“Ready!” said Ernesto, the oldest of the Villalobos Brothers. It was more of a maestro’s command than a question, because the entire audience of young people and their young parents were standing on their feet, ready to clap and stamp to the 6/8 time San Jarocha beat the Brothers had just taught them.
The biggest rainstorm of the year couldn’t dampen the energy of the Villalobos Brothers, nor the enthusiasm of the 100 or so young people, student musicians who had been invited to come to the interactive demonstration the Brothers gave at 1 pm, the afternoon of their evening concert at the Downey Theatre. The excitement came from both sides of the footlights.
Spotted in the audience was Lars Clutterham, active local Downey musician and Downey Symphony Society Board member, who has been helping to spearhead the Downey Foundation for Educational Opportunities, which operates within the Downey Unified School District.
I sat down in front of Liliana, 10, who plays violin and goes to Gallatin Elementary School. She has been studying for two years, and admitted bashfully that she practices ”nearly” every day, and wants to become a musician. “She plays in an ensemble,” her mother Elizabeth said.
That would be the Chamber Ensemble Group that Lars has been conducting and writing music for. Liliana’s favorite piece to play is “Arc of My Life,” a new piece by Lars which the Downey Symphony Orchestra played in its world premiere at the Downey Theatre in January. Her other favorite piece? Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Seated beside me were a young family from Old River School Road Elementary. Daughter Abigail, 10, plays the violin and her brother Josue, age 11, plays the guitar. They have lessons at school they said. Both mothers had heard the Brothers before, and knew what a treat was coming.
The house lights dimmed and the backstage was lit with an apricot sunrise glow. Out came the three brothers, with their violins, and their back-up, two acoustical guitars and a drummer. Ernesto as the oldest introduced himself and then Alberto and Luis.
Ernesto said they were going to play and teach us some rhythms from the rich Mexican tradition of their home near the port of Vera Cruz. They began with a spirited folk song, and soon Alberto was dancing a zapateado, a foot-stomping kind of dance with intricate tapping by his polished boots.
Then Ernesto stepped forward and began to play a beautiful high melody, simple and yet obviously complex in its power to mesmerize.
“Everybody up,” Alberto said, and proceeded to introduce a fast little 1, 2, 3 clapping melody that syncopated to a 1, 2 and then a 1. Soon everyone was clapping and stamping. Some snapped their fingers. “No words,” said Luis. “Just sing ai yi.”
“Fantastico.” said Ernesto. “How many violins do we have?” and many hands were raised. “Guitars?” Yes. “Drums?” One student nudged another and nodded. And singers?” Many raised their hands for that, Lars included. Boys and girls volunteered to come up to the stage and demonstrate their clapping and stomping prowess. Several pairs of rain boots were on display, as well as sneakers of various colors and heights.
“We participate, in Mexico,” said Ernesto, “when we play and when we sing. And by dancing, we all talk together. People don’t just come to listen to something beautiful. They come to be part of it.”
“When the Brothers offered us this package with the interactive student participation,” said Amber Vogel, Venuetech’s Theatre Manager, “we were thrilled to have it.” Amber held the lobby door open for us as we came in, the rain pounding down behind us. From a table in the lobby, DFEO members gave everyone an 8-page color handout, outlining the Villalobos fascination with the Mexican Folk Music traditions. A checklist showed the students’ names, instrument, and years of playing.
“This is so important,” said Lars, “to have these kids hear their instruments played at the peak of performance like this.”
The term “son” refers to music from the countryside, not the musica of the church and court, in colonial times. There are 80 sones, or songs, in the San Jaracho tradition, and the Brothers played “El Pijol,” about a black bird with a long tail and a large, curved beak that loves to cluster in noisy groups.
“How much do you practice?” asked a student during the question period. “When we began it was very little, maybe 15 minutes,” said Ernesto. “But we increased that to half an hour, an hour, two hours, four hours. Now seven hours is how much we practice every day.”
“How old were you when you began?” asked another youngster. “Maybe… about your age,” came the reply.
Actually, the Brothers’ cred and props in classical musical are awesome.
Considered child prodigies, they had early soloist debuts with the Xalapa Symphony Orchestra playing the Sibelius, Brahms, and Saint-Saens violin concertos. They also had solo appearances with the National Symphony Orchestra of Cuba.
"High Octane Mexican Fiddling" said The New Victory Theater; “They develop their own style of playing, called "Fast-Chatting Violin" consisting in a rapid succession of notes and percussive sounds that imitate the human voice.”
“These are only labels,” says Ernesto, the oldest brother. “We grew up together, making music for many years in the tropics of Veracruz, Mexico."
The Brothers use their violins and their voices to redefine contemporary Mexican music. With masks, poems, traditional Veracruz and European classical music, they layer melody and meter in an exciting new way.
That evening, the audience was treated to original music that featured complex patterns of interwoven three-violin harmonies, intricate call-and-response arrangements and lyrical melodies carried out by one of the brothers as the other two reinforce it in counterpoint.
Evening refreshments of beer, wine and munchies were provided by Soropimist International of Downey. Cecelia Gonez and Donna Lindley admitted they were glad their table had been moved from the patio into the lobby, because of the inclement weather – which, we hoped, would promote sales. All profits go to Soroptimst projects such as preventing human trafficking.
When the Brothers took the stage again at 8 pm, they were dressed casually, Ernest in a blue suit, light blue silk tie and matching headband and white boots. Luis, in the middle, wore all black with the afternoon’s red and yellow striped scarf, and Alberto wore black pants with a native geometric print short-sleeved shirt in red, yellow and blue. Alberto and Luis had on polished black boots, for dancing.
They played again in the Son Jarocho genre, the musical style from their native Veracruz, Mexico. Jarocho represents a fusion of indigenous (primarily Huastecan), Spanish, and African musical elements, reflecting the population which evolved in the region from Spanish colonial times. Themes are love, nature, sailors, and cattle breeding. It is often played on jaranas and sung in a style in which several singers exchange improvised verses called décimas, often with humorous or offensive content. A perfect way for the three siblings to show off their talent.
The Brothers are proud of the Fandango at the Wall project in 2018. They joined forces with the Afra Latin Jazz orchestra at a live concert at the Tijuana-San Diego border, to promote cross-border friendship and rapprochement. The ultimate goal of Fandango at the Wall is to bring the people of the United States and Mexico together through music. “After all, we don’t just share a border but families and friends, histories and futures,” said the Brothers.
Born and raised in Xalapa, Mexico, an hour's drive from the port city of Veracruz, the brothers spent their childhood listening to their grandmother, Cristina Vásquez play music for enjoyment after a day's work, for dancers at a country fandango, or for guests dining in the many coastal seafood restaurants. They sing and play the guitar, the piano and the thin-bodied guitars, jaranas. Original compositions, include "Anochipa Tlalticpac" for chorus, jaranas, and pre-Columbian percussion.
In 2000, Ernesto Villalobos won a Fulbright Grant to the Manhattan School of Music, where he performed at Master Classes led by Pinchas Zukerman and travelled to Israel to study with Shlomo Mintz.
The middle brother, Alberto Villalobos, left Mexico in 2002 and studied violin at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, and was a student by Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Festival Academy in Switzerland.
In 2003 the youngest brother, Luis Villalobos, moved to Germany, He was also accepted at the prestigious Mozarteum University of Salzburg in Austria.
The Villalobos Brothers have been frequent collaborators of The Shul Band, a klezmer band led by Adam Feder. In 2005 Ernesto Villalobos and Adam Feder led a candlelit vigil at the children's barracks inside Auschwitz Berkenau at Oświęcim, Poland. “Think of it as Jerry Garcia in Jerusalem,” said Adam Feder, the guitar-playing leader.
Ernesto had never met a Jew before he arrived in New York on a Fulbright fellowship. Feeling embraced by the congregation, he invited his brothers, Alberto and Luis, to come to New York and join him playing at the synagogue. Only half jokingly, Mr. Feder said, “The band is one-third mariachi now.”
Ernesto spoke of the morning interactive session and said “it is always good to come and connect with the youth. Try to be the person who supports music, not because there is any money in it, but for the good it does.” Joyce Sherwin, Downey Symphonic Society Board member also in the audience, embodies that goal.
We recognized several of the children who had attended the daytime event. Malu from Imperial School who is 8 has been studying the violin since September. Her parents brought her to the concert, and she stayed awake till the very end, although her younger sister, in matching white and pink figured leggings, fell asleep.
The evening began with Flor de Toloache, an all-female mariachi quintet: 2 guitars, a violin and two trumpets, dressed in black velvet fringed jackets and black pants with big silver coin studs. The toloache is a Mexican medicinal plant often associated with magic, and magic is a good word to describe the effect these vivacious women had.
It occurred to one to think, how much was lost, hundreds of years ago, when poetry was separated from the other elements of dance, song. and the musical instruments that create the music. Ironically, cheap indoor gas, and then electric, lighting brought the book indoors but not the performers and the music.
A Fandango, according the Villalobos Brother’s hand-out, is “a social dance and celebration, where all the element of son San Jaracho come together: music, lyrics, instruments, zapateado and reciting of poetry.”
A great swell of Hispanic love and appreciation for this community of music rides through the river of life in Downey. It adds to the rich diversity already provided by the Downey Symphonic Society, Venuetech and the Downey Theatre, and the many other musical venues in our city. They bring the feeling of community and togetherness. An evening with the Villalobos Brothers made for an awesome fandango in Downey.