Trio Ellas embraces a wide, varied musical world

Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl, the female ensemble Trio Ellas will be among the top-billed acts at Mariachi USA Festival, a glittering annual showcase of charro-suited talent.

It'll make a nice change of pace for the three young Mexican American women: guitarist Stephanie Amaro, violinist Suemy Gonzalez and Nelly Cortez, who plays the formidable, wide-bodied guitarrón. Although last year Trio Ellas earned a Latin Grammy nomination for ranchera album for its debut release, "Con Ustedes" (With You), the band still pays its bills partly by performing at weddings, funerals and quinceañeras across Southern California.

Even though the women appreciate their varied workload, it can lead to occasional touches of cognitive dissonance.

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"It's so weird," Amaro said recently as Trio Ellas was getting ready for a regular monthly gig at Eastside Luv in Boyle Heights. On any given week, the group may be appearing on the giant Univision television network or giving red-carpet interviews at the Latin Grammys in Las Vegas. "And then we come home," she said with a laugh, "and we're like, 'Man, we're broke! We have to play someone's quinceañera or something.' "

In Gonzalez's case, that "something" includes working two days a week as a pirate wench at Disneyland's New Orleans Square, where the Sacramento native is part of a band of strolling musicians. "We also play on the raft that goes to Tom Sawyer Island," said Gonzalez, who this year became the first Latina to graduate from USC Thornton School of Music's program in popular music.

As good-humored and approachable as they are creatively ambitious, the trio's members take an open-arms approach to music and trust their audiences to do the same. A few weeks ago, they started their monthly Eastside Luv show with "Ojitos Traidores," a classic popularized by the ranchera star Javier Solís. Trio Ellas gave the familiar tune a sharp new twist by setting it to a whirling, Middle Eastern arrangement.

Then, a few numbers later, came a real curveball. Plucking her violin as if it were a Rickenbacker guitar and pumping a multi-effects pedal, Gonzalez segued into a laid-back, beautifully harmonized version of "Ticket to Ride." Rather than taking a mere novelty approach to its experiments, the group seems to be chewing over the popular music of the Americas — including bluegrass, Patsy Cline, Eydie Gormé and the Mexican bolero composer Armando Manzanero — from a bilingual contemporary perspective.

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Individually and in various combinations, its members spent many years playing in mariachi ensembles, rock bands and experimenting in other genres. Cortez, who grew up in El Monte, is a fourth-generation mariachi musician (and recreational pilot) who learned to play mariachi as a youngster by hanging out at her relatives' houses while her uncles held jam sessions. Before joining Trio Ellas, she belonged to a much-larger female mariachi outfit, one of a limited number in the United States.

"It was so many girls and there were so many fights," said Cortez, who can make the fretless, fat-stringed guitarrón sound as lithe and supple as a jazz bass.

Although it still plays mariachi numbers, Trio Ellas specializes in witty and surprising reimaginings of pop and regional music standards, Latin and non-Latin, in Spanish and English. One set might include a gypsy-jazz, Django Reinhardt-style version of "Bésame Mucho," with harmonies that suggest the Andrews Sisters; a samba by Brazilian guitarist-composer Luiz Bonfá; "No Me Queda Más" by the Tejano pop star Selena; and the Eagles' "Hotel California."

"A lot of groups can't step out of their set list," Gonzalez said. "We can play different keys. We can improvise. We can do different things."

Chris Sampson, founding director of Thornton's popular music program, said that Trio Ellas, through its highly polished musicianship and eagerness to absorb many styles and genres, has avoided being pigeonholed as it evolves.

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"I get the sense that the trio had a sort of strategic notion that this diversity, this range, was something that they really wanted to foster," Sampson said. But the trio's aggressively innovative take on music, Sampson said, doesn't feel forced gimmicky. "So it's all made for musical purposes rather than, 'Isn't this cool we're doing 'Ticket to Ride'?"

Trio Ellas started coming together when Amaro, through a friend, recruited Gonzalez to fill in at a gig. For a while, they were the only two female members of an all-male mariachi group.

"What I liked about Stephanie was she wasn't like other mariachi girls that are like, 'Oh, yeah, OK, you want me to do this or that,'" Gonzalez said. "I like that she stands up for herself. That's something that I believe in, truly."

Amaro, who grew up in a musical family in Whittier and played in a rock band called the Fresas with her sister, agreed that mariachi can be a macho world where women musicians are expected to keep quiet and do as they're told.

"When you show up to a gig, they act like, 'Oh, you get to play with me. Great — like, why don't you tune your guitar?'" she said. "Once we started doing other things, it was like, 'See you later, dudes!'"

Trio Ellas' skill has been attracting notice from pop stars such as Lady Gaga, who asked the band to back her on "Americano," from the "Puss in Boots" soundtrack. Ben Gibbard recruited them to help out on his high-lonesome crooner, "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)."

Next year, the group plans to release a record of original songs. But for now, summer's here and the wedding season is in full bloom. Amaro recently fielded one couple's request for a wedding reception musical lineup that would include songs from Rascal Flatts, Justin Bieber and "The Phantom of the Opera."

"Most of the time we'll do it," Amaro said, "if it's not too short a notice and we have the time to learn the song."


24th annual Mariachi USA Festival

Where: Hollywood Bowl

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

Price: $28 to $184



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