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“Are you ready for a mariachi experience?!” asked Mireya Ramos as Mariachi Flor de Toloache took the stage at Terminal 5 on Wednesday night. Her seven-piece New York City–based mariachi band was opening for the Arcs, the new psych-soul project of Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (on whose debut album, Yours, Dreamily, MFdT are featured). The mariachis are supporting the rockers on several national dates on their tour. It was fair to question whether the crowd of college-aged, blues-rock fans were, indeed, ready for a set of mariachi music sung mostly in Spanish by a multicultural group of female musicians, but, if it was a real question, Ramos, who sings lead and plays the violin, need not have worried. The gathering crowd cheered and clapped as if to say, “Bring it on.”
The all-woman band say they are a first for NYC; they’re definitely a rarity in mariachi music, which is far more often performed only by men — though female mariachis are becoming more common. They may be breaking with tradition, but they wear their traditional mariachi costumes with pride and perform old-school ballads and originals with conviction. This evening they topped their costumes elegantly, with bold red flowers in their hair. Ramos, who grew up in Puerto Rico and embraces her Mexican and Dominican background, has a powerful and well-trained voice. The bandleader and founder’s vocal style is clean and clear while staying true to the phrasing that helps make mariachi music instantly recognizable.
Mariachi Flor de Toloache can be haunting and somber, but this evening they were in a lively mood, kicking off their set with a festive rendition of the famous standard “Guadalajara,” which they followed with a chills-inducing cover of “Come as You Are.” In addition to the two trumpets, two violins, flute, four-string vihuela, and guitarrón in effect, the varied vocal instruments the band offers, particularly that of Shae Fiol, are a major attraction. Blasts of silvery and golden sounds burst from Fiol and Ramos as they harmonize with each other and the shrieking brass. The crowd shouted and clapped at each stunning vocal peak and gloriously sustained note.
There were too many people there at this point for their demonstrative appreciators to be only hometown fans who came out to show support (or Arcs fans who got there early). No doubt some in the audience were well aware of their contributions to the stellar Yours, Dreamily and came to the show already hip to their story. Others, perhaps, were the type to readily appreciate great musicianship coupled with genuine feeling and unique flair. One of the most appealing things about Mariachi Flor de Toloache is the way the women fully claim the tradition as their own, with an unapologetically feminine approach to the historically male, sometimes staid, genre. The members confidently swiveled their hips in time as they played, the silver buttons on their pants glinting under the blue stage lights. (For a hint at where they are coming from, a toloache is a beautiful white flower used in making love potions.)
Later on, Ramos, Fiol, and trumpet player Julie Acosta would sing backup with the Arcs while stirring in their instrumental voices as well. Far from being bit players in the ensemble, they make up a significant part of the wall of sound that is Auerbach’s new project, and it’s easy to see where their talents fit in with his current vision — one where the classic, the romantic, and the psychedelic collide and make a lot of noise. Wherever Auerbach’s expressive guitar made a cut, they were ready to come up behind with gospel-soul wails and despondent horn and violin to twist the knife.
Just as the mainstream indie crowd embraced them, so, too, has the Latin music establishment. This year they were nominated for a Latin Grammy for best ranchera album. Truth be told, everyone loves a good mariachi band, and Mariachi Flor de Toloache is a world-class, if quite American, mariachi band. They are, in fact, a very New York mariachi band. The members come from all over the world, and jazz and r&b flavor their English-language originals (with “Let Down” serving as a standout example). Certainly, there are purist mariachi lovers who would scoff at their progressive take on the quintessentially Mexican musical form. Still, it is equally certain that at least a few people who caught the opening act came away with a new appreciation for (and curiosity about) the music that Mariachi Flor de Toloache so evidently love and revere.