La Santa Cecilia offers a delightfully mixed-up take on Latin music

The core members of La Santa Cecilia (from left): Miguel Ramírez, La Marisoul, Alex Bendana, and José “Pepe” Carlos.
Humberto Howard
The core members of La Santa Cecilia (from left): Miguel Ramírez, La Marisoul, Alex Bendana, and José “Pepe” Carlos.

“Treinta Días” is the kind of album that, 30 years ago, would have fallen through the cracks, both blessed and cursed by its diversity. Spirited cumbias collide with romantic boleros, while rock riffs give way to jazzy interludes and klezmer breakdowns. Lyrics in Spanish bleed into ones in English, and the only common thread is that it’s all very exciting and even a bit disorienting.

It’s the debut record by La Santa Cecilia, whose four core members are young, multicultural, and bilingual and synthesizing the sounds they soaked up on the streets of Los Angeles.

That’s where La Santa Cecilia formed about six years ago and has flourished through a circuitous path that has taken the band from performing at restaurants and weddings, through lineup changes, and finally to getting signed to a major label (Universal).


“We’re very proud of being a band from LA,” says singer Marisol Hernández, who simply goes by La Marisoul (and that phonetic riff on her first name says it all). “We hope that our music does represent that. We’re not doing original cumbia or completely traditional music. It’s our own interpretation of how we experience music in the city. We proudly represent that beautiful mixture of people in Los Angeles.”

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The band, which plays the Museum of Fine Arts’ Concerts in the Courtyard series on Wednesday, also includes Miguel Ramírez on percussion, Alex Bendana on bass, and José “Pepe” Carlos on accordion and requinto.

They all knew each other from other bands around town, but Marisoul and Carlos had met as teenagers and started playing together. The lineup solidified around a shared goal: No one was interested in making just one kind of music.

“It’s all influenced by Latin American and traditional Mexican music, but we wanted to rock out, too, and experiment with blues and jazz and everyone’s influences,” Marisoul says.

“I remember being a teenager and thinking, ‘I’m a punk-rock person. I hate other music.’ Whatever you’re into is what you’re all about and that’s it,” she adds. “But I found myself having two lives — during the week, I’d wear black and listen to classic rock, and then on the weekends I’d be wearing a flower in my hair and singing traditional music. I think we wanted to celebrate all the love we have for different music. It’s cool to like everything.”


Carlos had a similar experience.

“When I was growing up, I always wanted to be in a rock band,” he says, “and I always wanted to have a cumbia band, too. I liked Nirvana and Metallica and Carlos Vives. I think in this band, I get to explore all the rhythms that I wanted to play. That’s what we’re doing in La Santa Cecilia. We’re not putting any rules on our music and just expressing ourselves as individuals.”

Bendana, who was born in Venezuela to Nicaraguan parents and grew up in LA, remembers how his tastes evolved. There was the salsa and rock he heard at home, then there was a phase of playing with a ska band before he picked up the bass and ventured into norteño music, and in college he learned about jazz and Afro-Latin music. “I just want to play all of it,” he says of those disparate interests.

In that sense, “Treinta Días” brings to mind the early, gloriously shape-shifting work of Café Tacuba, the Mexican alt-rock pioneers who are a touchstone for La Santa Cecilia. (“We love Café Tacuba!” Marisoul gushes, a sentiment her bandmates echo.)

“When I first heard ‘Re’ [Café Tacuba’s 1994 album], I always wished I could be in a band that made records like that,” Marisoul says.


As its frontwoman, Marisoul, who was born and raised in LA but also lived in Mexico (“I feel comfortable here and there, in English and Spanish”), anchors La Santa Cecilia with a voice that’s all over the place. She’s a belter, a crooner, a seductress — often within the confines of a single song. She gets compared to Janis Joplin as much as she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as bold singers such as Lila Downs.

She credits her early days as a performer with helping her develop her booming voice.

“When I started singing, my mom was the one who taught me my first song. She never told me about [singing loud]. She just said, ‘Sing in key,’” Marisoul says, adding that she had to sing out in order to be heard (and to earn some money while busking). “I think all those years singing on the street and in restaurants where you don’t have PA systems to help you really shaped me.”

She reflects fondly on those days when it wasn’t clear how La Santa Cecilia would nurture its far-flung ambitions.

“I feel very grateful that we’ve been able to find each other,” she says. “We really want to make music and see how far we can mix up styles and how far we can go with the stories we want to tell people through our music.”

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.