Sones de México Ensemble History
Sones de México Ensemble is the country’s premier folk music organization specializing in Mexican ‘son’, including the regional styles of huapango, gustos, chilenas, son jarocho, and more. They are a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization with a mission to promote greater appreciation of Mexican folk and traditional music and culture through innovative performance, education, and dissemination.
The group was formed in Chicago’s historic Pilsen neighborhood in 1994 to keep the tradition of Mexican ‘son’ alive in its many regional forms. As performers and recording artists, the ensemble has developed and popularized many original arrangements of Mexican traditional tunes through touring the United States and internationally, including such prestigious venues as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Carnegie Hall in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
They celebrated their 20th Anniversary in 2014 with an all-star performance at and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago before an audience of 10,000 people.
They have released six albums, each telling its own story. Their debut ¡Que Florezca! [Let it Bloom] (1996) celebrated their rebirth as a band in Chicago. Fandango on 18th Street (2002) was a dance party set in Pilsen, the artistic heart of Chicago’s Mexican community. Esta Tierra Es Tuya [This Land is Your Land] (2007) served as an immigrant manifesto, and earned both a GRAMMY® and a Latin GRAMMY® nomination. Fiesta Mexicana (2010) was a children’s album, followed by ¡Viva La Revolución! (2010), which celebrated the centennial of the Mexican Revolution.
Their latest release, 13 B’ak’tun (2013) marked the turning of the Mayan calendar in 2012. As performers, composers and arrangers, they have participated in a large number of cross-cultural projects with classical, Irish, blues, C&W, jazz, and rock musicians through collaborations with artists across many genres.
In 2015, they created and performed a new live score of authentic Mexican music, including a new theme composed by ensemble member Zacbé Pichardo, for the restored 1931 Sergei Eisenstein silent film ¡Que Viva México!
The group consists of founding members Juan Díes and Victor Pichardo, plus Zacbé Pichardo, Eréndira Izguerra, Eric Hines and Rudy Piñon. All six members of Sones de Mexico Ensemble are multi-instrumentalists, researchers and educators. Between them they are skilled at over 80 traditional Mexican folk instruments.
The organization offers a number of educational and outreach programs, including music lessons, elementary and college residencies, children’s programs, workshops, lectures and songwriting classes. Mexican culture and heritage are interwoven into every performance and program.
Sones de México Ensemble has been the winner of the Best Latin Entertainer in the Chicago Music Awards for four consecutive years: 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Their children’s album “Fiesta Mexicana” also won a Parents’ Choice™ Award.
Sones de México Ensemble Timeline 1994-2015
Victor Pichardo, Juan Díes, Gonzalo Córdova and René Cardoza form Sones de México Ensemble. Their first public performance is on April 9 at Taller Mexicano de Grabado, an art gallery in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood for an exhibit opening commemorating the death of Mexican Revolution land rights hero Emiliano Zapata. Drummer Raul Fernández joins shortly afterward. During the first year, Sones de México completes 54 public performances.
The quintet releases their first album, ¡Que Florezca! (Let it Bloom), a four-part suite of songs based on the elements of Air, Water, Fire and Earth. Guests on the album include Guillermo Contreras and Gonzalo Camacho of Grupo Jaranero. Other guests (Ghanian Yewe drum master Gideon F. Alorwoyie, Flamenco guitarist Héctor Fernández, and Chicago musicians Howard Levy and Stuart Rosenberg) hint at the group’s early interest in cross-cultural collaborations.
Multi-instrumentalist Renato Cerón joins the group, solidifying the 6 member format that continues today.
The group records and releases their second album, Fandango on 18th Street. The album captures the spirit of a “fandango,” or dance party, on the main street of Pilsen, the artistic heart of Chicago’s Mexican community. Later that year, Gonzalo Córdova leaves the group and is replaced by Hermo Contreras. A few months later, the group is invited to perform live on A Prarie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, a syndicated radio show, and they are heard by 5 million people across the U.S.
René Cardoza leaves the group and is replaced by Lorena Iñiguez from the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company. In addition to dancing zapateado, Lorena quickly learns several traditional string instruments, percussion and flute.
Violinist Juan Rivera, an occasional guest performer with the band since 2002, officially joins Sones de México, replacing Hermo Contreras. Also, drummer Joel Martinez replaces Raul Fernández. Later that year, the group meets young Mexican-American trumpet player Victor García, who becomes a reoccurring guest in performances and recordings ever since.
Javier Saume replaces Joel Martinez, and Renato Cerón also leaves the group. Zacbé Pichardo, son of founding member Victor Pichardo, joins the group as a multi-instrumentalist, playing harp, marimba, stringed instruments and percussion. This line-up—Victor, Juan, Lorena, Javier, Zacbé and Juan Rivera—becomes the solid core that records the next four albums.
The group releases their third album, Esta Tierra es Tuya (This Land is Your Land). The album serves as an immigrant manifesto, as exemplified by the title song, a norteño arrangement of the great Woody Guthrie song that celebrates all of America’s people. The album also marks a new confidence in the band’s musicianship and ambitions by including original arrangements of music from other genres, including Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Led Zeppelin’s Four Sticks. The album is nominated for a Latin GRAMMY™ in the “Best Folk Album” category. The band travels to Las Vegas for the ceremony. The ensemble also records two songs for YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Project: “Crossroads,” featuring a Chinese-Mexican collaboration with the Yellow River Performing Arts Ensemble (this material was released years later in the band’s 2013 album). On May 1, members of the ensemble marched among thousands of protestors on Chicago’s Grant Park to demand immigration reform. Images of this march can be seen in the band’s music video for Esta Tierra Es Tuya (This Land Is Your Land).
Sones de México begins long-time cross-cultural collaborations with Irish fiddler Sean Cleland (The Drovers, Bohola, and the Irish Music School of Chicago) and with CSO trumpet player John Hagstrom and his brass quintet with whom they perform and record numerous times in the coming years.
The group’s third album is nominated for a GRAMMY™ in the “Best Mexican/Mexican-American Recoding” category along with stars Antonio Aguilar, Vicente Fernandez, Paquita la del Barrio, and Christian Castro. The band travels to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony. The ensemble is invited to perform at the World Folksong Festival in Beijing China following the Olympic Games.2009
The band does a serendipitous, impromptu performance of “La Bruja.” a son jarocho, with blues harmonica master Billy Branch at the Chicago Blues Festival Kick-Off Party at Buddy Guy’s Legends bar where they had been invited to play. Both artists hope to try it again some day. That year, the ensemble tours 13 different states with concert performances and educational residencies.
Sones de México continues on a rich musical course with not one, but two new album releases: Fiesta Mexicana, a 2-CD children’s album with narratives in both English and Spanish and íViva La Revolución!, which celebrates the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. The group toured coast-to-coast promoting their albums at the Getty Villa Museum in Santa Monica, CA and Carnegie Hall in New York City. On November 20, the group releases ¡Viva la Revolución! exactly 100 years after the start of the Mexican Revolution at the House of Blues in Chicago. Special guests include Guillermo Velazquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú and Alejandro Flores of the Mexican rock band Café Tacvba. In the summer the group opens for trumpet player Doc Severinsen, of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show fame. Severinsen sits in with Sones for a memorable performance of the mariachi classic “El Niño Perdido.”
Some band members begin independent musical projects. Fiddler Juan Rivera forms the son huasteco-style trio Los Condenados Huastecos with Alex Chavez (huapanguera) and Carlos García (jarana). This trio also collaborates frequently with the Mexican Dance Ensemble troupe. Music Director Victor Pichardo forms Los Pichardo, a family band with his two sons Yahvi (vihuela) and Zacbe (harp) and daughter Gabriela (violin) specializing in son planeco.
In anticipation of the coming turn of the Mayan calendar, which many had sensationalized as the “end of time”, the group conceives of a new multi-media stage show to celebrate the dawn of a new age. The work, titled 13 B’ak’tun, incorporates original compositions as well as works drawn from jazz, Irish and Chinese traditions. Sones de México begins a collaboration with the Academy of Mexican Dance and Music, a Chicago-based Mexican folkloric dance company, who appear in face paint and stylized Mayan costumes for this concert. Its premiere coincides with the calendar turn in December 2012.
The album, 13 B’ak’tun is released on CD, with original cover art by noted Pilsen artist Héctor Duarte, one of the artists who once invited Sones de Mexico Ensemble to perform for the first time in 1994.
Victor Pichardo leaves for a sabbatical in Mexico, though still keeps close ties with the group. The ensemble begins a new collaboration with the group Third Coast Percussion, while doing an artistic residence for the Rush Hour Concerts in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. Founding member Gonzalo Córdova returns to take Victor’s place in the performing line-up. The group celebrates its 20th anniversary in September with an all-star concert at Chicago’s Pritzker Pavilion featuring past and current members and several special guests from across their many collaborations. Nearly 10,000 people were in attendance.
Sones de México performs three ambitious concerts premiering new concepts and collaborations. The Afro-Mexican Blues Connection featured a collaboration with Chicago blues group Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues. It explored the musical and cultural similarities and differences between the African Diaspora in Mexico and the United States. The Ensemble then collaborated with The Irish Music School of Chicago to tell the story of Los San Patricios (the St. Patrick’s Batallion), Irish immigrants to the U.S. who fought on the side of Mexico during the U.S. invasion of 1846-47. Finally, the Ensemble arranged, composed and performed a new live score to silent cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein’s lost classic ¡Que Viva México! for the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival. Also in 2015, Ensemble co-founder Juan Díes toured the country leading a workshop on Corrido songwriting, including one at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. that included the participation of new U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. The group opened the 10th Latino Music Festival with a multimedia performance of Cantata Santa María Iquique, Chilean composer Luis Advis’ story about the dramatic struggle of the workers on the salt fields of northern Chile in the early part of the 20th Century.