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

From left: Alberto Villalobos, Humberto Flores, Luis Villalobos and Ernesto Villalobos of the Villalobos Brothers. Their latest album, <em>Somos</em>, is out now.
Mariana Osorio
Courtesy of the artist
From left: Alberto Villalobos, Humberto Flores, Luis Villalobos and Ernesto Villalobos of the Villalobos Brothers. Their latest album, Somos, is out now.

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.

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.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Art Silverman has been with NPR since 1978. He came to NPR after working for six years at a daily newspaper in Claremont, New Hampshire.