The sound

February 24th, 2011 |


By Michael Swanger



David Wax Museum creates unique Mexo-Americana aesthetic


The story of how Harvard-educated David Wax from Missouri and home-schooled Suz Slezak from Virginia found common musical ground in Boston four years ago, then captured the 2010 Boston Music Award’s “Americana Artist of the Year” trophy and set last year’s Newport Folk Festival crowd on its ear, is as seemingly unlikely as the Mexo-Americana aesthetic they have created with David Wax Museum.

Wax’s journey from Columbia, Mo., to the back roads of Mexico began while attending Deep Springs College, an unconventional school that doubles as a cattle ranch. He spent his summers working in rural Mexico with the American Friends Service Committee, finished his degree at Harvard in Latin American history and literature, then returned to the Mexican countryside to study its rich folk music traditions during a yearlong fellowship. It was then that he began blending Midwestern folk with the music of son, Mexicano.

“He was intrigued by the music and fell in love with it,” said Slezak, 29, via telephone from North Carolina.

Slezak, who was home schooled by her father with her two siblings, learned at a young age how to play piano and violin and was raised in a home full of music that ranged from bluegrass and folk, to classical, and is the band’s anchor to American roots music. She graduated from Wellesley College and traveled the world on a Watson Fellowship to study textiles. She found herself in Boston where she met Wax, who had just returned from Mexico.

“Music was a big part of my childhood. We were encouraged to sing a lot,” she said. “Everyday, one of our duties was to practice our instrument.”

Together, Wax and Slezak meld traditional forms of Mexican (including son jarocho, a musical style from Veracruz that was influenced by African slaves brought over to work on sugar plantations) and American (country, folk, bluegrass, rock) music to generate the band’s timeless sound and its broad appeal. Combining Latin rhythms, call-and-response hollering, accordion pumping and donkey jawbone rattling, they have captivated audiences across the country in four short years.

“As much as we’re using inspiration from Mexican folk music, we’re not claiming to be a Mexican folk band by any means,” said Slezak. “Combining the forms of music feels like the most natural thing to do.”

Along the way, both musicians have taken up unusual instruments to help create their hybrid sound. For example, Wax sometimes plays a jarana, a small Mexican guitar with origins traced to Spain. Slezak, at Wax’s urging, sometimes plays a donkey jawbone, a traditional percussion instrument from Veracruz known as a quijada. She strikes the loose teeth in the jawbone with a wooden stick and adds rhythms by hitting the side of the jawbone with her wrist and hand.

“I’ve been teaching myself how to play it the last couple years,” Slezak said. “Some sound better than others. I don’t know if it depends on the age of the jawbone, but they all sound different.”

Bridging differences, however, is one of David Wax Museum’s strengths. It finds commonalities between traditional American and Mexican forms of music, which are more prevalent than most people realize. That much is evident on their latest album, “Everything is Saved,” released earlier this month.

“Playing this music is a lot of fun,” Slezak said. “People dance to it and smile. It’s full of joy, which is really what attracts me to it. It’s also played in group settings like old time music from the Appalachians. There are a lot of stringed instruments and a couple of percussion instruments, and lots of singing of songs that people know.” CV


caption: David Wax Museum plays the first show of the 2011 “Live at the Temple” concert series at the Temple for Performing Arts in downtown Des Moines on Wednesday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $21.50, available at Ticketmaster.