PopTech interview: Announcing David Wax Museum at PopTech 2011

We’re thrilled to announce our first confirmed musical act at PopTech 2011. Drum roll please…It's David Wax Museum! Known for fusing traditional Mexican folk with American roots and indie rock since 2007, the Museum, which is comprised of David Wax and Suz Slezak, was hailed as one of highlights of the Newport Folk Festival by NPR and Paste Magazine in 2010. In gearing up to hear these up-and-comers play on the PopTech stage, we wanted to learn more about their most recent album, their inspiration, and how the jawbone of a donkey fits into the mix.

PopTech: Can you tell me a story about one of the tracks from your latest album, Everything is Saved? How did the song come about? 
David Wax:  I basically translated "Chuchumbe" into English with a couple of embellishments. The story goes that the Catholic Church banned the song hundreds of years ago. According to the Church, the dance that accompanied the song was too sexually suggestive.  Supposedly, the term “chuchumbe” comes from Senegal and means belly button and was a word brought over by Africans who worked as slaves on sugar plantations in southern Veracruz. Fortunately, as part of the prohibition of this song, the Church transcribed and locked away the words to prove how licentious it was.

Some 25 years ago, one of the leaders of the son jarocho revival, Gilberto Gutierrez Silva, came across the lyrics in an archive and put the words to music.  The new version of "Chuchumbe" has become part of the son jarocho canon.  As anyone listening to the lyrics can tell, the term “chuchumbe," which may have originally meant belly button in Senegal has taken on a new meaning in Mexico.

So this song has had quite a journey, traveling from Senegal to Mexico to the Catholic Church’s inquisition archive to the son jarocho canon and now to an indie folk band in the States.

David, I read that you became interested in Mexican folk songs, which greatly inspired your music, while traveling through rural Mexico. Can you tell me more about how that experience shaped the Museum’s sound?
 
David: Although I'd been interested in Mexican folk music since 2001, I only began studying it in earnest in the Fall of 2006 on a year-long fellowship from Harvard.  There are nine distinct styles of son mexicano, and I spent the year learning to play three of these different regional strains of son (son huasteco, son calentano, and son jarocho).  While I was in Mexico I began writing songs on the new Mexican instruments I was learning, while often using the traditional rhythms. This forced me into exciting creative terrain.  I also began translating these folk songs from Spanish into English.  Or, I would take an old folk song and write entirely new words in English but maintain the unique repetitive structure of the verses.  All of the techniques helped me escape the patterns I had developed as a songwriter and helped open my songwriting to a whole new palette of rhythms, lyrical ideas, and a broader emotional spectrum.

Suz plays with a quijada, or the jawbone of a donkey, which is an unusual instrument. Where did you first hear that instrument? How much does it play a role in composing your music? 
Suz Slezak: David first saw people playing the quijada in Veracruz, Mexico and suggested that I buy one and learn to play it. The songs are primarily composed on the jarana (small Mexican guitar) and the quijada is added to accent the rhythms.

Besides performing at PopTech in October, what events or projects do you have coming up in the next few months? 
We are very excited to be playing our first Canadian festivals. We'll be playing folk festivals in Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa. It is also a great honor to be asked to return to the Newport Folk Festival, which has an incredible line-up of bands we admire. 

The David Wax Museum is building a name for itself. How did you get your start? 
Suz: We got started in Boston in 2007. David had just returned from a year-long fellowship in Mexico and I was working an office job and playing in old time and bluegrass bands on the side. When we met and started singing together we knew it was something we wanted to keep doing. So after two years of regional weekend touring, I quit my job to go on the road full time and haven't gone back! 

You’ve been touring consistently for over a year. What’s one thing you’ve learned from all the touring? 
We've actually been touring full time since the summer of 2009 and what we've learned is immeasurable. We've had to re-define "home" since much of our lives are spent traveling. For us that's meant creating a routine for writing, reading, exercising and eating well on the road. And when we ARE home, we truly savor that time. We've also learned to run a small business since that is what a band really is. Most importantly, we realize each day how lucky we are to live this self-directed, creative and adventurous life.

What music are you listening to now? What music has been influencing you these days? 
Recently we've been listening to and getting inspiration from Josh Rouse, Iron & Wine, The Low Anthem, Yellowbirds, & Jessica Lea Mayfield. 

Find out more about PopTech's 2011 conference, "The World Rebalancing," and register today!

Image: David Wax Museum

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