WTBU DJ Matt Garamella of Time Signatures spoke to Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol of Mariachi Flor de Toloache to preview their sold out show at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA on March 30. The show is part of the museum’s RISE concert series.
Matt Garamella: According to your facebook page, you have an album coming out in June! Can you tell us a little about what we can expect to hear?
Shae Fiol: You can expect to hear a lot more original songs, and we are going to continue on our path of doing fusion, which will be traditional mariachi as well as our own signature New York style mariachi, which can include some folk, rock, jazz, R&B – maybe not so much R&B – but definitely our blend of music. So, a blend of genres, rather.
MG: Your band is made up of musicians from all around the world. I am curious; how did you all come to meet each other?
MR: First, Shae and I had already been playing prior to this band. I was playing violin and singing backup vocals for her music. After that, through other bands, I was freelancing a lot and playing with different kinds of bands, or side stuff – salsa, hip-hop, R&B, deejaying, whatever, you name it. Whoever needed me to play, I was there. So through different scenes, I met a lot of different women who were doing similar things to what I was with their instruments. And I would see them and be like, “Oh, do you want to join this band?” But also, some were the first ever musician friends we had.
MG: Was the multiculturalism of your group intentional or did it just happen by chance?
MR: Definitely a little bit of both. The entirety of my goal was to come up with a different idea that I wanted to express; something different in mariachi, because I’m mixed myself, so I was raised with a lot of different kinds of music in a mix of mariachi, jazz, and salsa, reggae, reggaeton, and everything we hear in Puerto Rico. So, I think that organically, it would happen anyway, but also there weren’t a lot of female mariachi players or singers or people that know mariachi tradition in New York. Part of the goal was to do something different with the tradition.
MG: Can you explain the joyful, high-pitched cheers at the beginning of many mariachi songs? I believe they are called gritos.
MR: Well yeah, Shae is an expert.
SF: No, I am definitely not an expert, but I appreciate that Mireya. We do a workshop that we call a grito workshop because, as you know, it is a very important part of, not just mariachi, but also other genres of Mexican music. It has a special place. There is all kinds of gritos, so we definitely teach one at our show. We call it the classic, because it’s a little bit of a cry and a laugh, and it’s also the one that you hear most often – most frequently in music and you would know it if you heard it. It’s definitely another form of expression – it’s another way to get out how you’re feeling. A lot of times when we’re playing, we encourage people, if they have never heard a grito, to use the grito they just learned to express how they feel in the moment when they hear something that resonates with them or feel something to express themselves with a grito.
MG: I had no idea it was so expressive. So it sounds almost like a mantra of sorts, like everyone has their own.
SF: I think, for me, I don’t have my own. I’m a little bit like a mockingbird; I hear something and I sing it back. But I think over time, you maybe have your own grito sound. There’s also ones you can put your own flair on. The more you listen to mariachi, the more you will start to be able to pick out different sounds that repeat. You know, like, “Oh, I heard that one before,” or different shapes that they make when you hear them.
MG: Have you encountered any criticisms for being an all-female mariachi group?
SF: Yes, we have for various reasons. First off, the simple fact that we’re women dressed in mariachi uniform, they assume that we don’t know how to play our instruments, or don’t sound good, or we are amateurs, or whatever. And then the other reason is because we wear pants, which is not the traditional uniform of the women in mariachi. Women use very long, straight skirts with the same ornaments. But instead, we wear pants and our own take on the suit and we get criticized for that. You know, we get comments on Facebook all the time on our page and on YouTube. But then also, when people do hear us, some people don’t like when we play, because we don’t sound exactly like the traditional mariachi, and therefore we shouldn’t be called mariachi. Most of these criticisms come from the simple fact that we are women, because you know if a male mariachi for example, was doing some of the same repertoire that we are doing, they would be highly celebrated because they are doing something new. But because we are women, it’s like “No, that’s not allowed.” So yeah, we definitely get criticized, but like any tradition, when there is a change, people are going to resist. But there are some people that love it. People are actually thankful, and they are amazed by the fact that they didn’t know mariachi could go that way or that we could mix these genres together and sound that cool. And the fact that we’re keeping the tradition alive but in a different form or different expression, people are thankful for that.
MG: And for my last question, are there any mariachi groups or artists in general that have strongly influenced your music?
SF: Let’s see… Definitely the Linda Ronstadt album Canciones de mi Padre. Not because she is an American born, but it happened to be accessible for me. I’m pretty sure I heard that album before I was a Linda Ronstadt fan. She is kind of a crossover artist. She wasn’t doing what we are doing, because she wasn’t mixing genres. She just did straight-ahead traditional mariachi, but she also sang in her own way. You can hear her influences in the way she sings. Also, I wasn’t that exposed to mariachi until I joined the group, and Mireya is one of my influences. And Mireya’s mom also curates what we perform, and her dad too listens and sings mariachi, so I spend a lot of time with Mireya’s family, listening to all the music that her family listens to. Some of the women artists that I really, really loved besides Linda Ronstadt was Maria Lourdes. I remember one summer when I was living with Mireya’s family, I listened to that album a lot, and there were incredible vocals and arrangements. I consider her one of my faves. And Lola Beltran.
Listen to the audio of the interview here!