Flor De Toloache play mariachi fusion
Mariachi music isn’t necessarily a style that one associate with innovation or bold experimentation. That might be because our understanding of it here in this part of the United States tends to be gotten from glimpses and snippets in pop culture or at Mexican events or restaurants. And it is a tradition, which means people are invested in maintaining it, not focused on overhauling it. The New York City-based mariachi group Flor De Toloache are definitely taking mariachi music to new places. The band will perform in Winston-Salem this week as a part of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ American Music Series. I spoke to two of the founding members, Shae Fiol and Mireya Ramos, last week while they were in transit.
Flor De Toloache is an all-female group, something that tends to stand out in the generally male-dominated world of mariachi. There are other female mariachis, but almost all of them wear dresses, whereas Flor De Toloache wear the traditional tight-fitting charro suits, with pants and embroidered belts, bow ties, boots and other distinctive flourishes. The attire is only one of several ways that Flor De Toloache expands on the mariachi tradition. They’re also a multi-cultural band, with members with familial ties to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and a new member from Canada. The group, which has expanded to quintet format after functioning as a four-piece for years, sings in English as well as in Spanish. And they add elements of pop, rock, jazz, reggae, R&B and more to the music, throwing in choice covers and surprise tidbits of classics, just to keep everyone on their toes.
Ramos and Fiol both come from very musical families. Ramos, who plays the violin, grew up in Puerto Rico, the daughter of a mariachi musician, and the granddaughter of a singer who sang in a vocal duo on the radio in Mexico. Her mother was a big mariachi fan and collected vinyl recordings of music from all over the Latin world and beyond.
“I had all that music in my brain,” she said, in addition to her classical training.
Fiol, who grew up in Oregon, was also surrounded by music as a child, with a Cuban father who played bluegrass, and a mother who was a singer. She played guitar and flute but said that mariachi didn’t really come into the picture until Ramos proposed starting the group, which formed in 2008. The band takes its name from a trumpet vine flower said to be used in love potions. The switch from the guitar to the five-string vihuela was natural enough of Fiol.
Another detail that makes Flor De Toloache noteworthy is the fact that they’re from New York City. Los Angeles is probably the capital of mariachi bands in the United States, and the big cities of Mexico all attract musicians who maintain and add twists to the tradition, but the East Coast isn’t known as a hotbed for the genre.
“Early on, we were very local,” Fiol said. “We played in the subway a lot. We played a lot of restaurant gigs, busking and stuff.”
That kind of shifting audience helped encourage the band to adapt their repertoire for different demographics — for those familiar with the standards of the genre and for those who were newcomers to mariachi. As a result, one can hear a vibrant swirl of influences coursing through the music.
The air-tight vocal harmonies are pure mariachi, for sure, but they’re also evocative of artists like the Andrews Sisters or of the great doo-wop groups, in places, like on the song “Toloache,” off the group’s most recent record “Indestructible,” released earlier this year. And to demonstrate their appeal to pop fans, the band adapts hits to mariachi style, taking No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and reverse-engineering the Latin rhythms at the song’s heart. Elsewhere you can hear Flor De Toloache tear into a medley of Nirvana songs, morphing the rhythmic push and accents of the originals. Or you might hear them roll out a bit of John Coltrane’s “Afro-Blue,” which seems to fit perfectly into their big-tent mariachi worldview. It’s not a stretch to hear aspects of Western swing or gypsy jazz in Flor De Toloache’s sound.
“In the past, mariachi actually has incorporated a lot of popular styles,” Fiol said. “In a sense, it has always kind of done that.”
She points to elements of jazz and bossa nova that showed up in the music of some of the biggest mariachi bands. One could say that mariachi and other Mexican folk music have left their mark on country music from the United States, with Johnny Cash adding touches of mariachi trumpet to his classic “Ring of Fire,” George Strait covering the Mexican standard “El Rey” and Buck Owens using mariachi-ish vocal harmonies on many of his songs.
Music, like food, has always been a relatively easy way for people to learn about and appreciate other cultures, to get a glimpse at the sophistication and artistry of people whose language and traditions we may not understand. And in a time when the rhetoric and policies coming from the White House have regularly targeted immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, there are many listeners who find comfort and solace in the small wave of bands like Flor De Toloache, and others like Las Cafeteras and David Wax Museum, showcasing the depth and richness of Mexican and Mexican-American musical culture.
“That’s the beautiful thing about music, it’s a soft place for people to land,” Fiol said. “We’re exploring our heritage and our backgrounds through this music and it speaks to so many people. It can be a beautiful thing about where we live. There’s a lot of groups that are out there playing — merging sounds and getting a message out there, definitely because of the need. And there’s always been a need for that.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Flor De Toloache at the Stevens Center, 405 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem, on Sat., Sept. 14, at 7:30 p.m.