to it," they enthuse, "it's going to be a night with a lot of different musicians and styles. It's going to represent everything we're doing, and the type of musical culture we want to show."
And maybe just a little mariachi.