Every summer, the Marimba Ensemble from Holy Cross Parish in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood goes on a summer tour. The group has performed all over the U.S., and in recent years, the Holy Cross ensemble has been joined by the new marimba group from the San Gabriel Mission in California. One of our Community Voices writers, Jorge O., is a former marimba player, music teacher, and ensemble leader; he joined the groups for their 2015 summer tour. Now he shares his tour experiences with tCI:
After three years as the Holy Cross Marimba Ensemble leader, I started 2015 by giving away my leadership role to the up-and-coming leaders of the current group so that they could get some experience. Leadership is a cycle in the Marimba Ensemble, so the torch gets passed to another aspiring marimba leader in order to keep the group going. This meant that there would be new leaders for this year’s summer tour. 2015 was also the year in which Holy Cross’ Marimba Ensemble turned 25 years old. These things, combined with the fact that we were once again joined by San Gabriel’s marimba group, made the 2015 summer trip a memorable one.
On July 17, 2015, both groups set out for Albuquerque, New Mexico. We met the next day late at night after a very long drive for the Chicago group for some quick greetings before heading out to meet our host families.
Holy Cross leaders like to have host families house the marimba players so we can meet new people in other parts of the country and start forming connections. Holy Cross’ pastor has connections with many parishes, and when a Marimba Ensemble group is about to hit town, he likes to ask the pastor of a local parish if he happens to know any families that would like to host some players. I was with three marimba players who were on their first tour, and we stayed with a couple who had a dog named Huckleberry that the younger players absolutely loved.
Meeting the San Gabriel crew again and seeing who I was traveling with made me realize how much both of these programs have grown. There was not a single player that came on this year’s tour that went to my first one in 2009. That was only six years ago, and yet there are fresh new faces on both sides ready to start having experiences in their respective Marimba Ensembles.
We played for two Masses at St. Therese Parish in Albuquerque to begin our first full day together. Now keep in mind that both groups had not practiced together at all, so any styles that clashed were going to have to be dealt with on the spot as they performed. I heard some mistakes as I sat in the audience, but in the second Mass, they had completely gotten used to each other’s style. It was great to see how these two different groups learned from each other and worked together to create a unified sound. These are definitely skills that being part of a marimba ensemble teaches you.
Later that day the groups performed for a pool party. Half the players swam while the other half performed, and after several songs, they switched. They had high energy the entire time, and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. The day capped off with a concert for a senior retirement home. Throughout the pool party and the formal concert, both groups had high energy playing their music, and the crowd loved it. The retirement home residents enjoyed the performance so much that two older ladies got up and began to dance to a polka while the audience clapped for them! Their eyes were filled with joy as they let the music take over their minds. It was very inspirational to see.
The next city we visited was Denver, Colorado. Many marimba generations have performed there. This year, the group took part in a three-day music camp. This music camp had many musicians learning new songs across various instruments from guitar to marimba. At first all the young marimba musicians were under one roof to learn lyrics to sing, while some marimba players learned a new song. The group was surprised because, due to the large amount of combined marimba players, half of them had to sing in the choir while the other half played their instruments. While this did make me chuckle to see many former Children’s Choir members return to singing, they later inspired me yet again. The music camp coordinator began to make every singer sing a part all on their own, and I knew that there were shy players singing that were going to be tested, but they all still sang. Flexibility and a willingness to try new things . . . more skills that being a marimba player teaches you.
Marimba Ensemble members at music camp
The rest of the tour had hiking in mountains in Denver. Some days I would hike a hill that led to a great spot to see a sunrise with some of the boys I was with in our host family, and after music camp days we would go to a mountain to hike and take pictures of the scenery. It really does these kids good to see views like these, because it shows them that there is a lot to be seen in this world. There is more to the world than just the neighborhoods and cities these kids come from, and that is why they learn to work hard—so they can see sights like these again. These were things I thought about when I first came to the mountains as a player, so I know a lot of them are thinking similar things.
On the last few days the groups were together, the players began to work with Michelle Abeyta, a musician with connections with past Holy Cross marimba generations. Michelle was introduced to the group due to her connection with a former marimba director and has always welcomed marimba groups into her home and showed them some songs. The players this year learned various music for their use in their respective parishes. This was not the first time the players learned together, but this year I could see the results of their experience and hard work because they learned the countless songs so quickly and easily.
Near the end of the music camp, the players performed the premier concert of the tour where we wore our uniforms of guayabera and dress pants for guys, and colored shirts with dress pants for girls. This time, I joined them in the performance instead of watching as part of the audience. We performed for about 100 people under the same roof where the youth of the music camp gathered at the start of the camp. After performing a couple of songs and looking around, I realized these kids and young adults made something in this connection between the West and Midwest; they created a family that, despite only seeing each other for a couple of days a year, was still able to work together and create memories that will last for a lifetime.
It was an honor to see the players do their thing as part of the audience. The San Gabriel crew has really grown in their short two years together, and the Holy Cross crew had a great first trip with them in charge rather than being led by me. The future looks bright for these two crews as they go home and tackle another year of education, work, learning, and growing in their respective cities. I saw true characters being exposed, I saw friendships being formed, and I saw myself getting inspired by the players.
Learn more about the Marimba Ensemble and consider making a donation to help these young players and leaders continue to learn important life skills and expand their horizons outside of their urban neighborhoods. You can also read about the ensemble’s 2014 summer trip.