Saying Something 'That Is Us': The Villalobos Brothers Raise Their Voices

Aug 8, 2019
Originally published on August 9, 2019 6:47 am

As young men, the sons of the Villalobos family in rural Veracruz, Mexico embarked on separate paths — at least, geographically. One by one, the three violin-playing brothers left their hometown of Xalapa to study classical music abroad. Ernesto, the oldest of the three, went to study at the Manhattan School of Music. Alberto, the middle brother, went to the Royal Conservatory of Brussels and finally Luis, the youngest, went to the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg, Germany.

But after years of studying the classics apart, Ernesto, Alberto and Luis came back together to create their own music. Nowadays, the trio — along with Humberto Flores, their friend since childhood and the band's guitarist since 2011 — write and perform as the Villalobos Brothers. The group's latest album, Somos, out now, showcases the siblings' uniquely pointed voice, one that draws on their travels, but is rooted in their home. The album captures a detour from the classical music world in favor of embracing the sounds of their childhood.

The Villalobos Brothers first reunited to make original music in the early 2000s at the request of Ernesto, who had lined them up a surreal gig — playing a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. Since then, they've stuck together and their writing has become influenced by the folk music they grew up with in Veracruz.

"Our grandmother was a folk musician," Ernesto explains. "She was able to pass this love for traditional Mexican music, and to invite us to open the world beyond the classical music that we were learning."

On his end, Alberto says that he had previously felt conflicted devoting his time to music by mostly white, male classical composers. "I didn't see myself represented," he says. "So I started going back to my roots and this is where my grandma started playing a huge role. All her teachings kind of came back to my mind."

Luis adds that he had never been satisfied with simply interpreting other artists' work. "Even if it's wonderful, wonderful music that we were learning from a very early age, we all have this desire to find our voices, and to say something that is unique, and that is us," he says.

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The youngest Villalobos brother also explains the band's path as an authentic representation of the members' inner artistic search. "That means putting our creativity and our music to the service of higher causes, of real issues affecting real people in the world," he says.

The Villalobos Brothers' music stands as a testament to that commitment. The group named an earlier album, Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, after the members' initial U.S. visa category. The themes on Somos though are a bit broader than the themes on that 2012 record, but still characteristically political. The song "Xalapa Bang!" speaks passionately against police brutality and government corruption. The song "Hombres de Arcilla" is dedicated to the families of the 43 college students who were kidnapped and killed in Iguala, Mexico in 2014. And the album's title track "Somos," which translates into "We Are," works to foster widespread compassion.

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Reflecting on the anti-immigrant sentiment that has recently escalated in the United States, Luis shares his own, and the Villalabos Brothers', particular compassionate approach through art.

"We are willing to expand our definition of who we are, and to embrace people that we disagree with to try to share our vision, and try to enrich their lives with our music," Luis says of the current political climate. "Through tolerance, to show them that immigrants and Latinos and Mexicans are capable of so much beauty and so much more than what they have thought so far."

Web intern Rosalind Faulkner contributed to the digital version of this story. Listen to the full aired interview at the audio link.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Meet The Villalobos Brothers.

ERNESTO VILLALOBOS: This is Ernesto Villalobos. I am the oldest of the three Villalobos.

ALBERTO VILLALOBOS: And my name is Alberto Villalobos. I'm the middle brother.

LUIS VILLALOBOS: This is Luis Villalobos. I'm the youngest Villalobos brother.

CORNISH: And this is from their latest album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHIQUITITA")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: The Villalobos Brothers took a detour from the classical music world to embrace the sounds of their childhood in rural Veracruz, Mexico, and their grandmother, a self-taught accordion player and singer. Here's Alberto.

A VILLALOBOS: In my particular case, I think I felt a bit conflicted learning all these classical composers, which, by the way, are mostly white male; I didn't see myself represented. So I started going back to my roots, and this is where our grandma started playing a huge role because all her teachings kind of came back to my mind. And around that time, we got this call from Ernesto, who was living in New York City already at the time, and he said you guys need to come right now. I have this opportunity for us to perform at Carnegie Hall, and we need to start writing music.

L VILLALOBOS: Luis jumping in here, just quickly. For me, Audie, it was - I was never satisfied with just being an interpreter, you know. Even if it's wonderful, wonderful music that we were learning from a very early age, we all have this desire to find our voices and to say something that is unique and that is us.

CORNISH: I want to play a title song from your new album, which is called "Somos."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMOS")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: What is this song about?

L VILLALOBOS: This song is about compassion. Somos means we are. That definition, we are, is one that we ought to be always expanding throughout our lifetime.

CORNISH: It's also very high energy. It's got this kind of jazz inflection. Where is the kind of influence of your grandmother - Mexican traditional sound that you tried to work in as well?

E VILLALOBOS: Check out "La Leva," which visits the state of Veracruz.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA LEVA")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

E VILLALOBOS: This track really takes us to the heart of the Huasteca region in northern Veracruz.

A VILLALOBOS: And the fiddle plays a really, really important role. There is no son huasteco without a violin. This is one of those songs that go back a hundred years, maybe more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA LEVA")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: Have you had people say to you, why are you doing this folk stuff? You could have been X, Y and Z. What were the doubts along the way?

L VILLALOBOS: Luis here. I don't think it has happened directly. I think for us it's very, very clear that our path is one of authenticity and of inner search as artists. And to me, that means putting our creativity and our music to the service of higher causes, of real issues affecting real people in the world.

A VILLALOBOS: Alberto here, adding on what you just said, Luis. One track that represents exactly what Lu was talking about right now is "Xalapa Bang," a song that he wrote that talks about police brutality.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "XALAPA BANG")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: The tone of this does not say police brutality to me, I have to say.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Maybe because it sounds quite cheerful. So tell us how you structured this song, what you were thinking.

L VILLALOBOS: The lyrics, actually, they do speak against corruption. They speak against the use of force and of brutality by people in power in order to silence people that are just asking for better conditions of work and better conditions of living.

CORNISH: I think I hear it now. There's a kind of - it's frenetic.

L VILLALOBOS: Right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS' "XALAPA BANG")

CORNISH: And bringing in jazz there.

A VILLALOBOS: Yeah, absolutely. There is one more tune that I feel particularly connected to on this album; that is "Hombres De Arcilla" - translated as man of clay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOMBRES DE ARCILLA")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: So if I have this right, is this the opening? They kill the student...

A VILLALOBOS: Yes.

CORNISH: I demand an explanation.

A VILLALOBOS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

CORNISH: May the people rise, and the whole nation gets outraged.

A VILLALOBOS: It's a whole scream to action, this song. The chorus of the song says, let's not forget about these brave people. It is dedicated to the 43 families from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. They went missing in 2014.

CORNISH: It was the students, not the families themselves.

A VILLALOBOS: The students went missing; that's correct. And it's also got the element of activism in there. I call it art-ivism (ph), but it's really a mixture of art and activism, what we do.

CORNISH: It sounds, as the music goes on, as - like, it's a little bit of a message to the Mexican government as well.

A VILLALOBOS: Absolutely. I think it's a message for everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOMBRES DE ARCILLA")

THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: Can I ask - this is such a very difficult political moment...

A VILLALOBOS: It is.

CORNISH: ...Between Mexico and the United States. What has that been like for you? Is that something you have felt as artists?

E VILLALOBOS: Absolutely.

CORNISH: And if so, how is it coming out in the music?

E VILLALOBOS: Yeah, this is Ernesto. We feel outraged since - when Donald Trump described Mexicans as rapists. We are so much more than the little cartoon that he has painted of an entire country. And now, you know, with the family separations, with the camps at the border, with the conditions of infants living in cages, I think it's so important for us to be out there on a stage, sharing what we do and saying, listen - you know, we need to be better than this.

L VILLALOBOS: You know, we are willing to expand our definition of who we are and to embrace people that we disagree with to try to share our vision and try to enrich their lives with our music, you know, through tolerance, through activism, through beautiful music, to show them that immigrants and Latinos and Mexicans are capable of so much beauty and so much more than what they have thought so far.

CORNISH: When we first called you guys to do this interview, we weren't sure we could have all of you in the studio at once, right?

(LAUGHTER)

E VILLALOBOS: Correct - the three brothers.

CORNISH: And then Ernesto wrote us a note. Tell us - what did it say?

E VILLALOBOS: I just said, please invite the three of us. You know, this has been a shared journey. And please keep families together. Please, keep us together. Let us all have this little moment to reach so many people around the world, you know, and to share our music.

CORNISH: Well, I have to say, that email said a lot about you.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: And a lot about you guys as brothers because let me tell you - not all brothers get along.

E VILLALOBOS: True.

CORNISH: Not all bands stay together.

A VILLALOBOS: Right, right.

E VILLALOBOS: True, true (laughter).

CORNISH: And I think that's the way to do it (laughter).

A VILLALOBOS: We love each other; I think that's what keeps us together. And as stubborn as we can all be, we find ways to collaborate and keep on creating music together. I think that's the most important thing.

CORNISH: Well, Ernesto, Luis and Alberto - The Villalobos Brothers - thank you so much for speaking with us.

A VILLALOBOS: Thank you.

E VILLALOBOS: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Their new album is called "Somos."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VILLALOBOS BROTHERS' "WIND SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.