When David Wax first lived and worked in Mexico, he didn’t speak Spanish all that well. What he did know how to do, though, was play the guitar. It helped immensely.
“I was living in a rural community, a mestizo community, where they played son huasteco music,” he says. “I’d been studying Spanish for a couple of years, but it really wasn’t that good because I had never been immersed. I’d never been in a situation where I was forced to speak it all the time. But as I was becoming accustomed to being in Mexico and speaking the language, I found that the music was really a good and effective way to connect with people and to dance and be part of community life there.”
This introduction to a regional Mexican style and his deep affinity for the music and culture of Mexico has led Wax and his principal collaborator, vocalist and violinist Suz Slezak, to put together the David Wax Museum, which brings together a unique blend of traditional Mexican folk and country-fried Americana from the midwest. The David Wax Museum will be appearing at Concerts at the Crossing in Titusville on Saturday, November 19.
The group’s music has been described as “applying an alt-country spin on traditional Mexican music.” Wax himself calls his music “Mexo-American,” and it is some of the most unique stuff you’ll ever hear. Scott Cullen, who runs the Concerts at the Crossing series and books the artist calls them “the hottest acoustic duo today.”
The core members of the band are the duet of Wax and Slezak. Slezak is a different kind of triple threat — vocalist, fiddle player, and expert at the quijada, the donkey’s jawbone that is played throughout Latin America. Wax and Slezak also supplement that configuration with anywhere from two to six additional musicians. At the November 19 concert, the band will be joined by percussionist and bassist Greg Glassman and Alex Spiegleman, a baritone sax/clarinet player.
Wax, 30, grew up in Columbia, Missouri, and currently lives in Boston. He graduated from Harvard University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Latin American literature. His father sold school supplies and his mother was a middle school art teacher. “They were very supportive of arts and music. My mom is a piano player, and we grew up with my great-grandmother’s piano in my house,” says Wax. “She had been a piano teacher, and we basically imbibed it. My older brother was serious jazz guitarist, and I had played in bands since junior high school with my cousin, Jordan, who I grew up with.”
Before he went to Harvard, for two years Wax was a student at one of the most obscure, unique, and exclusive educational institutions in the country and world. Wax was a student at Deep Springs College, a tiny agricultural community located in Big Pine, California, on the border of north-central California and western Nevada. The school, established in 1917, is located in the middle of the high desert straddling the two states, and its all-male student body, is usually capped at between 25 and 30 students. The campus includes a cattle ranch, dairy, and alfalfa farm. Each Deep Springs student is expected to work between 25 and 30 hours a week on the different farms, Wax says.
“It’s a unique educational experiment that’s been going on since 1917,” says Wax. “It’s a holistic education, a place that puts a lot of value on physical labor, a place that places a lot of responsibility on the students in terms of self-governance. That’s reflected in the students being responsible for choosing the members of the incoming class and hiring the faculty.”
Wax found out about the institution, he says, because another young man from his hometown had attended and had encouraged him to try to go. He says the Deep Springs experience helped him immensely as a person and as a musician.
“I think as a person in general, it made me a lot tougher, just because it was a really challenging environment to put yourself in,” says Wax. “It was academically very challenging and humbling, and physically very challenging and humbling. It was isolating — you’re not supposed to leave the valley when school is in session — so you end up testing yourself. I left there with a much stronger idea of who I was, what my strengths and weaknesses were. I had a much better appraisal of who I was as a human being when I left there.”
As a musician, says Wax, “I really learned to value the role that an artist plays in the community in a direct way. When you’re doing music, touring, you get a little disconnected from the impact it has on people. But when you’re in a small community, you just have a greater appreciation for the role music plays in getting people together in a joyful way. I started to appreciate that this was a role I could fill in my community (later in life) that I hadn’t fully valued when I was younger.”
Harvard “was a different beast,” says Wax. When he got there, his perspective was different from many students who had come from high school, partly because he was an older student. Wax’s affinity for Mexican culture became more pronounced after his freshman year at Harvard, when he worked in Mexico’s Huasteca region for the American Friends Service Committee.
Wax soon found himself exploring the different styles of “son” music, the rural, traditional Mexican folk music. Meanwhile, Harvard had just hired an anthropologist who was an expert on Mexico. “It was the perfect moment to find a great teacher (Gary Gossen) who helped steer me in this direction and educate me about a whole range of issues regarding Mexico and Latin America in general.”
After Wax graduated from Harvard, he won a traveling fellowship and went back to Mexico. “I went back there to play son. I spent 2006 and 2007 down in Mexico playing music. I spent a lot of time in Veracruz playing son jarocho. That’s the form of son that’s really happening right now.”
Son jarocho itself is known well beyond Mexico, though most people outside that country don’t understand what it is when they hear it. The song “La Bamba,” popularized by Ritchie Valens and, decades later, Los Lobos, is a son jarocho. The musical genre, a 6/8 syncopated rhythm, is a combination of old Spanish heritage combined with strong Afro-Mexican and indigenous influence from Veracruz.
The year Wax spent in Mexico, he moved around from Huasteca, Morelia, and Veracruz, immersing himself in the different forms of Mexican son. After returning from Mexico, he decided to devote his professional life to music. It was a bit tough at first, knowing that he had to figure out a way to make a living. “Luckily I had a bit of money left over from my fellowship, so I could pay rent for a couple months and get my bearings back in Boston.
“I wasn’t sure I was going to do music, but I knew I had to try,” Wax continues. “I had gotten an opportunity through the fellowship to see what my life would be like if it were dedicated to music. Previously I had imagined that my life, if dedicated to the arts, would be missing something for me, because I had been very academically minded. But I felt really engaged in a complete way as a musician, so I had a sense that if I could pull this off, I really wanted to try to do it. I figured I had the gumption and perseverance to stick to this. I tried to study for the GREs, I tried to get different jobs, but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything else.”
For the first couple of years after college and his fellowship, Wax did work as a teaching and research assistant and worked other odd jobs.
The David Wax Museum has indeed thrived since Wax went all-in on this music endeavor. The band began forming from within Wax’s own network of friends, relatives, and musicians. Wax met Slezak in 2007 through a mutual friend. “As the project went on, she got more and more involved in terms of planning the tours, doing the nitty-gritty work involved in actually running the band,” Wax says. “Eventually she quit her job so she could focus on the band full-time; the fall of 2009 we started touring.”
Just in the past year, the David Wax Museum, which has released three records, has been getting noticed more and more. The band has traveled across the country and beyond but has concentrated performing largely on the eastern seaboard, from New England south to the mid-Atlantic. The group performed a well-received set at last year’s Newport Folk Festival and has been profiled on National Public Radio.
Wax and Slezak have always displayed an entrepreneurial bent. “Just as much as we are artists and performers, we are entrepreneurs. We embrace the business side of this just as seriously as we do performing. It has been a combination of a lot of things that have helped us get to this point.”
It seems to be paying off.
“We’re inside the machine, and we’re inside the daily grind of the work,” says Wax. “It’s hard to appreciate when people say we’ve kind of blown up, because we’re just trying to keep our head down and concentrate on each show. We feel grateful that we can make a humble living making music. That has been a blessing. But in the grand scheme of things, we are still just a small band. We are just in the early stages of our development, and we are very cognizant of that.”
David Wax Museum, Concerts at the Crossing, Unitarian Church, 268 Washington Crossing-PenningtonRoad, Titusville. Saturday, November 19, 7:30 p.m. Mexican folk with American roots and indie rock to create a Mexo-Americana sound. Also, special guests Pearl and the Beard $20. 609-406-1424 or www.concertsatthecrossing.com.