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A Chat with Rodrigo Y Gabriela


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By Dennis Cook

Reinvention is a tricky business. Veer too far from the known and one loses existing fans, stick too close to well trod paths and risk being predictable and safe. Rodrigo y Gabriela have gone their own way since they emerged with a bang in the early 2000s as a hypnotizing duo that mingled flamenco attack with metal accents, jazz seductiveness and more. With just two acoustic guitars (and some choice effects and smart use of volume), Rodrigo Sánchez (lead guitar) and Gabriela Quintero (rhythm guitar) have become an international sensation, a position gained through raw talent, a unique vision and dedication to pushing themselves into new areas. This last point is shiningly evident on their new release, Area 52 (released January 24 on ATO), which finds them reimagining signature pieces like “11:11" and “Hanuman" with a group of skilled Cuban musicians and some handpicked guests like metal drummer extraordinaire John Tempesta and sitarist Anoushka Shankar. It is a lively affair, vigorously engaging with familiar territory and finding much new in these fresh hands, which layer horns, violin, piano and oodles of percussion onto their songs. The duo themselves similarly stretch, taking up electric instruments including lap steel and generally throwing hesitation to the wind in order to stir up new sounds.

We spoke with Sánchez about the genesis of this project and what it means within the music that's established them as international stars.

JamBase: There's been an appetite amongst some fans to hear what you two would sound like with a smoking band cooking behind you, but how did you end up in Cuba, which doesn't seem like the obvious choice on the surface of things?

Rodrigo: Honestly, the original idea I had at the beginning didn't turn out the way I thought it would. It was more like a project in the middle of two albums, but as my first approach—to work with a Latin band—arrived and I told our managers, who liked the idea, it was interesting. But as we started to build the whole thing, I realized Cuba would be a good place to do it. I had been in New York and saw a show with a big Latin jazz band, and thought, “That'd be interesting to do."

At the same time, my management said, “You have another year to go touring, so when after that are you going to jump into the studio for the next album?" To me, that sounded crazy because we've been on tour for SO long. So, I had to come up with something to keep them happy AND get us a break. But, it didn't turn out to be much of a break [laughs]. I'm happy now and embrace it because the results are good. I listen to it and like it. I don't listen to it the same way I listen to my other albums. I think of it as if I were listening to another band, which I enjoy.

JamBase: It's exciting to hear your music, familiar pieces to any fan, take on new life. The new version of “11:11" is so fearless, so ready to go somewhere it hasn't gone before.

Rodrigo: That's true, and it's one of my favorite tracks. In fact, that's the kind of track I hoped we'd go to. Going to Cuba was like taking a music course. We never went to music school, so we don't know how to read or write music—everything is in our hands. So, we got involved with musicians who knew how to get into the music with their hands, too, but also knew how to read and understand music in both worlds. It was hard work but we learned a lot. We pushed ourselves to get to their level, and we got to change solos and add to and extend pieces. I got to play the electric guitar again!

That's one of the more striking elements on this album, especially captured with a full rhythm section and the other instrumentation.

It was something I hadn't tried before on the other two albums and Gabriella as well. She added some of the wah-wah elements she uses onstage but normally doesn't do much on the albums. For her, it was an amazing experience to learn different rhythms that wouldn't clash with all the percussive elements but still retained her guitar as a clear part of the rhythm section. It was a challenge but it came out pretty good.

What did you find came up in your music as it came into contact with Cuban music? Cuban music has an energy and flow that's unique.

When we were building the whole thing we were sent videos of all the musicians by this guy in Cuba who was setting up everything so we could pick [who would be involved]. If we were looking for a flautist, he'd send us videos of five flute players that were available and well recommended. So, we looked for a balance between young and very experienced musicians, but we didn't want to go all the way with traditional musicians. We didn't want to do something like the Buena Vista Social Club [laughs].

There's definitely a temptation to do something along those lines. Record labels love that sort of thing.

Exactly! To be honest, that was my speech when I sold [the idea] to labels. I thought they'd like that...and they did! I knew I didn't want to go so traditional, but they didn't know that [laughs].

That's great [laughs]! I think it's important with your music, which is young and coming from a different place than the usual corporate music industry, that you would also play with other younger musicians with the same mindset.

Yes! I know that and though we had a lot of young musicians, we also had, for example, the bassist Feliciano Arango Noa, who is a legend in Cuba where he's played on over 200 albums and with all the big stars you can imagine. He's older than anyone, but even he said, “I need to do something different."

The younger musicians were SO happy. They weren't aware of us because the Cuban people aren't aware of anything really [due to state control of all imported news and entertainment]. These musicians watched what we did and really got into it. They were really fearless. They were willing to change the clave, which normally for them is a big, big deal.

It's always exciting when someone says there are no rules. This is often where the best music emerges.

Totally! In the classical world, they might not be that excited by this idea because they don't have the same kind of skills the Cubans have. When they go to school in Cuba, they learn classical music not Cuban music. In fact, they don't have schools to teach traditional Cuban music. That's amazing to me. All the music they play is coming from generations on the street.

It's kept alive person to person.

But they also understand classical music, and everyone can read music and all that, which is why they are so good.

Are there any plans to tour with this group? Being from Cuba, I imagine there are all sorts of complications and challenges to making that happen.

It's very difficult, but we are going to do a couple of tours. The first one is in February in Europe, and then the second in America in April. We're not sure if we'll be able to bring them all but we want to keep most of the band together. A lot of them play with big bands in Cuba and have other commitments. But we don't want to just hire any musicians to just play. The idea is to add something to our show to reveal something of these tracks [to audiences]. Hopefully, it will be special.

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