The Latin Sound of Missouri's David Wax Museum: Jaranas Jarochas, Quijadas y Mas

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Suz Slezak and David Wax -
Suz Slezak and David Wax
For as stiff and coy as the band's name may be, the David Wax Museum's hybrid of indie pop, folk and folkloric music flares with smart sonic ideas and timeless and in-the-moment images. Born and raised in Columbia, Missouri, Wax (that is his last name) still has family in University City and still has a light Missouri twang in his voice. But the music he has been making since last year's cut-through-the-indie-folk-clutter release Everything Is Saved and this year's even more cutting Knock Knock Get Up is animated by a deep connection with Latin music, especially the string-band trio sound of huapango, which Wax absorbed while living and studying in Mexico.

The obvious analog to the David Wax Museum's sound is Calexico, but a clear difference lies in the rhythmic power of Wax's "army of jaranas," the wheeling voice and quijada (donkey jawbone) percussion of partner Suz Slezak and a coalition of equally-adventurous musicians who make Wax's dance and truly sing.

I reached Wax on the phone prior to his band's appearance at Off Broadway on Wednesday, September 12.

Roy Kasten: How does a young man from Columbia, Missouri get interested in Latin American culture and music?

David Wax: I studied Spanish in junior high and high school in Columbia and I had a few important people in my life who were from Latin America. I got an exposure at a pretty young age, but after my first year in college, I had an opportunity to do volunteer work in Mexico. That's where I really got interested in the culture, history and politics. I spent the summer down there and got interested in Mexican folk music. That was the summer of 2001.

Was that live performances or tapes and records?

It was pretty much all live, community folk performances, people who were getting together for a dance, these huapango trios, would be an essential part of that. There was a thriving folk music culture. It's such an inclusive way of interacting with music. It's really lively and I was taken in by it right away.

There's a lot of regional variation in a country as big as Mexico. Was there a specific sound that was popular in the state you were in?

Son Huasteco or huapango. That's the folk music that's indigenous to that region. Those trios, they're exposed to other types of music, they'll play rancheros or norteño songs, or even cumbias, but the bulk of their repertoire is these traditional sones as they call it. That was the gateway for me to the whole complex world of Mexican folk music.

Can you describe the core features of that music?

What's interesting about this new record [Knock Knock Get Up] is that it has more instrumentation that comes from Son Huasteco, but in the past and in general the son jarocho music has been more influential, from the South and Veracruz. That has a more syncopated rhythm that comes from the African influences, from the African slaves who worked in the sugar cane fields in Veracruz. It's all string-band music, so as opposed to mariachi music there's no brass. It's mostly 6/8, it's all dance music, almost a Mexican clogging style of dance, on a raised wooden platform. It has call and response singing, general songs about love and the natural environment.

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