Growing up in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights, siblings Gabriel, Martha and Claudia Gonzalez sang classic Mexican ballads with their father. By the time they hit middle school, the Gonzalez kids were performing rancheras by legendary songwriters such as José Alfredo Jiménez and Juan Gabriel in mariachi variety shows all over California, including downtown L.A.'s Million Dollar Theatre.
But when is a child old enough to sing a love song with heart?
One of the siblings' favorite songs, "Adiós, Mi Chaparrita" (So Long, My Little One), is a mournful piece composed by 20th-century balladeer Ignacio Fernández Esperón, known as "Tata Nacho."
"To think of 8-year-olds singing this adult story about heartache," Martha Gonzales says with a laugh. "I don't think the lyrics dawned on us until later."
Martha grew up to be lead singer of the influential folk-rock fusion band Quetzal, winner of the 2013 Grammy for Latin rock, urban or alternative album, and Gabriel joined the band for several years too. Claudia fronts her own band, Cava, and tours with acts such as Ozomatli and Lila Downs.
Now the siblings are reuniting at the Aratani Theatre downtown for a concert Saturday night that will take them back to those informal singalongs where they first cultivated their voices with their late father. This time, they'll be singing the songs with more than a few years of love and heartbreak behind them.
Martha Gonzalez says the concert will be an intimate, yet also bittersweet, experience. The siblings have not performed these songs together onstage since they were children. Their father, who instilled in them a passion for music, left when Martha was 11, and eventually became estranged from the family.
The show is as much a tribute to the skills he inculcated in them as it is to their mother, who continued to cultivate their passion for music by enrolling them in after-school programs and other instruction when they were teens.
In fact, it was their mother who planted the idea of staging a siblings reunion concert to begin with.
"She's been bugging us to do something like this for years," Martha says. "She keeps saying, 'Before I die, I want to see you all sing.' "
The songs are sure to kindle nostalgia.
"We've assembled a repertoire that spans songs and composers mostly based in música ranchera of the '40s, '50s, '70s and '80s," says Martha, who is currently at work on a new album with Quetzal. "The repertoire is the soundscape of our family. Every song represents an era in our family — the songwriters that we listened to, the songs that we learned, the songs that we sang."
This will include an a cappella rendition of "Rayando el Sol" (Scratching the Sun), an early 20th century ballad the Gonzalezes picked up from their great-grandmother.
"She was blind — though not deaf," recalls Martha. "I remember [her] singing it and trying to teach it to us. She would listen to us singing and she'd take a fist and then tap us on the top of the head — softly, not hard. Then she would say, 'No, like this.' And we would sing it again."
For the Gonzalezes, it's an opportunity to dip into the rich Mexican musical history of their roots — a history they've drawn from extensively in their work as professional musicians.
"It's a way," says Gonzalez, "of making new memories of these songs."
Where: Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro St., downtown Los Angeles
When: May 28, 7 p.m.