From CPS to the world stage: Mariachi Herencia de México takes the music genre to whole new heights
‘We just kind of take the traditional arrangements and freshen them up and give them new sounds and new tonalities. Overall, it’s just different from what is already out there,’ says one group member.
Artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Dianne Reeves to Dolly Parton and the Beach Boys have recorded thousands of holiday music albums over the years with jazz, pop, classical, country and other stylistic takes on the yuletide.
But for freshness and originality, it’s hard to top Mariachi Herencia de México’s south-of-the-border ode to Christmas. The Chicago-based band returns this week to the Old Town School of Folk Music and Thalia Hall for five performances of “A Very Merry Christmas Concert.”
Mariachi Herencia de México: ‘A Very Merry Christmas Concert’
7 p.m. Dec. 16 and 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Dec. 17, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
7 p.m. Dec. 18, Thalia Hall, 1227 W. 18th St.
Audiences can expect to hear an assortment of mariachi versions of well-known American holiday classics like “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” intermingled with some Spanish-language offerings.
“Mariachi is such a versatile genre that you can make mostly any song into a mariachi arrangement, and it works so well to the ears,” said musical director Marco A. Villela, who arranged most of the songs on the program. “There’s a market for it, and people really enjoy that.”
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This year marks Mariachi Herencia’s third annual visits to the two popular Chicago venues, and Villela said the performances draw diverse audiences, including some returnees. “It’s amazing that these concerts kind of call out to everybody,” he said.
Dating back to at least the 18th century, mariachi developed in the western Mexico countryside. In the 20th century, it transformed from a rural folk tradition to a popular urban style with professional bands like the famed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán gaining national and even international fame.
Mexican immigrants brought mariachi along with them to the United States, where it has gained considerable popularity, including the establishment of dozens of Mexican American bands that have put their own stamp on the style.
Mariachi Herencia emerged out of a mariachi education program in the Chicago Public Schools established in 2016 by the Mariachi Heritage Foundation for predominantly low-income Latino students as a way to boost student empowerment and teach such skills as creative thinking.
“Students tried out for the most advanced ensemble, and year after year, record after record, the band matured and developed into Mariachi Herencia de México, one of the most exciting mariachi bands out there,” said César Maldonado, the group’s founder and manager.
Following traditional mariachi instrumentation, the 13-piece band consists of five violins, three trumpets, three guitars (including the Mexican vihuela), one bass and one harp, with the musicians doubling as singers.
Six of the current members joined Mariachi Herencia via the school program, including Villella, 19, who grew up in Avondale and graduated from Lane Tech College Prep High School. Though he plays trumpet with the band, he was already adept at several other instruments as well when he started six years ago, including piano, guitar and saxophone. His keen interest in music came in part from listening to the soundtracks that accompany video games.
Although he knew little about mariachi music at the time, he quickly fell in love with it. “A lot of the kids that I met who were Mexican American didn’t really associate much with the Mexican aspects of their lives,” Villella said. “Being able to appreciate this culturally rich music just meant a lot.”
Setting Mariachi Herencia apart from other bands are arrangements created for the group by Rigoberto Alfaro, 88, whom Villela described as one of the “living legends” in the mariachi field. He was inducted into the Mariachi Spectacular International Hall of Fame in 2005.
“We take more progressive approaches to mariachi music,” Villela said, pointing to the updated rhythms and more lyrical lines for the violins and trumpets. “We just kind of take the traditional arrangements and freshen them up and give them new sounds and new tonalities. Overall, it’s just different from what is already out there.”
The Latin Grammy-nominated Mariachi Herencia has released five albums, starting in 2017 with “Nuestra Herencia,” which topped the Latin streaming charts. In November and December, the group has been touring cross-country in support of its latest release, “Herederos (The Heirs)..
Villela has not yet decided if he is going make mariachi music his career. “The way things are going, it might as well be,” he said. “It’s exciting.”