November 2019 Artists of the Month: Villalobos Brothers

Villalobos Brothers

If you’ve not already gotten the word, let me be the first to deliver it. The Villalobos Brothers are indeed three brothers (Alberto, Luis, Ernesto), each a violin virtuoso from Vera Cruz state in Mexico. They are joined by their childhood friend Humberto Flores on guitar, plus assorted percussionists who join them in the studio and on stage. The siblings were each childhood prodigies who left Mexico to study classical music abroad, but reassembled to enormous public acclaim. They have accompanied numerous Latin jazz ensembles and have collaborated with everyone from The Chieftains, Ry Cooder, Dolly Parton, Leni Stern, and Dan Zanes. They have also shared the stage with the Cuban and Peruvian national symphonies and have headlined at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. In other words, they are the real deal.

Their new release Somos features both their considerable musical mastery and their commitment to social justice. For the Spanish-challenged–like me–the album title translates “We Are.” It is a simple and direct assertion of presence and the title track addresses the U.S. immigration crisis and backlash. You need not understand the lyrics to admire the passion and craftsmanship of the Villalobos Brothers. This song has the scope of a pop anthem. It is lively, upbeat, hopeful, and has tongue-twisting staccato interludes.

The Villalobos Brothers are polished to a slick veneer and don’t shy away from a bit of showmanship. For example, “Xalapa Bang!” is a mélange of classical, funk, jazz, and Latin music built around frenetic fiddling. If you watch the YouTube video, Luis explains that the song is about police brutality, and the brothers do a bit of pantomime to drive home the point. It might seem a bit hokey on the surface. That is, until you do a bit of research on the subject and start to tally the number of lives lost in both the U.S. and Mexico at the hands of those who are supposed to serve and protect.

Once again, though, you can admire the musicianship with or without the politics (though I recommend you add it). The ensemble has a wonderful ability to mix styles and emotions. “Hombres de Arcilla” translates “Men of Clay” and just happens to be the name of a show of Alberto’s ceramic masks. which he fashioned in honor of 43 students who were abducted from an Iguala, Guerrero teachers’ college in 2014, 40 of whom were never found.* Alberto explains that his ceramics–inspired by pre-Aztec death masks–and musical composition are also intended to call attention to the fragility of life. The composition opens with discordant and melancholy strains that skirt the edge of experimental music. The vocals, though slow and soulful, are reminiscent of 1930s Spanish Civil War laments.

On the lighter side, “Veracruzana” is imbued with joyful and playful sounds that evoke a Zócalo party. “Hermano Mio” is a delicate melody that’s simultaneously jaunty and sweet. It has the feel of a folk song. And again, on the musical boundaries, there is “Wind Song.” It’s decidedly a slice of jazz, but jazz as filtered through classical music and salsa. Perhaps all three also have a political message but, as noted, my Spanish is limited.

What’s not in short supply insofar as the Villalobos Brothers are concerned is talent. They bring to bear all of their classical training, but they place ardor and intensity at the fore rather than devotion to technical prowess or individual huzzahs. You will, however, be tempted to dole out plenty of the latter.

Rob Weir

** The 2014 kidnappings have yet to be resolved fully, though they have been linked to local police, politicians, and organized crime figures. Allegations remain that the federal police, military, and government were also involved.

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