From New York City subway buskers to playing the halftime show at Madison Square Garden’s Latino Night, Flor de Toloache, an all-female mariachi band, has captured the hearts of listeners both in and outside the mariachi genre since their formation in 2008. The group’s founder, Mireya I. Ramos, didn’t initially set out to start an all-female mariachi band, but after pursuing her passion of mariachi music in New York City and discovering the genre was almost exclusively geared towards male musicians, she decided to try something new. The result was a group whose sheer talent and passion for their work has created not only a beautiful body of music, but helped forge ahead on the ever-challenging path that women in the music industry—especially women of color—must navigate.
The group is comprised of a core trio: Ramos (vocals, violin), Shae Fiol (vocals, viheula), and Julie Acosta (trumpet, background vocals), plus Yesi Reyes, who often joins the group on guitarrón, a large six-string acoustic bass instrument traditionally played in mariachi bands. However, the group can balloon to as many as ten members, depending on the occasion.
Whether it is a result of their unique origin story or simply a part of their nature, Flor de Toloache seem to be comfortable stepping outside the lines of tradition when they see fit. Musical alchemists, the girls have mastered the art of taking two dissimilar things and bringing them together in a way that makes magic. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that that group’s name, Flor de Toloache (in English, “Toloache flower”) references a plant which, though toxic in anything but small quantities, has been used both medicinally and magically in Latin America since ancient times. Delirium-inducing and mildly hallucinogenic, Mexican Shamans used the plant to encourage visions, while the ancient Aztecs used it to help relieve fever symptoms. Nowadays, modern Mexican witches brew toloache into love potions in the hopes that its recipients will be rendered totally enchanted by the brewer’s charms. “Toloache,” the second track on the band’s most recent album, Indestructible, acknowledges the witchy undertones of the group’s name, with a chorus of vocalists singing together a cappella, in airy, almost ghostly voices that bring to mind the image of a mysterious coven.
Just like their namesake, the group’s music has a bewitching effect. In some places, it is lively and festive, and sounds the way most Americans who are only vaguely aware of mariachi music would expect it to sound. However, in other places, the music becomes darker, melancholic, and more pensive. This blending of highs and lows is seamless, and when you reach the end of each album, you will likely feel a lingering sense of bittersweetness that is both uplifting and mournful, but altogether satisfying.
Flor de Toloache’s unique sound, as well as their all-female mariachi band status, has unsurprisingly captured a lot of attention. In an interview with NPR, Ramos noted they were often forced to end their subway performances when crowds of onlookers became too large. Eventually, they caught the attention of the Daily Mail, whose coverage of Flor de Toloache led to an onslaught of interest from other media giants like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. After the release of their very first album, they had already bagged a nomination at the 16th Annual Latin Grammy Awards for their self-titled release, Mariachi Flor de Toloache. Two years later, at the 18th Latin Grammys, they were nominated for the same award for their sophomore record, Las Caras Lindas, and this time, they won. Indestructible, the band’s most sonically diverse and, arguably, best record yet, earned them a nomination at the 62nd Grammy Awards for Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album. The album’s title track unpacks the meaning and significance behind the album title. It is, above all else, a reference to the strength and resilience of women.
Despite being a mariachi band, all the founding members of Flor de Toloache – bar Ramos – were fairly unfamiliar with mariachi music until Ramos approached them with the idea for the band. Though they are, at heart, a mariachi band, the girls have roots in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Australia, Colombia, Germany, Italy and the United States, which has inspired them to infuse their sound with genres from their respective upbringings. This has lead to some of their best work, especially in their more recent releases. Indestructible’s lead single “Quisiera” (in English, “I’d Like”) has the stamp of reggaeton music, inspired in part by some of the core members’ Dominican roots. John Legend lends his voice to a few verses on this track, and the vocal chemistry between he and Ramos is nothing short of magic. This album also saw the girls collaborate with RnB heavyweight Miguel on “Te Lo Dige,” a melancholic yet subtly upbeat tune.
Though the creative touch of these music industry icons certainly gave their respective collaborations with Flor de Toloache an interesting flair, the rest of the album is equally impressive. “Our Love” is winding and slightly dark, with lyrics that switch between English and Spanish as they paint a picture of eternal and obsessive love. Similarly, “Si No Eres Tú (If I Can’t Have You),” is a slow and staccatoed track that explores heartbreak. Meanwhile, flouncy tracks like “Besos de Mezcal” and “El Corrido de David y Goliat” are vibrant explosions of the traditional, festive mariachi sound, with fast beats, bright horns, and occasional background hoots and hollers.
If you have never delved into the world of mariachi before, Flor de Toloache is an excellent place to start. Beautiful harmonies, an eclectic blend of genres, and songs sung with so much heart, you don’t need to understand the lyrics for the music to resonate—this ground-breaking group is sure to captivate your interest. Publications from Rolling Stone to The New York Times have sung their praises for this group’s live performances, so be sure to get your tickets for Roots N Blues Festival 2021 and come see them play on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Purchase your pass here.