You might call them The Dixie Chicks of Latin music.
Thornton popular music senior Suemy Gonzalez, along with her group Trio Ellas, has been nominated for a Latin Grammy in the Regional Mexican Field. Gonzalez’s group performs a modern interpretation of traditional mariachi music.
With a strong Los Angeles following and online presence, the group has had some mild success since its formation in 2006. Still, the Latin Grammy nomination came as a surprise.
“When I was watching the press conference where they announced the nominees, they started listing the names of all these well-known people and then they announced us at the end, Trio Ellas, and I started shaking when I heard our name,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
This is the first Latin Grammy nomination for the Thornton student, who began her career at age five.
“I started out playing classical music, and I did [it] pretty much throughout high school,” Gonzalez said. “However, around the age of 11 or 12, my parents wanted me to get in touch with my Mexican culture, and so they started introducing me to mariachi music. I started playing with a local band in Sacramento, which is where I’m from, and ever since then I fell in love with the music itself.”
After high school, Gonzalez began touring with professional mariachi show groups all over the United States, which delayed the completion of her college degree but allowed her to develop her own musical interpretations.
“After many years of performing and playing and touring it came to my senses that I wanted to go back to school to study music the right way and learn how to put my ideas on paper,” said Gonzalez. “I knew that USC has an amazing music program and I thought the pop music program would be something very accommodating for me also, because at the time I was part of the band Trio Ellas.”
The group began when Gonzalez moved to Los Angeles after getting a job at Disneyland six years ago. The budding songstress already knew the other members of the group, Nelly Cortez and Stephanie Amaro, who were making their own advances in the music field. Still, the three musicians teamed up to form Trio Ellas, and the success of their first gig proved that the choice was a good one.
“We went out to a restaurant to play the typical mariachi music and the manager of that restaurant really liked our sound,” Gonzalez said. “It was the first time we got together and were creating music together.”
Trio Ellas started playing at the restaurant on a weekly basis and started getting clientele who would hire the group for private parties and weddings.
“At that point, we were still sticking to the traditional mariachi sound but people started asking us for different songs like ‘Hotel California’ especially because we’re in America,” Gonzalez said. “We were like, wait a minute, we can do that. We can totally step out of the box and do that kind of stuff. That’s where the group began.”
Con Ustedes…Trio Ellas — Trio Ellas’ current album — features songs that combine traditional Latin mariachi music with a contemporary style.
“We really like harmonies. We like Andrews Sisters type of harmonies,” said Gonzalez. “When people hear us for the first time they think that it’s a very fresh sound.”
This sound is what attracted Thornton professor Andy Abad, who produced the album. Since Trio Ellas didn’t have a large budget to support its music, Abad created an arrangement for the group, which met with approval from the band’s members.
“My goal was just to have them do what they do and capture it in the best way possible,” Abad said. “[Gonzalez’s] talent, as well as the rest of the group’s talent, made producing the album a lot easier to do.”
Abad met Gonzalez before she enrolled at USC.
“I really know her musically and I know the band very well musically so I know what they can do and I know their strengths,” said Gonzalez. “They’re such a strong musical group.”
The strength that Trio Ellas possesses stems mainly from the fact that they do not have a record label. The freedom to find a style and voice has largely benefited the group.
“What we’ve done so far, we’ve done it on our own,” Gonzalez said. “We’re proud that we’re very independent. We do our own arrangements and we bring in our own ideas to the table.”
Matias Mora, a Thornton student majoring in popular music, also brought in his own ideas to the group: He created the art design for the album, which features the three lovely band members dolled up in traditional Hispanic garb as they stare unabashedly into the lens.
“Matias is also a student in my program and I had seen his work and he’s a super talented guy,” said Gonzalez. “I just approached him one day asking if he would be interested in doing artwork for our album.”
Matias said he was excited to work on the album art and had a great time working with the group.
“They definitely knew what they wanted and had a strong artistic vision, which is always a good thing” Matias said. “I tried to make it representative of the tradition that the music instills while still being feminine at the same time. I tried to pay homage to the tradition of older Hispanic music.”
Another shot of the group features Gonzalez, Cortez and Amaro resting on a fountain in the open sunlight, smiling at one another as play their instruments. When viewing the three women in this way, it’s easy to forget Trio Ellas is just an upcoming group that was started only six years ago. For the talented musicians, the Latin Grammy nomination was a pleasant surprise, but hopefully only the first of many to come.
“It’s definitely something very surreal that hasn’t really hit me yet. I wasn’t expecting for all this to happen so quickly,” Gonzalez said. “It’s an amazing feeling that we’re competing against a huge base in the Latino music industry. We’re totally the underdogs here. It’d be nice if we win but with these other names, it’s a close call.”
The Latin Grammys air Thursday Nov. 15.