While many different kinds of conventional Latin music embrace innovative changes (think Cumbiatronica), there are others whose focus is to maintain tradition ― they just don’t admit any variations to the genre. Yet, every so often an artist will go out on a limb to challenge the norm and this is where we find Flor de Toloache, an all-female mariachi ensemble.
Mariachi is synonymous with Mexican culture and is probably one of the most well-known forms of Mexican music in the world. Mariachi is also a male-dominated industry that includes very little divergence. But New York City-based Flor de Toloache goes against the grain to include a variety of rhythmic and melodic infusions and borrow from other cultures and ethnicities. Their unique rancheras have traces of rock, soul and especially jazz, and some even show Caribbean influences.
“A lot of fans [of mariachi] still carry some of the older elements of the culture ―they see us perform and they wonder things like ‘why are they wearing pants’?”
- Mireya Ramos
“It seemed like a great idea to form an all-female mariachi in such a big city like New York. Especially with all the Mexican migration here, I thought it was perfect timing,” said lead co-founder and lead vocalist Mireya Ramos, 31, who co-founded the band with Shae Fiol in 2008.
Ramos, who is half Mexican and half Dominican (but raised in Puerto Rico) grew up singing mariachi with her father and later performed with other bands in the Big Apple. However, creating what could possibly be the first all-female mariachi in New York was always something she wanted to do.
“I wanted to experience having my own mariachi and learn more about my culture through music. While doing that, I also tried to create a new sound,” said Ramos.
Enter co-founder and lead vocalist Shae Fiol. The two women were introduced over 10 years ago by mutual friends and soon after created the group. Fiol describes herself as half-Cuban and “half-Yankee,” as part of her family is originally from the New England area.
“Growing up I had no exposure to mariachi. I think my mom had the Linda Ronstadt album, ‘Canciones de mi Padre,’ but that was about it,” said Fiol, 34.
Her voice adds an entirely different sound to their brand of mariachi, with a voice that is more jazz than ranchera.
“I am much more of jazzy songbird and mariachi is all belting ― it is totally opposite. It took me a few years and involved a lot of listening to Mireya and other recordings, but it was important to learn the style before you try and create something new,” she added.
The group prides itself on its individuality and on combining alternative sounds into the traditional mariachi. What began with two women in a restaurant has grown into a 10-piece band with members from a variety of countries, including Germany and Colombia.
“I thought that it was a great idea to incorporate all those sounds from all those different countries,” said Ramos.
The band is still working on their first album but Ramos said that, along with a few standards, it will include a cumbia, bachata and a jazzy track written by Fiol, which will showcase their diversity. It will also include English as well as Spanish lyrics.
When asked if they were nervous about all the different elements being incorporated into their sound, Fiol laughed and said “Mireya is like ‘whatever, I know they are going to like it!’”
As the group’s fan base continues to grow, they are also met with many skeptics ― traditionalists who are not thrilled with their approach, their gender and even their choice of outfit.
“A lot of fans [of mariachi] still carry some of the older elements of the culture ―they see us perform and they wonder things like ‘why are they wearing pants’?” said Ramos.
But this sort of criticism does not stop the ladies of Flor de Toloache. They use their unconventionality to introduce mariachi to a whole new audience and give those familiar with the genre something different from what they are used to.
Though they have yet to perform on the West Coast, the group is in talks to open for the hugely popular Mexican pop band Cafe Tacvba during a Dia de Los Muertos festival in Los Angeles, a feat that if accomplished, will be sure to silence at least some of their critical male counterparts.
“Yes, we are kind of outcasts, but if you bother somebody, then you are doing something right. If you try to please everyone, you are not being original enough to break through,” added Ramos.
Erica Y. Lopez is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @LaloSays