Catalina Maria Johnson

International radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, music curator

By Catalina Maria Johnson

“In general the Americana world gets to be a little bland in terms of what traditions people are drawing from, but once we started smearing the influences around and make it more confusing about where it is coming from that seemed more interesting to us and was generating a more unique voice,” said David Wax about his band, David Wax Museum.

Missourian Wax, along with Virginian multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Suz Slezak, form the artistic core of the Boston-based group that fuses traditional Mexican folk rhythms with American roots and indie rock in English-language songs to create what they term “Mexo-Americana”.

Wax first discovered Mexican folk music while completing a college summer program in a rural town in Mexico’s Huasteca region. Located within the state of San Luis Potosí, the area is renowned for lively music characterized by falsetto vocals along with violins, guitars and smaller stringed instruments called jaranas, the latter of which is Wax’s instrument of choice today.

By phone from Madison, Wisc., on a tour that brings the band to Chicago to perform on Thursday, Sept. 26, at the Old Town School Of Folk Music, Wax is describing the band’s evolution in the last few years: “Initially there was a really clear demarcation when we were doing more straight-ahead American folk songs and when we were doing translations of Mexican folk songs.”

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He continues to explain how the sound has changed, “Now we’re using different synthesizer sounds, electric guitar, rhythms from other traditions and that helps us put our own stamp on the sound and create this more unique, but stranger, hybrid approach to bringing those styles together.”

It has been a positive direction for the band, says Wax, “We are living in a world that is extremely diverse and mestizaje is the reality. It’s been fun to branch out, get louder, open up a wider spectrum and be able to show a more aggressive side and a sweeter side and everything in between.”

Wax himself is still primarily exploring Mexican folk rhythms, which he characterizes as nearly infinite, and he gives as an example the hit song on the band’s last record which was a son calentano (an energetic, soulful style of music native to the “Tierra Caliente” regions that includes parts of the states of Guerrero and Michoacán. He comments that the son calentano was a fruitful direction for his compositions, thanks to its vibrant dance rhythm, “The music already swings a lot, it has a swinging funkiness that was playful very easy to bring that to bear,  but also give it a more American pop sheen.”

The band is enjoying the change. He adds, “The longer that we’ve been together we’ve found it’s much more exciting and more fertile territory to explore when we’re taking the two different genres and mashing them up in a way where it is less clear where the song is coming from…there’s not a lot of Americana bands that draw on this type of Mexican music. We’ve started to feel more at home in the indie and the rock side of things, it feels less boxed in in terms of what we can do.”

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