David Wax Museum: Midwest Folk, Mexican Flair The Boston duo has been tracking Americana music traditions from the plains of Missouri all the way down to Mexico and beyond. Here, David Wax Museum's members describe the way they use exotic instruments to create Americana music with one foot in Mexican son.
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David Wax Museum: Midwest Folk, Mexican Flair

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David Wax Museum: Midwest Folk, Mexican Flair

David Wax Museum: Midwest Folk, Mexican Flair

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When you hear the term Americana music, you usually think United States of. But there's a duo known as David Wax Museum tracking that Americana tradition from the plains of Missouri all the way down to Mexico and beyond.

(Soundbite of song, "Yes, Maria, Yes")

DAVID WAX MUSEUM: (Singing) Oh yes, Maria, yeah. No, Maria, no. (Unintelligible) invites me in just to (unintelligible)...

WERTHEIMER: Strings from Veracruz, percussion from Peru, played by musicians from Missouri and Massachusetts. I caught band mates Suz Slezak and David Wax earlier this week as their tour stopped in Manchester, England. And David Wax told me how his Mexican history studies at Harvard blended with his own Midwestern music tradition.

Mr. DAVID WAX (Musician): It came together pretty naturally for me. I was living down in Mexico - this was in 2006 when I was there for the year to study - Son Mexicano is what they call it, Mexican son. And I started writing songs using the new instrument that I was learning while I was down there.

And often, I would take songs that I was learning in Spanish, and I was still kind of having trouble with the words so I would just make up my own words in English to go over the new songs I was learning.

And so out of this process came the batch of songs that were kind of the starting ground for the David Wax Museum.

(Soundbite of song, "Yes, Maria, Yes")

DAVID WAX MUSEUM: (Singing) While you spread your kisses out, spread your kisses out, spread your kisses out, as I'm playing, as I'm playing.

WERTHEIMER: Suz, are you a Mexican folk scholar as well?

Ms. SUZ SLEZAK (Musician): I'm not. I just kind of have gotten more and more interested through my time working with Dave and his band. When we first met in Boston and started the band, I was a fiddle player primarily. I grew up outside Charlottesville, Virginia and had grown up playing a lot of old-time music and Irish music and studied classical violin growing up.

WERTHEIMER: David, we have a song here, "Chuchumbe," which has, I guess, a kind of colorful history. We're going to listen to a bit of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Chuchumbe")

DAVID WAX MUSEUM: (Singing) Deep dark water, the city is bright. I love this city is bright (unintelligible) this chuchumbe...

WERTHEIMER: Now, I don't know if everybody could hear the words, but you're singing about a priest lifting up his frock in front of a bunch of nuns and showing all the nuns his chuchumbe. I'm guessing this was not a big hit with the Catholic Church.

Mr. WAX: No, no. It wasn't. It actually was banned by the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago in Mexico. The term chuchumbe supposedly comes from Senegal, and so it was a term that came over with African slaves that worked the sugar plantations in Southern Veracruz.

WERTHEIMER: So chuchumbe means...

Mr. WAX: Well, supposedly, it means belly button. But it's taken on a different meaning in Mexico, or it took on a different meaning. And there was a very sexually suggestive dance that went along with the song, and so the Catholic Church was very upset with the dance and banned the song. But luckily, it wrote down the lyrics as part of the process of banning the song and proving how scandalous it was.

And then these words were discovered, I think, about 20 years ago, and they put new music to these old words. And now, it's become part of the canon of Son Jarocho.

WERTHEIMER: Son Jarocho, that's the music of the songs of...

Mr. WAX: Of Veracruz.

WERTHEIMER: Suz, you are playing an instrument called the donkey jawbone on this in addition to singing. What is a donkey jawbone? Is it really a donkey jawbone?

Ms. SLEZAK: It is. It's actually just the lower half of the jaw, so it's the lower set of teeth. I'm just looking at it now. There are about 12 huge donkey molars that are still implanted in the jaw. Obviously, it's dried out so the gums are gone. So it leaves the teeth kind of loose in their sockets, and they rattle when you hit it. And then I also have a wooden stick that I use to scrape up and down the teeth to make another set of sounds.

WERTHEIMER: Well, could you just give us a little demonstration in isolation so we can hear it when we hear it again?

Ms. SLEZAK: Of course. Here it is.

(Soundbite of donkey jawbone)

WERTHEIMER: That's so funny. And it's actually the teeth that are making the noise.

Ms. SLEZAK: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: My guests are musicians Suz Slezak and David Wax, and together, they're known as David Wax Museum. Their latest album is called "Everything is Saved."

The donkey jawbone is on the song "Unfruitful." So now, that we know what it sounds like let's listen for it.

(Soundbite of song, "Unfruitful")

DAVID WAX MUSEUM: (Singing) When I met you at the store, I've not seen you before. I wanted to say, but my lips, they were pure...

WERTHEIMER: Suz Slezak on donkey jawbone there.

David Wax, you have some other exotic instruments that you play on this track?

Mr. WAX: Yes. I'm playing a little guitar that looks like a ukulele, but it's called a jarana jarocha. And it's a guitar that comes from Southern Veracruz.

WERTHEIMER: So does it sound like a guitar or sound like a ukulele?

Mr. WAX: Well, it's played very differently than a ukulele. I can give you a little demonstration here.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: I'd say it sounds like a guitar.

Mr. WAX: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Except, of course, it has a very small sound box.

Mr. WAX: It does. And it's got a lot more strings. And it's used in a kind of more flamenco style that came over from Spain.

WERTHEIMER: Now, obviously, your recording sounds very modern, despite the use of all these old instruments. Was that what you were shooting for to try to mix the old in and make it sound new, Suz?

Ms. SLEZAK: Yeah. I think there's actually something that has become more and more apparent as I learn more about the Son Jarocho. There's a really strong similarity between the way the music is played in Mexico and the way the old-time music that I grew up a part of in Central Virginia is played.

It's always a really communal activity. People kind of chime in singing. The songs are very simple. They're always based on the one, four and five chords, very repetitive, and the rhythms are kind of the most important part, almost more important than the melody. So it was kind of a simple transition, I guess.

WERTHEIMER: So even though you're thinking in a modern way about older music, you call yourself the David Wax Museum. I mean, I get the joke, but doesn't the word museum perhaps suggest something trapped in time?

Mr. WAX: I think that we like to think about it as in a museum bringing together a lot of old things. But in the process of them coming together, something new is created out of that. And I think that the term museum can have a more of an adventurous quality to it.

WERTHEIMER: Well, certainly, the wax museum here in Washington has all kinds of - it has Lady Gaga in it, actually.

Mr. WAX: There you go.

(Soundbite of song, "Born with a Broken Heart")

DAVID WAX MUSEUM: (Singing) I was born a brokenhearted boy, give or take an ounce...

WERTHEIMER: That's David Wax and Suz Slezak. They record under the name David Wax Museum, and their latest album is called "Everything is Saved."

David, Suz, thank you very much.

Mr. WAX: Thank you so much for having us.

Ms. SLEZAK: Thank you, Linda.

(Soundbite of song, "Born with a Broken Heart")

DAVID WAX MUSEUM: (Singing) If you're out, wandering the street, knock on my window, it will open. My bed is small, but so are we, let the (unintelligible) open. Ooh, you were born with a broken heart, with a broken heart...

WERTHEIMER: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. We're back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great night.

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