Navigating through foggy safety goggles, I follow a mariachi band onto a Long Island factory floor. I confront a cacophony: countless machines all whir and click at once. As if conjured, an electric-bass string winds into shape within a long, horizontal device before us, like something out of The Fifth Element.
This is not a dream: I’m with Flor de Toloache, New York City’s first all-female mariachi band, at the D’Addario factory in Farmingdale, New York. The company, with roots in Italy stretching back three centuries, is one of the largest string manufacturers in the world. They make 700,000 strings a day for orchestral and fretted instruments. Being at the heart of it all feels like venturing into a beehive. Within different zones, some for winding string cores, violin-string threading, or packaging, workers’ fingers fly. Mechanics buzz about. The band members, dressed in black ensembles adorned with traditional botonadura buttons, seem just as intrigued as I; we ogle at hardened nylon resembling a nest of cooked spaghetti, and touch forest-green ball ends that are still warm. As the four women of Flor de Toloache—violinist Mireya Ramos, vihuela player Shae Fiol, guitarrón player Eunice Aparicio, and trumpeter Julie Acosta—roam about, curious workers glance up. Minutes later, the group surprises them by bursting through elevator doors mid-song. The floor erupts with cheers and claps. Their performance delivers an electric jolt of energy, but as Ramos unfurls an exuberant solo, her vibrant yet unamplified sound dissolves slightly against the cavernous space.
Aside from providing lunchtime entertainment, the band journeyed east on this dreary spring Monday to offer feedback. They’re consulting with D’Addario’s product-development team, who are creating strings especially for vihuela and guitarrón. As Aparicio and Fiol test strings, I shadow Ramos on another mission: finding the right violin strings. Despite the violin being a core melodic voice in mariachi music, there are no violin strings manufactured and marketed specifically for the genre—in the United States, at least. Ramos tells me that mariachi violinists usually opt for the same strings bluegrass fiddlers would use, such as those with solid-steel or stranded-steel cores.
She founded Flor de Toloache nine years ago and exemplifies how the art form is passed down through generations; her father was a mariachi singer in her native Puerto Rico, filling her childhood with the music. “Within the genre you play all kinds of music from all over Mexico. It’s not just one style,” Ramos says, adding her favorite is from the gulf-bordering Huasteca region. “It’s kind of like Irish music. Fast bowing, a lot of notes.”
As a mariachi violinist, Ramos typically competes with her bandmates to be heard, and the style involves expressive whole-bow strokes. “You have to project over the trumpet and the loud percussive string instruments,” she explains, referring to the vihuela and guitarrón. “The ideal would be to have an amazing bow and a really bright-sounding string that’s really responsive to the bow.” She added that a lighter-tension string makes it easier to play mariachi’s fast-paced melodies and project a clear yet romantic sound. She recently acquired a David Gage five-stringed amplified-acoustic violin from his Realist line, which she says is on the darker side tonally, needing a little extra help with projection.
Transforming a conference room into a kind of diagnostician’s clinic, D’Addario’s Orchestral Strings Product Manager Lyris Hung and Research and Development Director Fan-Chia Tao—both violinists themselves—assess Ramos’ needs. Hung examines her instrument, while asking what she likes and dislikes about her existing setup of synthetic-core strings. “Without doing that you’re sort of grasping at straws,” Hung later explains. Hung and Tao also find that as the band tours more regularly, Ramos always plays amplified. Later, Hung emphasizes that finding the right strings is more about considering the application than the style. For example, if a violinist always performs outside with an amp, his or her priorities should be on string resilience.
Choosing the best strings for Ramos involves understanding what lies at the core….