A high school mariachi band based in the Chicago Public School system that has been nominated for a Latin Grammy? Who knew there was mariachi in Chicago, much less in the high schools, much less Grammy level? I certainly didn’t. But it gives me hope.
The band is Mariachi Herencia de Mexico – Mariachi of the Heritage of Mexico. It emerged in 2016 from the Latino immigrant barrios that have grown up in Chicago. It was nurtured by a local foundation and attracted the attention of international stars like Roberto Alfaro and Lila Downs, the former arranging songs for the band and the latter collaborating on an album.
Every year, a part of the band graduates and moves o,, and new members are recruited, mostly first generation Mexican immigrants born in Chicago, but also from other countries like Guatemala. In the four years the band has been performing, they have produced four albums, the latest, Esencia Vol. 2, was released May 29. Along the way they were signed to IMG Artists, a major international talent agency, who set up a robust tour for them in the fall, if venues are allowed to open. It will be their third tour.
Their latest album was recorded in the studio, using social distancing and masks (except for the singers and horn players) – no mean accomplishment for 18 children who also held down part time jobs and went to school and kept their grades up. Because of travel restrictions, Roberto Alfaro, the internationally known composer and musical director who had agreed to direct the production, could not come to Chicago. So 16-year old trumpet player Marco Villela stepped in and directed the performance and production – while playing the trumpet.
When I hear of stories like this, a number of things come to mind. It reaffirms to me the worldwide prevalence of Mexican music, especially mariachi. I have seen or know of mariachi not only in cities like LA with a long Mexican and Latino history, but also in Brooklyn, home of the Grammy-winning Flor De Toloache, in Japan, in Germany, in Ireland, and now in Chicago. And of course, mariachi is a living thing – it evolves by adding jazz, rock, rap and even punk, making its reach even wider and longer.
I am also reminded of the line from the musical Hamilton, “Immigrants. We Get the Job Done”. That is doubly true in music. Think of the immigrant and first generation artists in the US who have built global careers – Neil Young, Drake, Fleetwood Mac, Gloria Estefan, Selena, Richie Valens, Carlos Santana J.Lo to name a few. They do whatever it takes to get noticed, recorded and be successful, even changing their names, like Richie Valens (Valenzuela) and Rosie Mendez Hamlin whose became Rosie and the Originals to record “Angel Baby”.
Finally, it gives me great optimism for the future of music. The industry is in flux with no live performances and livestream and VR moving in as new platforms and new competitors. But when high school kids from the barrios are willing to work after school, maintain their grades and play at a Grammy level because they love it, I feel pretty certain the industry will survive and prosper. If 16-year Marcos Villela can step into the shoes of a renowned music director and manage 13 young artists to produce 18 songs in a polished album during a pandemic, just think of what he and his generation will be capable of as they become adults.
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