There’s quite a distance between the streets of Mexico City and Oslo, Norway – 5,710 miles, to be exact. But Rodrigo Sanchez is content to enjoy the cool spring temperatures in the Scandinavian country, creating music in a place far away from his homeland.
It’s midnight in Norway, and Sanchez – one-half of the almost indescribable acoustic world music group Rodrigo y Gabriela, along with guitar master Gabriela Quintero — is a little tired from a full day of recording music. He’s already been in the city for a few months, working on several different musical projects all at once.
The new locale and change of pace of recording is a welcome development for the acoustic guitarist who has been touring and making music almost non-stop for more than a decade – taking him everywhere from the sidewalks of Dublin, Ireland (where the duo had moved and started street busking) to the comfortable confines of the White House in Washington, D.C.
“We don’t have any deadlines [to record], so we’re taking our time,” Sanchez says. “We don’t have any rush, so we feel really happy and fortunate.”
The decade-long journey of Rodrigo y Gabriela reads like a storybook filled with songs and lyrics. The duo met at the Casa de Cultura in Mexico City in their teens, bonding over a mutual love of American heavy metal music like Metallica and Megadeth. They played in various incarnations of metal bands before they decided to switch to acoustic music, blending elements of flamenco, rumba, jazz and rock.
Sanchez and Quintero also decided to move from Mexico to Europe in 1999, settling in Ireland where they quickly made a name for themselves for their bold and innovative music they played for crowds on the street. The move was audacious, considering neither spoke English.
Fast forward to today, and the duo has released five albums (including last year’s critically-acclaimed release, 9 Dead Alive), played everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the Sydney Opera House in Australia and created soundtracks for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the Shrek prequel, Puss in Boots.
Their live show has been praised as one of the most impressive and dynamic acoustic acts in the world, with Quintero being listed by several publications as one of the greatest female guitarists of all time. They perform as many as 150 shows a year, including the band’s first-ever visit to the Santander Performing Arts Center in Reading on Wednesday.
With such a busy touring schedule, finding time to work on new songs can be a challenge for Sanchez. He says he’ll write melodies on the road if he has some free time, but the focus is usually on the performance that night.
One aspect of songwriting Sanchez says he has been spending more time on lately is writing lyrics for the band – the first time he has penned lyrics for the band since all of their previous songs have been strictly instrumental creations. Sanchez has been posting the hand-written lyrics on the band’s social media pages like Twitter and Instagram, asking their fans to make comments about the words.
Sanchez says he started writing lyrics for himself a few years ago with no intention of bringing them to Quintero to incorporate into their music as Rodrigo y Gabriela. However, he says the duo set a goal years ago to never keep doing the same musical act over and over again, so adding words to their instrumentation was the next logical step.
They recently added a few cover songs with vocals in the middle of their shows, and he says the fans greeted the new addition with enthusiasm. Sanchez says the duo plan on introducing a few of the new songs being recorded in Oslo on the upcoming tour, including the band’s stopover in Reading.
“I have experienced enough stuff for me to get inspired and to come up with this bunch of lyrics,” Sanchez says. “Now we feel it’s the time to try something new. The words were already there, so it’s a natural process. We didn’t really force ourselves to [record vocals].”
While Rodrigo y Gabriela’s recordings have garnered critical praise, it’s their live show that sets them apart from most performers. They’ve been asked to play at prestigious occasions around the world, including a show for President Obama in a tent on the South Lawn of the White House in 2010 (also on that concert bill was Beyonce).
The band’s most recent prestigious show came last September at the Nansen Refugee Award ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland – a United Nation’s award given to groups who work with at-risk populations in dangerous situations.
On Rodrigo y Gabriela’s last album – 9 Dead Alive – the duo wrote the song “FRAM” in tribute to Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and humanitarian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for working with displaced refugees during World War One and for whom the award is named. An interesting twist was that the UN committee was actually not aware the duo had recorded the tribute song before they were asked to perform at the ceremony.
This year’s recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award was presented to a group called Butterflies With New Wings Building a Future – a human rights group in Buenaventura, Columbia who works with women struggling with violence in the country. Sanchez says he had the opportunity to talk to the women after the ceremony and was amazed by their struggles and how they were dealing with receiving death threats from Columbian gangs for going to Switzerland.
“It was really, really inspiring and a great experience,” Sanchez says. “It was really moving.”
Rodrigo y Gabriela perform at the Santander Performing Arts Center (136 N. 6th St., Reading) on June 17. Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear opens the show. 7:30 pm. $32.50-$59.50. Click here for tickets.