By TIMOTHY FINN
The Kansas City Star
The sisters who founded Maria the Mexican call their music a mix of Americana soul and Mexicana blues, but much of its heart comes from the traditions they learned from their grandmother.
Tess and Maria Cuevas are the granddaughters of the late Teresa Cuevas, who died in December at the age of 93.
A native Topekan and the daughter of parents who fled Mexico during the revolution, Teresa Cuevas started her own all-female mariachi band, the seven-piece Mariachi Estrella, one of the first of its kind in the United States. The band was booked for a show at the Hyatt Regency on July 17, 1981, the night of the skywalk collapse. Four band members died in the collapse. Teresa Cuevas was among the injured.
After she recovered, she kept the name Mariachi Estrella but turned her focus to teaching mariachi music to students, including her granddaughters.
“We both joined the band when we turned 11,” said Tess, a 2003 graduate of Topeka High School. “A few of our cousins did it. We did it for 12 or 13 years, into our early 20s. The height of it was during high school. We performed at a lot of wedding parties, Masses, Mexican fiestas in Topeka, Kansas City and Lawrence.”
Tess played violin; Maria, who is three years younger, played vihuela, the five-string guitar that is elemental to the mariachi sound. They left Mariachi Estrella behind while in college but continued playing and performing.
“We experimented with Maria and I playing together, and she played with some blues bands,” Tess said. “Then I moved to Chicago.”
That turned out to be a fortuitous move. In May 2011, she signed on to perform a Cinco de Mayo show at the Mexican restaurant where she worked. She enlisted her sister, who by then had met Garrett Nordstrom, a songwriter, guitarist and founder of the rock/funk band the Garrett Nordstrom Situation. He got a crash course in mariachi music and accompanied Maria to Chicago, where the three played that restaurant gig.
“We rented a van and a P.A., set up in her restaurant and played like a four-hour show,” Maria said. “We taught Garrett all the traditional Mexican tunes. He’d never played any of them and hadn’t rehearsed with Tess.”
That Chicago gig was intended to be a one-off, but it inspired more music after Tess moved back to Topeka.
“It was supposed to be just for fun,” Tess said, “but when I moved back here, we got together and started practicing.”
And they formed Maria the Mexican. For live shows, they hired a drummer and a bass player and became more of a rock band. In May 2012, they booked a Cinco de Mayo gig at Knuckleheads as part of MerleJam, the annual fundraiser for heart-transplant patients. It was their first Kansas City show.
Shortly after that, the band went into the studio and recorded a single, “Ruler.” For that they hired Jason Riley on guitar, who has since joined the band. That autumn, they prepared to record an EP but ended up with more than enough material for a full-length album. Going in, they thought they knew what sound they were shooting for.
“We thought it was going to be a real Southwestern album,” Tess said. “But each of the songs ended up growing into something else. So that’s not what we call our music anymore.”
“Some of the songs we picked are real poppy and not so Southwestern style,” Maria said. “Then there were of course the traditional songs we wanted to do but not traditionally. We would come in with an idea, then Garrett and Jason and our engineer, Matthew Russo, would all put in their own flair.
“It took us awhile to come up with the right words to describe the music because it’s so broad and encompasses quite a few sounds. So we came up with Americana soul and Mexicana blues.”
The album they recorded is “Moon Colored Jade,” 12 tracks that fuse rock, soul, blues and funk with Mexican folk accents. The album was released in October
They enlisted an array of top-shelf talent to record with them, including Lester Estelle Jr. on drums, Craig Kew on bass, Ken Lovern on Hammond B3, Hermon Mehari on trumpet, Christine Grossman on viola and violin. (Kew and Lovern are also part of the live band.)
Some of the tracks are re-arrangements of Nordstrom’s songs-in-waiting, some are songs he co-wrote with Maria and some are their versions of traditional Mexican songs like “El Cascabel” and “Besame Mucho.” Nordstrom said it was somewhat of a challenge to give those songs more of a rock feel.
“We want to push them to more of a rock feel, more 6/8, so they have more of a groove and they roll along better,” he said.
“We have played them in traditional form for so long, it’s fun to take those traditional songs and put them with drums and bass and see how they sound,” Maria said. “Some of them really work electrified.”
They incorporate those songs into their live performances. And sometimes they play them in the traditional manner, as they did in June when they opened for Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and Alejandro Escovedo at Knuckleheads. Their grandmother was there that night to hear how they had mixed their Mexican traditions with American roots.
“She was just beaming listening to us play ‘El Cascabel,’ ” Tess said. “I know it made her so happy to see what we had taken from the mariachi and made new and different.”
“She prepared us to carry on our traditional Mexican roots expressed through music by teaching us how to interpret mariachi music and to express emotions through that music,” Maria said. “She encouraged us to carry on those songs and the emotions they evoke.”