With two acoustic guitars and fingers so deft they must've made a deal with El Diablo, Mexican instrumental duo Rodrigo y Gabriela have achieved the implausible. They've surged up the mainstream charts, both stateside and in Europe, where they first cut their teeth. They've played stadiums and festivals. They've done Leno and Letterman.
Rod y Gab, as they're known to their fans, are an anomaly, popular well beyond the world-music pigeonhole where such acts tend to languish. The pair's unlikely success still surprises Rodrigo Sanchez, whose fast and furious fretwork winds itself around the percussive rhythms of partner Gabriela Quintero.
'I'm getting used to it,' Sanchez says, 'but it's still weird. It's not usual to see this kind of music played on the radio or the venues we play at.'
Cracking the Rod y Gab code is a challenge. A casual listen yields immediate influences: Flamenco-inspired rhythms, traditional Latin finger picking. But listen more closely to the duo's self-titled album, which was recorded three years ago and released in the U.S. last year, and it becomes obvious that they are schooled in rock. Their strumming style nods to Jimmy Page (they cover 'Stairway to Heaven' without a trace of queso) and other icons of '70s classic rock, from Queen to Sabbath to The Who.
They're also avowed metalheads. They now count Metallica--who Rod y Gab loved as kids and covered on their album--among their fans.
'Robert [Trujillo] contacted me through management,' says Sanchez, whose thick accent masks all but a trace of incredulity. 'We keep in contact. I've never met him, but we e-mail often and we talk about music. I've also heard from Lars [Ulrich], which is amazing.'
Sanchez and Quintero couldn't have imagined this in their early days playing in thrash metal bands in Mexico. Fame was also far from their minds when they showed up in Ireland a few years ago with $1,000 between them and nowhere to live. They busked in the streets of Dublin, hoping people would move past their exotic looks and realize they weren't a mariachi or flamenco band. They had no backup plan.
'We decided not to do anything else but play music,' Sanchez explains. 'It didn't matter if we were busking or playing in a coffeehouse or small club. That was fine for us. We wanted nothing except playing music.'
The two eventually explored Northern Europe, but they longed for Ireland, where acoustic music of all types is heartily embraced.
'When we got back after busking around Europe, we ran into a friend that we'd met in Ireland,' recalls Sanchez, referring to the Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice. 'Damien invited us to support his gigs. Back then, he was just putting out his album [2002's O, which featured the hit 'The Blower's Daughter']. We went with him and we could actually play good gigs and people loved it. That was the turning point.'
They were worried, at first, that concertgoers might be disappointed. Their tough-to-define music was often inappropriately listed as classical or flamenco. Fortunately, people have a better idea of what to expect these days. Rod y Gab's album hit No. 1 in Ireland, beating out Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Cash. In the U.S., it's been on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart for more than 40 weeks--recently moving up to No. 98.
'People now kind of get it,' he says. 'At least they know they're not getting a flamenco concert. We love flamenco, but what I am trying to say is that what we do is closer to a rock concert than a serious classical-guitar concert.'
Rodrigo y Gabriela's Sept. 12 show at 'Canes has been canceled.