Tune in to mariachi
Neha Saini

Flor de Toloache, the first and only women mariachi band from the US, is doing much more than holding nationwide concerts in India. It is also an expression of womenís empowerment and cross-cultural collaboration

They perform together like a band of sisters, with grace and vibrant beauty casting a spell over their audiences like the legendary and magical Toloache flower that is still being used in Mexico as a love potion. Flor de Toloache, the first and only established women Mariachi Band from US, has kicked off its maiden India tour with a fusion concert in Khalsa College, Amritsar. The troupe, which is touring India with educational workshops and concerts on mariachi music, will be performing in Kolkata, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad as a part of US Embassyís cultural centreís initiative for a free cultural trade promotion in the country. And the 10-member band comprising members from various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, embodies this free culture exchange of ideas through music.

The beginnings

The credit of being the first established women mariachi band didnít come easy for Flor de Toloache. As always, the beginning was the most difficult.

"We were written off by most of the musicians in our community. Mariachis, most of them male dominated, criticised us and even acceptance became an issue," shares Mireya Ramos, the founder and lead vocalist of the group. Formed in 2008, the troupe was originally a trio, comprising Mireya Ramos, Shae Fiol and another musician but it gained members as like-minded women musicians joined in. Mireya, who comes from a mariachi family, her father a noted mariachi himself, was too determined to not let this go. "The finances of managing a band were too much, the instruments, cost of tours and performances all added up too much. Also, since most of us belong to different communities and cultural backgrounds, that too became a bit of an issue. But we continued playing the music," she says.

The group with an average age of its members between 23 and 34 years, and the former career profiles reading a pharmacy cashier, a waitress, music graduate, nutritionist and a folk artiste, Flor de Toloache managed to catch attention with its edgy music and individual musical influences.

Playing on streets to performing at independent music festivals, the group has evolved and stuck together. The members come from various nationalities from Cuba, Puerto Rico, India, Mexico, Germany and the US. "What brought us together was that passion for music and the strength as women and musicians to make a difference," says Luisa Bastidas, violinist of the group.

Women among men

Since mariachi is a folk music genre dominated by men, most popular bands donít have feature women artistes, Flor de Toloache was a statement. As a multicultural, all-women band in a traditionally men-only, Mexican-dominated genre, they are also strong proponents of womenís empowerment and cross-cultural collaboration. "Women, I believe, have been a minority in whatever they have done. Be it running corporate offices or being an artiste. Mariachi music is a typical traditional folk art form, passed on to generations. In New York, when we played for the first time, some people liked us for being different, others thought we wouldnít last long. But what makes us click is the fact that we take it as an adventure, have fun with music and try to bring in our own influences to make it work," says Shae Fiol, lead vocalist and one of the original members of the group. Before joining Flor de Toloache, Fiol was a sportsperson.

Agrees Anna Garcia, flutist of the group and a Masterís degree holder in music from the Manhattan School of Music. "Though New York is an open culture society, mariachi genre is still a very male specific genre. Some women musicians seem to have followed our example and play in mariachi bands but we are still the only established women Mariachi band in US." Their goal of representing Mexican music and adding their own edgy and versatile sound comes together incredibly naturally and seamlessly. As individuals, their talent has allowed them to grace stages worldwide from stadiums to acclaimed theater venues.

Mariachi music

Growing up on varied musical influences spanning from jazz, salsa, hip hop, classical, the women in Flor de Toloache have improvised mariachi with their edgy and energetic performances. Spreading education on the genre of music, quite popular in North America but lesser known outside, Flor de Toloache is associated with educational workshops and seminars on mariachi music across the globe. "Mariachi music is a folk art form, a tribal music mostly played as a part of celebrations. It sings about love, love lost, celebration of life, nature. Also, it speaks to the people with its social commentary," says Mireya. Coming from a family of mariachis, Mireya says the music is a family tradition, passed on to the generations.

"It derives influences from a strong cultural bonding; the music is about a way of life, played with traditional instruments like violin, flute, trumpets and guitarion. With our group, we have tried to do variations and fusions with other genres of music as well." 

Flor de Toloache has performed at the legendary Blue Note, Rockwood Music Hall, been featured on NBC and reviewed by the New York Times, LA Times, New York Magazine. They continue to perform all over intending to preserve the richness of Mexican culture and evolve the mariachi tradition.