Grammy-Winning Band La Santa Cecilia is Musically Blessed
“Standing on the edge of time, wondering who we are supposed to be,” Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez pensively sings on “Here We Go Again,” a poignant ballad off Buenaventura, La Santa Cecilia’s latest, and finest album. “Watching all the days go by, feeling like we’ve only just begun.” The wondrous travels, duets, and awards the band experienced since forming out of Placita Olvera nearly a decade ago has come like a whirlwind. If any song could pinpoint La Santa Cecilia in this moment in time, it’s the soft lament of a musician’s life always on the move, one they wouldn’t trade for the world.
Marisoul, requinto/accordionist Jose "Pepe" Carlos, percussionist Miguel "Oso" Ramirez and bassist Alex Bendaña sit in a West Hollywood office busily planning out all the details for a month-long tour that will have them living out of their suitcases, but take a moment to reminisce. “I remember being in Oso’s living room, because that’s where we would rehearse, and we just wanted to play and do everything!” says Marisoul of the early days. “We had intentions to be where we are now, we just had no idea what is was going to look like or how it was going to happen,” Oso adds.
Back when they were Latino twentysomethings from East LA, La Santa Cecilia created a local buzz around 2008 mesmerizing Latin Alternative lovers with an infectious blend of norteños, cumbias, boleros and even some klezmer! Marisoul exuded charisma, taking the stage wearing bright pink tutus and retro horn-rimmed glass. She commanded her vocals to boom with range, tinge with rasp and soften with sultriness at all the right moments. La Santa Cecilia quickly made a name for themselves during Mucho Wednesdays at La Cita, a popular downtown LA bar and released a six-song self-titled EP with painting parties to uniquely decorate each cover.
Two years later, La Santa Cecilia signed with Grammy-award winning producer Sebastian Krys’ new music entertainment company, recorded Noche Y Citas, and earned a Latin Grammy nomination for “La Negra,” its lead single in 2011. The band signed a major label with Universal Latin in 2013 and won a Grammy award the following year. “We wanted to be that band from LA,” says Oso, railing off a list of iconic acts from The Doors to Ozomatli. “We wanted to be like those kind of bands that did something unique that represented a certain time in the city.”
But growing up sometimes means saying goodbye. La Santa Cecilia couldn’t play shows every weekend in LA if they wanted to take their music to new audiences across the country and into Latin America. “I miss playing in Los Angeles, but I remember that a musician once told me, ‘El santo de casa no hace milagros; make them miss you so that they really come to see you,’” says Marisoul. Taking new stages meant winning over audiences anew. On their first trip to Mexico years back, suspicious eyes greeted them in Guadalajara until Marisoul belted a ranchera halfway through the show that turned the tide. La Santa Cecilia returned to Mexico City earlier this year to a much more festive and familiar atmosphere. “We went out to some clubs and it was like we were going to La Cita again!” says Oso.
The band’s travels have taken them through Colombia, the birthplace of cumbia, and Argentina, home to accordion-centered tango music. They’ve been on the road so long, especially after winning a Grammy, that when time came to start writing songs for Buenaventura, precious time in LA became too much of a distraction. “We were so involved with trying to be home with our family, friends, lovers and todo eso,” says Marisoul. “We rented an Airbnb in Joshua Tree. I took everyone’s phones, putting them away in a drawer because we had to focus.” Departing for the desert worked; the band wrote much of the material for Buenaventura there.
“I’ve actually been listening to our old albums a lot and just tripping out,” says Oso. “We did a really good job of trying to understand who we were and who we wanted to become. In ‘Buenaventura,’ I get a sense of us maturing a lot musically and finally figured out how to mix those styles.” Back in the day, La Santa ventured through klezmer, Bossa Nova and rock all within one signature song. The genre-bending approach found in Buenaventura is more subtle, offering hints of country through slide guitar on “Here We Go Again” and timely horns that bring swing music into “I Won’t Cry For You.”
La Santa Cecilia hasn’t forsaken experimental mixes, only refined them, a notion bolstered by the Latin Grammy and Grammy categories they’ve found themselves. “Through the years, we got nominated in 2011 for Best Tropical Song, then our album got nominated two years later for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album and now it’s Pop, Rock!” Bendaña laughs.
When time came to pursue coveted collaborations, La Santa Cecilia landed features with rock legends Fito Páez and Enrique Bunbury. But the Latino Arts String Program of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a wonderful mariachi academy for kids in the city, topped their list. The two crossed paths when the band toured through the city, wondering if there were even any Mexicans in Milwaukee to begin with but became presently surprised during a set of performances and workshops with the program. “It fills us with orgullo that we met this kids,” says Marisoul. “These kids are like world class musicians!” Oso adds.
When La Santa Cecilia returned to Milwaukee, they crammed more than 20 children from the program into a recording studio. The heartwarming outcome became “Caminante Nocturno,” easily the most endearing song on Buenaventura. In the past year, Carlos and Marisoul became parents to their own children. “This band is our baby, totalmente,” says Marisoul, “But I never thought I was going to be a mom and still play music.” Carlos also became a father, with Oso and Bendaña being like tíos to the kiddos. “There’s something inside of you that changes,” says Carlos. “Hay que echarle más ganas!”
And the musicians aren’t resting on their laurels, eager to tour Europe and Japan, where a subculture devours all things East LA. Hell, the band still isn’t finished conquering its own hometown, either! La Santa Cecilia took the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall last year in a big homecoming concert, but still has other iconic venues in sight like The Greek Theater and The Wiltern. Looking towards the future, the musicians ponder another cover album or perhaps teaming with a film director.
Before the opening the next chapter, La Santa Cecilia’s current tour brings them through Costa Mesa for a Día de los Muertos celebration at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. “It’s always been a special date for us,” says Marisoul. “We’re going to get to celebrate Día de los Muertos with family, con los amigos.” They share the stage with Perla Batalla and Quetzal and are planning a special set, especially with 2016 taking too many musical icons like Juan Gabriel away from the living. “Y despues fandango en SanTana!” says Marisoul. “But that place is gone now!” Oso reminds. La Bodeguita, a warehouse space for son jarocho gatherings is now a pile of construction dirt waiting to be turned into affordable housing. Oso also reminds Marisoul that the band has to fly out the next morning for their next show, either way. There they go, again.
La Santa Cecilia performs with Queztal, Perla Battalla, and Pacifico Dance Company at Segestrom Concert Hall, 600 Towne Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; scfta.org, Wed., Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m. All ages. Tickets start at $39.
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