Rodrigo y Gabriela, Lock 17, Camden Town, London

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The Independent Culture

When Rodrigo and Gabriela made their South Bank debut last summer as support for Salif Keita, nobody expected much of them.

When Rodrigo and Gabriela made their South Bank debut last summer as support for Salif Keita, nobody expected much of them. And neither did the organisers, leaving this Mexican pair to find a space amid the main act's clutter to do their humble biz at the front of the stage. But they proved to be electrifying: when the Malian superstar came on nothing he did could prevent a feeling of anticlimax: they had been the stars of the show.

Since then, they've galvanised crowds at Glastonbury and Womad, and their government back home is looking into ways of capitalising on their fame: an extraordinary story of musical rags to riches is now unfolding. Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero began their careers as guitarists for a heavy-metal band called Tierra Acida, which drew its inspiration from Metallica and Megadeth. They enjoyed this work, and liked the music, but felt increasingly that their voices were not being heard above the routinely distorted din.

So they upped sticks and settled in Dublin, where their lack of English - and lack of money - impelled them to busk in the streets. Gradually they found themselves being drawn indoors, becoming stars of the live-music scene. Encouraged by the Dublin singer Damien Rice, they recorded an album in homage to their flamenco heroes Paco de Lucia and Vicente Amigo. The album did well; doors began to open.

The stage at Lock 17 was set with just two chairs: when the pair came on and greeted us in their characteristically modest way - "For the people who don't know who we are, we come from Mexico City" - we had to strain to hear them. But from the moment they put their heads down and started to play, they had us entranced and kept us in that state for the next 90 minutes.

Traditional music in Mexico is dominated by the sound of the harp and vihuela lute: both are played high, to create an ecstatically hurrying excitement. And that was exactly what this pair did with their guitars, producing dizzy virtuosity. Their rhythms were delicately syncopated, their melodies were a blend of flamenco, Mexican folk, and jazz. They did a wonderfully lifelike evocation of a steam train gathering speed; they produced shimmering cascades like carillons of bells. Their technical abilities were perfectly complementary, Rodrigo specialising in intricate melody, and Gabriela augmenting her plectrum skills with a tabla-style mastery of percussion on the body of her instrument. One long number began as an uncategorisable jazz exploration, then suddenly sailed into a reworking of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five".

Their disingenuous conversational links - about the vicissitudes of life on the road - didn't have much to do with their music, but that didn't matter. Their new live CD wasn't on sale in the auditorium, but you can get it in the shops: until they come back, that will make a very satisfying substitute.

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