Central American musicology at Water Street

05:00 AM, Oct 03, 2013

The David Wax Museum combines Mexican and American folk and alt-rock sounds. (Provided by The David Wax Museum)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: The David Wax Museum.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: The Club at Water Street, 204 N. Water St.
Admission: $10 advance ($12 the day of the show), available at waterstreetmusic.com.

David Wax grew up in central Missouri, “the Americana, alt-country, singer-songwriter universe of Leonard Cohen, Dylan,” he says. Suz Slezak was home-schooled in rural Virginia. “A bluegrass community, Wax says, “so she’s steeped in that tradition.”

Next stop, the obvious: Mexico.

As The David Wax Museum — the duo has bulked up to a quintet for its show Friday at The Club at Water Street — Wax and Slezak have assembled a sound that feels like Central American world music.

The general American audience is maybe familiar with mariachi music, or perhaps other types of Mexican music coming out of a radio station,” Wax says. “Maybe something from the deep catalog of Los Lobos.”

But The David Wax Museum ventures farther afield. Wax likes to play the Jarana, a small Mexican guitar. Slezak is master of a peculiar piece of percussion, the jawbone of a donkey.

It is not a sedentary sound. This is music about, Wax says, “finding the joy of dancing.” The David Wax Museum is for folkies who like their folk music energized, and rockers who like their rock music indie.

Wax uncovered this inspiration during several pilgrimages to Mexico, including a year-long fellowship from Harvard in 2001. He didn’t stop at the guys in sombreros singing “Volver.” Spending most of his time in southern Veracruz, where he’d been told there was a resurrection of interest in older sounds among young people, Wax listened and danced and studied, absorbing three regional, distinct styles of folk music. Different configurations of players, sometimes trios, or a group of 10 to 15. Different instrumentation, sometimes with fiddles, sometimes with small drums. Different vocal styles, including falsetto voices. “And getting wrapped up in Latin American history and politics and culture,” he says.

The David Wax Museum emerges from these experiences as a museum of music. “A hybrid of those,” Wax says. “Mexican folk, American folk traditions put through this American singer-songwriter prism, and alt-rock sensibilities.” This band is the work of musicologists in full flight, with accordion and autoharp joining folksy harmonies and Wax songwriting that dwells on the extremes of romance. Danceable breakup songs, and cautionary lyrics that “love is just one step removed from blindness.”

The David Wax Museum tends to call Boston home, although Wax says most of his worldly belongings have been in storage for 10 years. This is a road band, one that has been to Rochester several times. “We played at Boulder Coffee for, like, 10 people, and Monty’s Krown with Auld Lang Syne, that was one of our favorite bands,” he says of the gone and much-missed Rochester group. “The last time we were there was at Abilene. A rowdy, sold-out show, really sweaty.”

The band’s world is actually much larger than that Central American description that follows it from gig to gig. Slezak’s donkey jawbone? “It’s actually African — slaves brought it to Central America,” Wax says. You don’t have to always chase inspiration. Sometimes all you have to do is open your ears and hear what’s already there.

We’re not seeking other influences, I think we have our hands full,” Wax says. “This music is stuff you can study for a lifetime. We’re just scratching the surface. But as writers, we’re trying to take in wherever we travel and the people we meet.”

For The David Wax Museum, that means all roads lead to Nome, as the only band brought in this summer for the Midnight Sun Folk Fest in Nome, Alaska, “We were in the local parade, we played for school kids, we were on all the radio stations in town, we played in the local bar,” Wax says. “They were the warmest people.

And it was amazing to be in such an insulated part of the country, culturally untouched by a lot of American culture. They still had the old downtown strip left, just like the Wild West. When you leave town, it’s a complete wilderness. We saw musk oxen, moose, reindeer.”

So Nome is maybe not as far from Veracruz as the maps suggest. What The David Wax Museum found 102 miles south of Arctic Circle was, “What we get any time we play somewhere where people are present — a real injection of energy,” Wax says. “A sense of hope that we’re on the right track, and that the music speaks to people in a way that’s not just about geography. China, Europe, Nome, I think what we find is more an inspiration and encouragement, a sense that what we’re doing matters. That’s kind of a good path to be on, to be making music that connects to people around the world, and see that in action.”