|Rámirez, Carlos, Hernandez, Bendaña. Photo courtesy of Criteria Entertainment|
by Susan Kepecs
Saint Cecilia, venerated in the Roman Catholic church since the fourth century AD, was said to summon angels through song. For that reason she became the patron saint of musicians. Plaza Garibaldi, in mammoth Mexico City, is mariachi heartland, and every November 22, at the stroke of midnight, hundreds of mariachis gather there to serenade their guardian angel. Turning the tables, on Friday, October 6, at Overture’s Capitol Theater, Madison gets serenaded by La Santa Cecilia – a sizzling grammy-winning band out of East LA.
The core group is Alex Bendaña on bass, José “Pepe” Carlos on acordion and requinto, Miguel “Oso” Ramírez on percussion, and song sorceress Marisol (“la Marisoul”) Hernandez. The band’s been around for about a decade; its third album, Treinta Días, was the one that got the Grammy, for “best Latin rock / alt / urban,” in 2014. That made-up category doesn’t begin to describe La Santa Cecilia. Let’s try “So-Cal mexicanidad-plus, un poco jazzeado” instead.
On Treinta Días – a sophisticated, inventive album—there’s a cumbia called “La Negra” that features Marisol scatting like Ella Fitzgerald. And a heartbreaking song titled “ICE el hielo” about the uncertainties of “undocumented” life in the face of our famously heavy-handed federal immigration and customs enforcers. It’s a story song – a corrido – with rhythmic, melodic, and social consciousness echoes of those great old tunes by Panamanian singer/songwriter/activist Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar. “ICE” comes with a gem of a music video, directed by award-winning indie filmmaker Alex Rivera, which should be be subtitled in English and decreed required daily viewing in the White House.
Even better than Treinta Días is the band’s latest offering, Amar y Vivir. Recorded live in Mexico City early this year, this album – essentially La Santa Cecilia’s rendering of some of the greatest Mexican standards – is mind-bogglingly lush. The set list – 11 covers plus one original that rings absolutely true to the theme – is killer. The title track is a classic ‘40s bolero written by Consuelo Velázquez. You don’t hear this song a lot in gringolandia, but eveyone in the world knows Velázquez’ most famous composition, “Besame Mucho.” Also on Amar y Vivir is “Amor Eterno,” done as a lament for its composer, el Divo de Juárez Juan Gabriel, who died just a year ago and left all of Mexico heartbroken. In the video – filmed at night, in Plaza Garibaldi – a tear rolls down Marisol’s cheek, and you can tell it’s for real. Plus there’s José Alfredo Jímenez’ irresistable “En en último trago,” a hard-drinking ranchera covered by some of the greatest artists to ever sing a mariachi song, like Lila Downs, Concha Buika (with Chucho Valdés on piano), Lola Beltrán, and the legendary Chavela Vargas.
La Santa Cecilia’s reverent compilation of archetypal Mexican songs is tempered lightly with complimentary flavors, including a nod to Tex-Mex and a bow to the king of Motown, Smokey Robinson, because you got soul if you come from LA. You can check it all out on La Santa Cecilia’s YouTube channel – the stunning videos of these songs, shot at a series of iconic Mexico City locations, add a supersized load of sabor.
A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to interview bass player Bendaña over the phone. Here’s how our conversation went:
CulturalOyster: Have you been with La Santa Cecilia since the beginning?
Bendaña: I came in a couple of months after they started the band. Marisol and Pepe grew grew up together, learning to play traditional music. They would go out and play on Placita Olvera [a market street in the heart of old LA, established in 1930 as a shrine to the city’s Mexican history]. Then they met Miguel, the percussionist. I was playing in Afro-Latin ensembles at Cal State LA at the time. I came into the picture a couple of months after they started playing together as La Santa Cecilia. I had an instant connection with them. We all had this urgency to play – we’d all been in different bands before we got together, and we all wanted to write our own songs.
CulturalOyster: What made you pick the bass as your instrument?
Bendaña: In junior high I had a friend who was already a musician. He invited me to his house one day. He had a bass and keyboards – he was already in a norteño band. He showed me the bass, he said “hey man, you wanna learn how to play this instrument?” I said sure, so he let me take it home for a week. I didn’t know I could actually play an instrument and once I started I realized it’s a form of expression. It helped guide me to where I needed to be – it helped me stay out of trouble. I started playing in reggae bands and I was playing norteño at weddings and quinceañeras and then I went to college and learned Afro-Cuban jazz and Brazilian.
CulturalOyster: So you switched from norteño to reggae and Afro-Cuban, and now you’re playing mostly Mexican music again.
Bendaña: Thanks to my friends I grew up with the roots, las raíces. They were playing Juan Gabriel, they were playing José José, and lots of cumbias. I didn’t realize till later how enriched my childhood was in music. When we’re kids we think oh man, my friends’ music, you know, what their parents are into, is so boring, and then when you get older you realize oh man, this music is such beautiful stuff – I fell in love with it.
CulturalOyster: I wasn’t aware of La Santa Cecilia before Treinta Días won the Grammy. They called the category something like Latin alt-rock, and the media described the band “cumbia, reggae, soul, tango...” I’m a purist – I’d never have been drawn to that description, which sounds like so many dime-a-dozen Latin fusion bands on the world music circuit these days. But Treinta Días is so much better, so much more sophisticated than that description. So – my question is, since I really don’t know – what was La Santa Cecilia like before that album?
Bendaña: It was really diverse. Marisol and Pepe had been playing rancheras and boleros – traditional Mexican; Miguel was playing in funk and soul bands, and when I met them I was playing jazz and Afro-Latin. The great thing was we all had different inputs. It was kind of chaotic at first. We’d be playing different rhythms and Marisol would come in and sing like a mariachi or do rock because she really loved stuff from the ‘60s, like Janis Joplin. It was creative and chaotic and like cooking. Everybody would put in their different ingredients and sometimes it’d be flavorful and sometimes it was like “hmm, I don’t know about that.” But it led us to create our own identity. We all grew up so much with Treinta Días. That album really defined us as a bicultural band – we’re all bilingual kids of immigrant parents and we’re all rich from the diversity of having grown up in LA.
CulturalOyster: I like Treinta Días a lot, but Amar y Vivir is a whole other story. Anybody who can put José Alfredo Jiménez, Juan Gabriel, and Smokey Robinson on the same album is my friend for life. But more than that – this album is the real thing, and it’s everything this band is – mexicano, chicano, angelino – without being fusion at all. Smokey’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me” is done so honestly – and it’s exactly what Poncho Sanchez does, playing Cal Tjader and James Brown in the same set. How did the set list for the album get picked?
Bendaña: Marisol and Pepe grew up playing those songs – “Amar y Vivir,” “Nuestro Juramento” – that’s what they started with on Calle Olvera. They’d pass the bucket and people would request them. And all of us were playing those songs for weddings and funerals long before La Santa Cecilia, so they’ve been ingrained in the repertoire from the start. Our foundation is really traditional music. So when we decided to do this album it was really easy to choose.
We added a few others, like Café Tacvba’s “Ingrata” – we love that band, it’s a big influence on us. They fuse a lot of styles and their version of “Ingrata” is punky, but to us it really sounds like a ranchera so we wanted to strip it down and sing it like José Alfredo Jiménez would want to sing it. And Marisol singing it makes it even cooler.
CulturalOyster: Is your stop in Madison essentially part of the Amar y Vivir tour? Will you mostly be doing the songs off that album? Given what’s going on politically you kind of have to do “ICE El Hielo,” right?
Bendaña: We hope that one day we don’t sing that song, but – it depends. We do play it most of the time, and we definitely talk about the issue and what’s going on around us. But we play a little from all our albums onstage – our shows are a mix, but there’s a section where we do Amar y Vivir so we can share those traditional songs. They have a message, too. The topic of immigration important, but we also need to remember where we come from. The more we remember our roots, the more confidence and pride we have in who we are. We want the next generations to know where the music comes from and how much power it has – how it’s our identity, and the identity of the place we come from.
CulturalOyster: The publicity for Amar y Vivir calls it a “visual album.” Obviously the YouTube channel fills that role, but is the album itself a double – CD / DVD?
Bendaña: There’s a version in Mexico that was released with a documentary that shows how the songs were recorded. In the States so far there’s just a vinyl record. Since we were going back to the old songs we wanted a traditional album, with an A side and a B side.
Making it was an amazing experience – being in Mexico City and being able to record live so we could see the vibrancy of the city and really feel its vibe while the recording was going on. It’s completely live – we only did two or three takes of any song. The imperfections are what make this album perfect.
CulturalOyster: The band often performs with other featured artists. Is just the core group coming to Madison?
Bendaña: It’s the core group plus we always have a guest guitarist and drummer, so you’ll get the full experience of La Santa Cecilia. And we love our music. Our shows always make people dance and cry, we make people feel any emotion you can imagine.
CulturalOyster: One last question. What’s next for La Santa Cecilia?
Bendaña: We’ve been doing so many beautiful things – so many opportunities have been given to us to play our music – but one cool thing is that we’re going to play the Hollywood Bowl! That’s a big thing for us ‘cause we’re an LA band. We’re super excited – you go there to see Smokey Robinsin or a mariachi group and then one day you’re playing there! We’re going with Café Tacvba and Mon Laferte. We’re also going back to Mexico for a couple of festivals – that’s really important to us because Mexico has really opened its arms to La Santa Cecilia. We’ve got a couple of shows in Ireland and we just did a couple in Canada. We’ve only just begun – we want to get to Europe, and to South America. We’re so excited to be sharing our music all the time.
 I’m looking at a map of damages from the 7.1 earthquake that rocked Mexico City on Sept. 19 – it’s posted on AristeguiNoticias.com, one of the best news sources in Mexico. Although the central city is covered in markers indicating collapsed buildings, gas leaks, and more, no damages have been reported in the immediate vicinity of Plaza Garibaldi – Santa Cecilia at work.
 The lyrics to this song of love and rejection, written from the point of view of a man, contain a threat of gun violence to the woman. This wouldn’t be surprising in an old ranchera, and Café Tacvba was a young band when it wrote the song. Social consciousness of the problem of femicide in Mexico has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and Café Tacvba stopped playing the tune. La Santa Cecilia has worked miracles on this song, and on Amar y Vivir it’s sung as a duet by Marisol and sultry Chilean songstress Mon Laferte (who now lives in Mexico City), which shifts its implications into new territory.