Klezmer music? Gypsy jazz? Covers of Doors and Beatles tunes? Clearly, this isn’t your typical Latin music group. Yes, La Santa Cecilia plays its fair share of cumbia, bolero, bossa nova, tango and rumba, but rather than being mere preservers of tradition, these six Los Angeles musicians are purveyors of what they call a “modern-day creative hybrid of Latin culture, rock and world music.”
According to the ensemble’s guitarist, Gloria Estrada, the diversity of La Santa Cecilia’s repertoire is a reflection of its members’ backgrounds. “The great thing about L.A. is that you can go to one part of town, and you’re in Little Tokyo; you go a few blocks, and you’re in a Mexican community, or a Jewish, Korean, El Salvadoran or Central American community,” she says. The musician adds that five members of the group are of Mexican descent, and bassist Alex Bendana was born in Venezuela, “but he was raised in L.A. by Mexican people—L.A. has a lot of Mexicans—so he’s an honorary Mexican. So we’re definitely bicultural in the sense that we have our parents’ background and culture and so forth, and at the same time, we grew up with American influence, hearing all kinds of music, eating all kinds of food and seeing different holidays be honored around L.A.” Various members of La Santa Cecilia are fans of rock, jazz, heavy metal, mariachi and Afro-Cuban music. These divergent points of reference can lead the musicians to perceive their own material in differing ways. “Sometimes we argue about how to classify a song: ‘Oh, that’s a cumbia.’ ‘No, it’s more like a merengue!’” Estrada says. “Based on our background and our ears, we want to classify it as something else. But it allows us to season a song to our own [taste].”
Whatever you might want to call it, La Santa Cecilia’s sound has generated a sizeable buzz since the group’s inception four years ago. Early on, the band got a career boost when its song “Chicle” was featured on the Showtime series Weeds, and an on-camera appearance on the HBO show Entourage last year further served to raise mainstream America’s awareness of the band. Being huge fans of the latter show, Estrada and percussionist Miguel Ramirez were especially psyched about the TV appearance. “We used to watch Entourage for years,” says Estrada, “so when we got the call, [it was like], ‘Oh, man—from the couch to the set!’”
In spite of getting a bit of mass media exposure, the group maintains a distinct grassroots ethos. One of the most unique examples of this, is the band’s novel approach to packaging its albums: each CD cover is hand-painted by band members, friends or fans. Thus, no two covers are alike. In an era when people tend to download music as opposed to purchasing CDs, these one-of-a-kind covers are a clever way to make a handheld product appealing to consumers. “Records had great artwork, or you could pull out a CD cover, and it would pull out into a poster,” says Estrada. “I think people kind of miss that.”
Interested music lovers can listen to La Santa Cecilia at lasantacecila.com—or, better yet, pick up a hand-decorated CD at the group’s Moe’s Alley gig on Friday, May 6. No jazz afficionados, metalheads, world music fans or classic rock lovers will be turned away.
La Santa Cecilia plays at 9 p.m. Friday, May 6, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Cumbia Tokeson opens. $10. 470-1854. moesalley.com.
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