PDX Jazz Festival showcased the prominent all-female mariachi band, Flor de Toloache, on Sunday Feb. 19 at the Newmark Theater. Traditionally a male-dominated style, the Grammy-winning band exemplifies that mariachi not only survives when it expands beyond its traditional network, it thrives.
Based in New York City, Flor de Toloache was founded by lead singers Mireya I. Ramos & Shae Fiol in 2008 and boasts several other rotating female performers. Collectively, the band refers to themselves as “Las Flores.” The band rose in popularity following their highly praised NPR “Tiny Desk Concert” in 2016.
Part of Toloache’s attraction is their blend of intoxicating, vulnerable, seductive, bold and empowering arrangements. According to their website, mariachinyc.com, the artists “coalesce as would a band of sisters, with a grace and vibrant beauty that casts a spell over their audiences not unlike the legendary Toloache flower still being used in Mexico as a love potion.”
“Mariachi” refers to the repertoire of folk-derived music, according to Folkways, the Smithsonian Institute’s non-profit record label. The genre originates from Spanish and African slaves during Mexico’s colonial era, spanning three centuries. Mariachi’s signature sound established itself in Western Mexico, but has dominated the majority of Latin America since the dawn of the radio in the 1930s. By 1950, the standard band consisted of a number of trumpets, violins, small guitars (vihuela) and a big bass guitar (guitarrón).
During the performance, the group honored the roots of mariachi with participatory workshops on “gritos,” the variety of vocal interjections used to express emotions in mariachi music. Each member shared a style of grito ranging from sounds of laughter to weeping, and the audience calls back in a cathartic release. Another way Las Flores pay tribute to the cultural origin of the genre is through their impeccable showmanship. Several numbers involved traditional Latin rhythms, such as Cumbia, which were paired with the appropriate dances. Humor was also a central component of the performance, contrasting some of the slower or more emotional numbers in the set.
The group’s unique sound results from their complex feminine harmonies and impeccable intonation. The group enhances mariachi’s folk style by incorporating many other genres. Drawing upon several seemingly unconventional inspirations, their repertoire stands at the intersection of folk, jazz, R&B, rock and pop traditions. Selections in the performance included both originals and Latin-infused covers, including Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black.”
While on stage, Fiol explained their original song “Our Love” was originally written to describe the bittersweet experience of being on tour with their children while being separated from their partners. The video for the single, released in February 2020, demonstrates this complex intersection of emotion in a candid compilation of clips from the tour. Now, Fiol stated, “Our Love” not only speaks to the hardships they experience while on tour, but also foreshadowed the heartache of being unable to connect with others during the pandemic.
In fact, the Jazz Festival was a type of homecoming for Fiol who stated that she grew up in Lake Oswego prior to going to college in New Mexico and later moving to New Jersey.
Despite the evident talent of Toloache, perhaps the most compelling and memorable aspect of the performance was the opener, Forest Grove High School’s Mariachi Tradición. The 22-student ensemble performed a 40-minute set that had the audience cheering, laughing and singing along. According to an interview with reporter Dillon Mullan of the Forest Grove News Times, the event was the group’s first performance in Portland since the start of COVID-19.
The group performed several traditional mariachi standards, featuring several vocal and instrumental soloists. The dedication to and pride of both community and culture was palpable. The three brass musicians sported all black ensembles, while the other musicians embraced a more traditional style with plum colored pants with silver sequins and matching boots.
Parent Rosa Bran Cervantes said in Spanish to the Forest Grove News that the mariachi suit and sombrero are a point of pride for Mexicans. For her child to be part of this band is meaningful.
“To play and sing and dance, this is what we pass on to our kids, so to see the school district have this space for a class — not just an elective, a class with a teacher — even though we’re in foreign land, it’s a little piece of Mexico,” Cervantes said.
Director Lesslie Nuñez said the students volunteered several of their weekends in order to perfect their performance. Looking to the future Nuñez stated, “I hope that my students continue paving the way for the younger generations,” and “continue to inspire the youth to explore the rich culture and tradition of mariachi music.”
Younger siblings of Mariachi Tradición members are now beginning their own mariachi journey at Forest Grove High School.
“It has truly been a privilege to witness this tradition continue to evolve in our school district,” Nuñez said. “None of this could’ve been possible without the support of our students’ parents and administrators.”
Nuñez also extended her thanks to the Festival for inviting the group to perform and said they are available for other live performances and special events.
At the end of the set, the theater echoed, split between calls for “encore” and “otra.” After a handful of chants, “otra” prevailed. Las Flores reentered the stage and invited Mariachi Tradición to join them for the final song.
The PDX Jazz Festival will take place through Feb. 26, but the Portland jazz scene is lively year-round. Festival Marketing and Membership director Jonathan Rudnick, expressed a deep enthusiasm for Lewis & Clark students to become more involved with the festival in the future, including internships and potentially selling tickets to students at discounted rates.
You can find more information about the PDX Jazz Festival at PDXJazz.org and hear the latest news about Mariachi Tradición on their social media @mariachi_tradicion.