For those who endure the New York subway during rush hour, the presence of buskers can be a blessing or a curse. In the daily ritual of going to work, the soothing tones of an angel-voiced singer can transplant passengers from the hardships of reality to an altogether better place. On the other hand, some douche with a murderous rendition of Maroon 5 will only reinforce the claustrophobic crush and misery of the subterranean commute.
Flor de Toloache fall firmly within the first category. Proud to be New York’s “first and only established female mariachi band,” the group have been regular performers on the city’s subway since they formed in 2008. A new short documentary from director Jenny Schweitzer follows Flor de Toloache as they bring traditional Mexican rhythms to beleaguered commuters, while dashing the foolish notion that mariachi is somehow not for girls.
Ahead of her screening at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in NYC, we spoke to Jenny about her film (also called Flor de Toloache.) Here’s what she had to say.
Why do you think mariachi is perceived as such a masculine style of music? Is this something that occurs with music in general or is mariachi particularly male-dominated?
From what I learned from Mireya Ramos, the founder of the band and the voice of my film, Mexican culture is particularly macho. Mariachi music is traditionally performed by men (going back centuries) and she had a difficult time in various male mariachi bands when she came to NYC. This was the impetus for her forming her own all-female mariachi band.
Why did you decide to make this film?
Flor de Toloache is one film of a series of ten I created in collaboration with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s program, MTA Arts & Design. The series is called Rhythm in Motion. My intention was to uncover the personal stories of musicians that New Yorkers see playing daily on the subway system. I’ve always been particularly intrigued about what drives these subway buskers and felt that amongst this group there was a wealth of great characters to portray. In fact, the first film I created on the subject of busking was back in 1998 for my senior thesis film at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. It was called The Lost Cadenza, about an aged keyboard player on the streets of NYC.
How do you know Mireya Ramos?
All of the subjects in the Rhythm in Motion series are part of Music Under New York, the musical division of MTA Arts & Design. They have a roster of musicians and as I developed the films and targeted my subjects I referred to this list. When I saw “all-female Mariachi band” I knew that these women had something interesting to say.
Is there a difference in public reaction to the band compared to if they were an all-male group?
I think there is an enormous difference in public reaction. Flor de Toloache is doing something new and doing it spectacularly well. They’re an amazing talent. I think it’s refreshing and inspiring to see these women perform. I don’t know if one would say that about a traditional all-male mariachi band.
What was the most eye-opening aspect of making the film?
The most eye-opening aspect of making the film for me was witnessing the crowd’s utter surprise and interest when happening upon this group of women on the subway. I hope that some of my crowd reaction shots in the film depict this. Not all subway buskers can generate crowds, New York commuters are especially busy and they don’t stop unless they happen upon a performance that is truly impressive. Flor de Toloache always generates a crowd.
Did you want to promote a feminist message or is the fact they are women secondary to the fact they’re great musicians?
In the context of my film, I believe the two messages carry equal weight. I don’t think the band’s motive to challenge gender norms would be effective if they were not enormously talented.
How do you hope people feel after watching the film?
I hope one can see that sometimes music has a deeper meaning and motivation for certain artists. I also hope that one sees the true bravery with this band.
Flor de Toloache is from the Rhythm in Motion series. Could you tell us some more about the series?
I created the series and produced the ten films in the Rhythm in Motion series last year as a one-man-band: meaning I directed, shot, and edited them all. It was budgetary factors that forced me to create everything singlehandedly. That said, I think the films are more intimate as a result. Subjects include a traditional Korean drummer, a bluesman who passed away last February who had performed on the subway for decades, a gospel singer, a beatboxer, and the iconic “Saw Lady.” The films have been playing the film festival circuit and I hope to have them distributed on the web in 2014 or 2015.
What’s your own personal connection to music? Do you play? What styles do you listen to?
No, I’m not a musician. I have made many attempts but my talents don’t exist in that area. My library is scattered. I listen to everything from blues, jazz, Celtic, classical, folk, rock, pop, electronica etc. I don’t discriminate in genre.