By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
Mariachi Flor de Toloache has ruffled some feathers as the all-female ensemble has taken flight on the Latin and alternative music scenes.
Though rooted in the mariachi tradition, founder Mireya Ramos is not afraid to tweak that tradition by incorporating music from outside its boundaries and jazzing up its presentation.
In a recent telephone interview, Ramos said that after a CNN segment on Flor de Toloache, some of the comments posted on line were “nasty.”
“It is a tradition passed on through generations,” she said. “You have families that are all mariachi, and we’re women. We don’t wear skirts. We have caused some controversy.”
But those criticisms are more than balanced out by the plaudits.
Ramos said she was especially pleased with the reaction from fans in Los Angeles. “They really love it,” she said. “They say, ‘oh, great, this is something new!’”
And the band has caught the attention of rock crowds as Flor de Toloache has toured with Black Keys’ singer Dan Auerbach’s new band, The Arcs. Auerbach’s fans may not know exactly what to make of them at first but are captivated in the end.
Local mariachi aficionados and other music fans will have their own chance to weigh in when Mariachi Flor de Toloache performs a Main Stage set at the Black Swamp Arts Festival, Saturday, Sept. 10 at 6:15 p.m. Earlier that day they will play on the Community Stage at 1 p.m. and then the Family Stage at 2:45p.m.
Ramos grew up in Puerto Rico. Her father who is Mexican (her mother is Dominican) played mariachi, but Ramos a violinist didn’t start performing the music herself until she moved to New York City to study 15 years ago.
The first gig she landed was with a mariachi band. “It was quite an experience,” she said. “I came from Puerto Rico, played with Mexicans and learned a lot about the music and lot about the culture.”
What she didn’t see was other women playing mariachi. She decided that having an all-female band, especially one from New York with it burgeoning Mexican population “would be a cool thing.”
So in 2008, taking a name from an intoxicating flower, she founded Mariachi Flor de Toloache.
The first call she made was to her friend and collaborator Shae Fiol, a singer-songwriter and guitarist. Fiol remembers thinking: “Wow, I’ve never played mariachi.”
But she was game, learning the vihuela, a five-string instrument that predates its cousin the guitar. Using a video and instruction from Ramos she tried “to dissect it little by little.”
Having her own album just out, her attention was still divided but the more she played with the fledgling Flor de Toloache, the more committed she became. “We being together was really spectacular.”
Ramos said she reached out to Fiol because “we just clicked on a personal level and musically our voices matched perfectly. That’s hard to find.” Given the importance of vocal harmonies in mariachi that was a key element.
Fiol’s guitar playing was “very rhythmic,” Ramos said, so she knew she’d lock right into the groove.
They started out as a trio with a harpist. But the harpist left. They played as a duo, then a quartet, quintet, expanding the ranks to as many as 10 with multiple violins and trumpets for some shows. Now trying to get their name out and tour more Flor de Toloache performs mostly as a quartet, the format that will appear in Bowling Green.
At the festival, Ramos and Fiol will be joined by Julie Acosta, trumpet and vocals, and Eunice Aparicio, providing the harmonic roots on guittaron.
When it began, Flor de Toloache focused on the traditional repertoire and played weddings and quinceañera. They have set lists for Christmas and Day of the Dead.
The band’s foray into non-traditional repertoire got a boost when it started doing shows at the Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The venue hosts acts of all styles, and Flor de Toloache attracted attention from the broad-minded listeners. Along the way came experiments with jazz and grunge. Fiol even adapted one of her originals for the band.
That mix was evident when the band played a Tiny Desk concert on NPR. It opened with Fiol’s “Let Down,” both in English and then in Spanish when the quartet turns up the heat. They followed that will a medley that moves from a traditional cumbia to the jazz standard “Blue Skies,” with some “My Favorite Things” mixed in before ending on the Latin jazz hit “Afro Blue.” The band then closes with “Guadalajara,” a nod to its mariachi roots. (http://www.npr.org/event/music/460841484/mariachi-flor-de-toloache-tiny-desk-concert.)
The aim, Fiol said, is to try to keep the songs true to both their style of origin and the mariachi tradition.
But whether singing in Spanish or English, playing a traditional tune or a rock cover, “mariachi is so funky, so happy, it just clicks,” Fiol said.
Last year, the band’s self-titled debut recording was nominated for Best Ranchera Album at the Latin Grammys. Their fellow nominees included legends on the music, Ramos said. “That was quite an honor.”