By David Templeton
Violinist Queen Kyla is currently doing for cross-cultural musical mash-ups what John Travolta once did for Angel Flight pants and disco dancing. As the violinist of the popular mariachi/heavy-metal band Metalachi—pronounced “met-ul-AH-chee—Kyla has won critical praise and popular acclaim for her electrifying onstage presence, outrageous costumes, and passionate, exhilarating playing.
Formed several years ago in either Los Angeles, Metalachi plays heavy metal cover songs in the style of mariachi, adding over-the-top visuals and rock-show theatrics that are as much fun to watch as their music is to listen to.
“Getting a little crazy is one of the fun things about playing with Metalachi,” Kyla admitted last October, waiting backstage before a gig at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California.
Originally from Texas, Queen Kyla joined Metalachi in January of 2016, replacing the band’s original violinist Maximilian “Dirty” Sanchez. Classically trained, Kyla started on the piano at age four, but switched to the viola at the age of six, and eventually to the violin. One inspiration, she admits, was the Hungarian Waltzes of Brahms, which she was exposed to at a young age thanks to Loony Toons. As Kyla tells it, she was first introduced to the Hungarian Dances in the 1943 cartoon “Pigs in a Polka,” an adaptation of the Three Little Pigs story.
“One of the pigs played the violin,” she recalls. “Even the Big Bad Wolf played the violin. But what I loved about it was the music. I watched that cartoon over and over on a VHS tape, so I could learn it and play it. Classical music really was my first love.”
“The different styles I play compliment each other. For example, with mariachi music, there is definitely a bit of roughness to the style, a little less of the sweet vibrato and the gentle bows that you get in a lot of classical music. And rock, of course, is rock. It’s aggressive, which is fun to play, and a good skill to have.”
Eventually, after years of training, music camps, and youth ensembles, Kyla began to play professionally, but all the while, she says she voraciously listened to all kinds of other styles of music as well, including heavy metal . . . and mariachi.
“I always loved the sound of mariachi,” she says, “and one day someone heard me playing, and suggested I try mariachi. They offered to let me come play with them, and said they’d teach me, so I did that. I loved it. I fell in love with mariachi right away.”
According to Kyla, straddling those two worlds was not difficult, but it required having a clear sense of the similarities and differences between the different styles. And when she was asked to join Metalachi, an entirely different style was added to that mix.
“I think the different styles I play compliment each other,” Kyla says. “Like, for example, with mariachi music, there is definitely a bit of roughness to the style, a little less of the sweet vibrato and the gentle bows that you get in a lot of classical music. And rock, of course, is rock. It’s aggressive, which is fun to play, and a good skill to have. Now that I’ve played both mariachi and rock, whenever I go back to classical, I hear a difference.”
That difference, as she’s already suggested, has to do with aggression.
“As a classical musician, even when you think you are playing aggressively, it’s usually not really that aggressive,” she explains. “There is a difference between aggressive classical and aggressive mariachi, or even aggressive metal playing. They all have a different tone, and it’s been interesting to see how my style of playing has developed by mixing them all up.”
Speaking of mixing things up, Kyla says it’s vital with a mash-up band like Metalachi to maintain a very clear balance between the different musical styles.
“We work hard to make sure we don’t become too metal or too mariachi,” she says. “It’s important that we find balance, and sometimes, when we are working on a new piece, it takes us a little while to do that.”
In performance, Queen Kyla plays a Fusion 5, built by Joe Domjan of Wood Violins.
“Joe made it just for me,” she says. “Wood Violins is hopefully going to carry them sometime, but this is a one-of-a-kind.”
She admits that she’s still surprised, on occasion, at the direction her musical career has taken her. The biggest surprise, though, is the realization that she’s become a bit of a role model.
“I have a lot of parents bring their children to our shows,” she says, laughing, “and a lot of them are little girls. They come up to me and hug me after shows, and tell me they want to play the violin like I do. It makes me feel good, knowing that children that small are being inspired to play music. I never expected I would be come a role model for little kids, especially in a group like this, but I guess I am—and that’s really meaningful to me.”