When the poet Patti Smith started performing with a band in New York City in the early 1970s, setting her fiery words to music, she helped to lay the foundation for punk. Tonight she performs an acoustic set and reading with longtime collaborators Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan. When she does, she’ll be supported by a band that represents a new generation of musicians shaking up expectations in the city — and in the hallowed realm of mariachi music.
Mariachi Flor de Toloache is New York City’s first and only all-female mariachi band. Like Smith, they’re critically acclaimed and have built a broad audience with provocative performances: Although their musicianship and attention to detail reveal a deep respect for tradition, they incorporate elements of jazz and soul, and the odd Nirvana cover, into their shows.
The group has gotten some scattered criticism for its unconventional approach, but bandleader and violinist Mireya Ramos offers no apologies. “Mariachi is going to evolve somehow, and this is just one of the ways it can evolve.” She started this band of diverse women (members hail from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and Mexico) in 2008 to explore new possibilities within mariachi – something that would have been harder with the expected all-male lineup and near-impossible, she feels, anywhere but New York City.
Here and elsewhere, Ramos and her group have been widely embraced. They make regular appearances at mariachi festivals, and their 2014 self-titled debut album was nominated for a Latin Grammy. Their success can be partly attributed to their unusual approach, but it’s mostly because of the passion, skill, and dedication that they bring to their craft. All of the members except for Ramos were new to mariachi before this project, and their love for the music is evident in every song, whether it’s an original like “Let Down” or a classic like “Guadalajara.”
Ramos is half Mexican and her father was a mariachi, so the music carries happy memories for her, but she also loves it for its intricate melodies, rhythm patterns, and the deep feelings they convey. “I like the way people react to it. It’s instant. People just become happy,” she says. Her band sparks that connection with mariachi across cultural lines; these days they’re as likely to play with a rock band as they are with regional Mexican musicians.
The rock connection has strengthened since they got involved with Dan Auerbach’s garage-rock band the Arcs. Mariachi Flor de Toloache played on the Arcs’ record Yours, Dreamily and now perform regularly with the band on tour. “People comment on what an interesting combination it is to have a mariachi group opening for a rock band,” says Shae Fiol, a co-founder and vihuela player for Mariachi Flor de Toloache. “The really remarkable comment we get is that it just works.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that it will work with Smith’s music. Jill Sternheimer, Lincoln Center’s public programming director, sees a harmony between the two acts: as women, as cultural rebels, and as New Yorkers. “It feels very New York. It’s two very diverse artists that on some level, I could see them on the subway together,” she explains. For the free summer festival, she says, “we like to reflect New York back to itself.”