In the eight years since violinist and singer Mireya Ramos founded the New York-based Flor de Toloache, the all-female band has gone from playing in the subway, to performing at mariachi festivals, to opening for The Arcs, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach’s side project. Flor de Toloache will share the stage with The Arcs on a North American tour that opens April 11 in Vancouver, B.C. and includes a stop at Coachella and a sold-out show at L.A.’s Henry Fonda Theatre.
Flor de Toloache’s self-titled, self-released debut album of reinterpreted Latin classics and English-language songs infused with pop, jazz and r&b was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Ranchera album; the follow up is expected to be released this summer.
Ramos, California born and raised in Puerto Rico, is from a musical family of Dominican and Mexican descent. She is also a sought-after violinist for diverse Latin recording projects. Now 34, early in her career she toured with San Juan’s Children’s Chorus, and played with a traditional mariachi group after moving with her family to New York. Billboard spoke to Ramos about breaking musical tradition and performing with The Arcs.
Why an all-women mariachi group?
My dad was a mariachi. He used to sing in restaurants, and when I was growing up he would take me around with him…I was already performing with an all-male mariachi for about five years before I started this group. I had felt somewhat isolated, because I was one of the only girls performing mariachi, and I was with all these macho Mexican guys. There were all-female groups in California and in Texas. I thought it would be really cool to start an all-female band in New York.
What gives Flor de Toloache its New York flavor?
We reflect what’s going on musically in New York. We are an international band – not everyone’s of Mexican descent. The new generation here in New York wants a change. They are listening to bachata, to salsa, to music that maybe in California you’re not surrounded by. All that is reflected in our music. One of the first things we’re told when people see us for the first time is ‘you’re not Mexican,’ and we’re like, ‘why does that matter?’ The direction that the new generation of Latinos is taking, especially [in the] U.S., we are going to mix and we have to be open to that change. It’s going to happen whether you are traditional or not. It’s important to not close yourself off. To experiment and be open.
What else has set Flor de Toloache apart from other mariachi bands?
We came up with the idea of wearing pants instead of the typical mariachi skirt. We wanted to to wear pants because it looks good, and it’s way more practical if you’re in New York and you’re running for the train.
We have been criticized for it [in the mariachi community]. We couldn’t believe it was such a big deal, that wearing pants would be a huge controversy.
It goes against tradition and some people think it doesn’t look good, but it does. It’s pretty cool and empowering for a lot of women. Now it’s become a trend.
Have you faced other challenges as a woman in the mariachi world?
It is very macho, but if you think about it, most of the [music] industry is. Mariachis are so proud of the tradition and the culture that it makes it harder to change.
You sing songs in English, and your music goes beyond the typical mariachi sound…
I think singing songs in English is fine now. We aren’t criticized for singing in English. And our arrangements don’t necessarily sound like mariachi to the ear that’s been listening to mariachi for a long time.
It doesn’t have to be about ‘we are doing this Mexican music’ and that’s it. We want to connect with you. Even if you don’t understand what I’m saying I want you to connect with it.
What do you want people to know about mariachi music?
I look at it as the gypsy music of Mexico. Traditionally, mariachis were mostly for parties, that’s why it’s so happy, even if it’s about ripping your heart out. My mentor – a guy in New York who taught me most of the repertoire of mariachi — he literally lived in his mariachi suit. He was always singing and talking about his romantic songs; he lived the songs that he sang. I think mariachi came from that kind of artistic soul. It’s a fusion of European instruments and native sounds, and there’s something so therapeutic in it that people connect with it whether they understand what you’re saying or not.
Flor de Toloache has toured with The Arcs in Europe, and your band wil be opening for The Arcs on U.S. dates this month. How did that come about?
We were invited to do one song on The Arcs album [Yours, Dreamily]. They were impressed with what we did, and we made up an arrangement on the spot for one of their songs, so they asked if we could sing, too. They invited us again for another session, so we ended up playing and singing on half the record…Then they announced their European tour [in late 2015] and they invited us to perform. We were nervous at first because we didn’t know what to expect — it’s 2000-3000 capacity venues most of the time. So it’s high expectations. But it’s been awesome, people love the energy onstage.