SJZ Fall Concert Series Preview: Mariachi Flor de Toloache

San Jose Jazz closes out its first Fall Concert Series with an SJZ Boom Box performance by Mariachi Flor de Toloache as part of La Ultima Parada, a day-long Dia de Los Muertos celebration at Mexican Heritage Plaza. Like Rudresh Mahanthappa and Rez Abbasi, Mariachi Flor de Toloache represents a new musical vision of an old tradition, one in pursuit of a more open mariachi sound that incorporates elements of bachata, jazz, pop and soul.

Formed in 2008 by violinist Miraya I. Ramos and vihuela player Shay Fiol, the group began by busking in New York subway stations. Ramos has intimate experience with the mariachi tradition – her father was a mariachi, and before forming Flor de Toloache, she was the only female in a mariachi ensemble for five years.

In a profile for the Wall Street Journal, Ramos explained that her idea to start an all-female mariachi group stemmed from the exclusion she felt during that experience. “I had felt somewhat isolated, because I was one of the only girls performing mariachi, and I was with all these macho Mexican guys,” she said. “There were all-female groups in California and in Texas. I thought it would be really cool to start an all-female group in New York.”

From the start, they’ve been iconoclasts to the form. While Ramos states that they weren’t the first all-female mariachi group, they did get flak for a watershed wardrobe choice: wearing pants instead of skirts. The choice, much like their sound, has received some criticism from fans of the form who feel they’re not upholding mariachi’s musical tradition. However, she chooses to point out this as a generational decision.

“We are going to mix and we have to be open to that change,” she says of the fusion of Latino music and the intermingling of different Latin cultures in America. “It’s going to happen whether you are traditional or not. It’s important to not close yourself off. To experiment and be open.”

In that sense, Mariachi Flor de Toloache’s mission seems to step beyond testing the gender norms that have come to define, and sometimes even caricature, the mariachi form. With an ensemble of members with backgrounds from around the world, their music is sung in Spanish and English, features both traditional tunes and original music, and incorporates contemporary forms by utilizing mariachi instruments to re-imagine more contemporary hits. Take, for instance, their brief take on Nirvana’s “Come As Your Are,” as performed on Berkeley Internet Radio’s BIRN Alive, seen below.

Though they’ve existed for eight years, the last two have been huge for building the band’s visibility. In 2015, their self-titled debut was nominated for a Latin Grammy for Best Ranchera Album. They’ve earned interviews with Billboard and performed at the Newport Folk Festival and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. A planned one-song collaboration with Dan Auerbach’s solo project, the Arcs, turned into the group being featured on half of their debut, Yours, Dreamily. It also led to an opening slot on the group’s tour. In January, they had the chance to perform as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, which featured a three-song set that captures the group, in quartet form, at the height of their musical ability.

Their appearance in San Jose fits perfectly La Ultima Parada, a day-long celebration of the Mexican Day of the Dead. The event, held at the landmark Mexican Heritage Plaza, will feature music, dance, and more across three stages.

Mariachi Flor de Toloache perform Sunday, Oct. 30 at Mexican Heritage Plaza on the SJZ Boom Box at La Ultima Parada. The Boom Box performance is free; admission to La Ultima Parada is $5. Click here to purchase tickets for La Ultima Parada.