The Mexican musical duo Rodrigo y Gabriela are about to begin their most ambitious tour yet, accompanied by an 18-piece Cuban orchestra. The couple, who started out busking on the streets of Dublin, have become a genuine word-of-mouth phenomenon.
A decade since they entered the scene, they have sold 1.2 million CDs, toured the world several times and appeared on the soundtracks of Pirates of the Caribbean and Puss in Boots. The US president Barack Obama has even personally invited them to perform at the White House.
Today, living in the city of Zihuatanejo on Mexico's Pacific Coast, they admit to being astonished by their success.
"We never had any idea we could achieve anything," says Gabriela Quintero, who speaks English with a lilting Irish accent. "We just wanted to play music and hoped people would enjoy it."
Quintero met Rodrigo Sanchez when both joined a heavy metal band in Mexico City. Love blossomed over guitar solos, yet the band failed.
"We put so much time into promoting our band," says Sanchez, "that when it all ended we were very disillusioned with the music industry. We then decided we would go to Europe and travel playing our guitars. No more bands, just making music for music's sake."
They chose Dublin as their initial base because they heard it welcomed musicians. One problem: they spoke no English.
"We were very naive when we started out," says Quintero. "We thought we would spend three weeks in Dublin then move on and spend three weeks in another European city. But we ran out of money in Dublin so we began busking and the locals loved our music. The Celtic Tiger was booming and we managed to get lots of work. Then Damian Rice [a successful Irish singer-songwriter] asked us to support him when he played in a Dublin theatre. And that's when we met Nial Muckian and he became our manager."
Muckian understood the duo's unique appeal and set up Rubyworks Records to handle their music. He began getting them booked across Ireland and the United Kingdom.
At every concert, the duo's masterful guitar playing and warm, witty personalities won fans. Soon, France and much of the continent fell for the duo. Japan and the US have also embraced them.
"It's unbelievable in some ways," says Sanchez. "But we keep our feet on the ground. We and Nial make all the decisions and we never compromise our music no matter how much money is being offered."
Rodrigo y Gabriela admit to being largely unknown at home in Mexico. Having made their name playing instrumental interpretations of heavy rock songs by Metallica, Slayer and Led Zeppelin, they certainly stand outside the Mexican mainstream of mariachi ballads and salsa dance music. Returning to live in Mexico has found Rodrigo y Gabriela embracing Latin music on their ambitious new album, Area 52, recorded in Havana with an 18-piece Cuban orchestra.
"All the musicians we played with on this album could be coming from another plane," says Sanchez. "Their technique and passion is almost beyond human understanding. We feel very lucky because for us this exercise has been like a master's degree for all we've learnt from them."
Adds Quintero: "Growing up in Mexico you hear a lot of Cuban music, so we were interested in working with Cuban musicians. It was a great experience. We are going to take the entire orchestra on tour with us. People are used to seeing just the two of us on stage. I don't know what they will think when they see 20 musicians on stage but I hope they like it!"
Area 52 finds them reinventing nine of their most popular original instrumentals with dynamic Cuban arrangements. For the first time, Rodrigo y Gabriela's music will be heard in Latin music dance clubs. So is Area 52 a conscious attempt to win over a Mexican audience?
"Not at all," answers Sanchez. "We wanted a challenge and recording with Cubans certainly provided us with that. While we love Mexican traditional music we have never aimed to make mariachi music. I'm sure our next album will see us return to our heavy rock roots."
The couple admit their most surreal experience so far was being invited to perform at the White House. Upon arrival they were whisked into the Oval Office and introduced to the president. Obama then introduced them to another guest: the Mexican president Felipe Calderón, who admitted he had never heard of the couple.
"He was embarrassed," says Quintero, "because Obama said to him, 'What do you mean you don't know Rodrigo y Gabriela? I have them on my iPod!' I felt sorry for him. In Mexico, people really do not know who we are."
Not to worry – by the looks of where their career is going, they will soon.
Rodrigo & Gabriela's European tour runs from February 19 to March 2. Visit www.rodgab.com for more information and check out A&L's review of their album next week in Tuesday's paper