One is German, another a New Yorker of Egyptian descent. Others are Cuban-American, Colombian, Dominican and Argentine.
These are the unlikely members of Mariachi Flor de Toloache, a New York mariachi band. Even more unlikely: all of the band’s nine members are women, the pioneers of what they believe is the city’s first all-female mariachi ensemble.
In 21st-century New York City, it may not be surprising to see women popping up in what are traditionally men’s roles. But despite a few notable female performers, mariachi has always been, and continues to be, male-dominated, though a few all-female mariachi groups have begun to gain prominence on the West Coast and in the southwestern United States.
“It’s such a macho culture,” said Mireya Ramos, 31, Flor de Toloache’s co-founder and lead singer, who is half Dominican and half Mexican, but grew up in Puerto Rico listening to her Mexican father’s mariachi recordings and performances. She recalled giving voice lessons to Mexican women whose husbands would not permit them to sing in public. “Even in America, their husbands are really like, oh, you couldn’t do these kinds of things,” she said.
Ms. Ramos founded the band about five years ago after joining another (male) mariachi band, then teaming up with a few female musicians she had met performing around the city. None had much, if any, experience in mariachi.
For some of the band’s members, performing mariachi for the first time required greater effort than simply learning new songs. Ms. Ramos’s co-founder, Shae Fiol, 34, a half-Cuban singer from Oregon whose pre-mariachi accomplishments included an original album of soul music, had to learn how to play the vihuela, a small guitar-like instrument. (Other mariachi instruments are more familiar, like the trumpet, flute and violin.)
Ms. Fiol could already play guitar, so the mechanics of the vihuela were not difficult to grasp, she said, but she is still getting used to the foreign rhythms of Latin-style music.
The learning curve had not deterred her from agreeing to join Ms. Ramos’s mariachi experiment: “I think I was feeling adventurous,” she said with a laugh.
With no formal vihuela training, she would ask every vihuela player she came across during the band’s early days for tips. They, and their bandmates, were all male.
While those mariachis were generous with help, Ms. Fiol and Ms. Ramos said, Flor de Toloache has had some skeptics, most recently when Ms. Fiol, Ms. Ramos and the band’s guitarron (bass) player, Veronica Medellin, filmed a ChapStick commercial with a short, catchy song about the lip balm. A few commenters on the YouTube video of the commercial decried their performance as inauthentic, with one commenter posting, in Spanish, “That’s not mariachi!” He said the commercial was “disrespectful.”
Most of the criticism focuses on the fact that they are not all Mexican, rather than on their gender. Ms. Medellin is the only full Mexican; Ms. Ramos is half. But the other players have quickly taken to mariachi: Eva Lou, the band’s German violinist, now writes original songs for the group despite having no background in Latin music.
“Most often people look at us and make an assumption because of the way we look, and maybe they project some of that onto what we’re about to play,” Ms. Fiol said. “But when they hear us playing it’s like, ‘Oh, they definitely sound legitimate.’”
Their performances – they are scheduled to perform on Saturday at Rockwood Music Hall — do hew to tradition in other ways. Alongside jazz standards, Brazilian songs, Outkast riffs, an Adele cover and other arrangements that nod to their diverse backgrounds, their repertoire includes Mexican classics like “La Negra,” “El Cascabel” and “El Rey,” and they play the same instruments as other mariachi groups. They say it is important to them that whatever they perform, be it a classic or an original song, they respect traditional rhythms and styles.
But Ms. Ramos founded the band to be innovative, and the musicians say their diversity, and the fact that they live in New York, gives them extra license to experiment. Ms. Fiol said she thought mariachi, like other musical genres that migrated north, was in the process of evolving.
“We’re surrounded by so many different cultures and so many different kinds of music, we just feel, culturally, like we can do it,” she said. “We’re a mix of backgrounds, musically and ethnically, nationally — we like to display all that. And why not?”
And why not embrace their femininity, too, as with the name Ms. Ramos chose? Toloache is a kind of poisonous night flower that, according to tradition, has been used in Central America for love potions for centuries. Appropriate, Ms. Ramos thought, since three of the band’s original members were recovering from painful breakups at the time of the band’s founding. A friend suggested she add “flor,” flower, for a further feminine touch.
When it came to their costumes, however, Ms. Ramos and Ms. Fiol made a counterintuitive choice: pants, the traditional male mariachi attire, black and ornamented with metallic hardware, which Ms. Ramos’s mother and the musicians sewed themselves. Their reasoning was not entirely what you might think: they said they found the men’s wear more flattering than the long skirts female mariachis normally wear.
Still, Ms. Ramos said she got a small, subversive thrill from donning a costume like the one her father used to wear.
“Wearing the suit, it’s kind of empowering,” she said. “You’re like, ‘I can wear this suit, too.’”