Last October, La Santa Cecilia played a show in Ketchikan, Alaska, the last place you would expect to see an indie-Latin band from Los Angeles. After the show they hit the town and were lured into a little restaurant by the sounds of local musicians playing “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”
Then something surreal happened. The random Alaskan duo started playing “El Hielo (ICE),” a single off La Santa Cecilia's 2013 album, Treinta Días. The song, about undocumented immigrants and their struggles to provide for themselves and their families, became an anthem for immigration reform. La Santa Cecilia performed it at rallies all over the country, including one in Washington, D.C.
“It's amazing how it got there. How a song like that can carry and travel,” says Jose “Pepe” Carlos, La Santa Cecilia's accordionist.
Not long ago, La Santa Cecilia were one of the best-kept secrets of the L.A. music scene. They grew their audience one show at a time, playing small clubs and parties, until they became one of the most in-demand groups for outdoor summer festivals and cultural institutions all over Los Angeles. If you wanted a Latin band with an eclectic sound representing L.A.'s diversity, one that could bring together a mixed, multicultural audience, La Santa Cecilia was it.
Just as they seemed to reach a ceiling, the band announced in early 2013 that they had signed to major label Universal Latino, home to such big names in Latin music as J Balvin and Juanes.
Signing to a major label can mark the beginning of the end for some indie bands. La Santa Cecilia knew some of their fans were skeptical, but teaming up with Grammy-winning producer Sebastian Krys for their major-label debut set them on the right path.
“People hear 'label' and they think of this machine,” explains Krys, whose other credits include production and mixing work for Alejandro Sanz and Kinky. “One thing frustrating is you have to make the label understand what they're signing and not turn it into something else.”
Without allowing anyone from the label to listen to any tracks beforehand, La Santa Cecilia and Krys turned in the completed album, Treinta Días. It went on to win a Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album in 2014, which felt like a triumph not just for the band but also for all the L.A. fans, clubs, promoters and organizations who'd championed La Santa Cecilia over the years.
Now, La Santa Cecilia have developed into one of the city's most important musical ambassadors. Last year they played more than 130 shows, crisscrossing the United States, sometimes taking seven flights in a week. Though exhausting, it was exactly the adventure the band needed to inspire the songwriting on their next album.
“That's what's different this time. There's more intention with writing songs. We need amazing songs, not shitty ones,” says singer Marisol Hernandez, better known by her stage name, La Marisoul.
On Aug. 28, La Santa Cecilia released “I Won't Cry for You,” a single fusing swing and norteña rhythms with the addition of horns. “The song's about a change of heart,” Hernandez explains. “Everyone's been in a relationship and you're not feeling it. You wake up and feel different.” Later this month, they will release a second single, “Calaverita,” a song celebrating Dia de los Muertos.
To write these songs and all others on the forthcoming album, scheduled for a February release, the band set up a retreat at a tiny house in Joshua Tree. No phones, no Internet — just writing and reflecting on their tour experiences.
Playing all over the country, they often faced the challenge of performing for audiences that didn't know who they were. They approached it with the right mindset, always welcoming the test and never expecting to win over the crowd easily.
“We would play a norteña and they dance like it's country, then we play a cumbia and they dance salsa,” Carlos says.
The most inspiring moment on tour came when the band performed at the Latino Arts Auditorium on Milwaukee's south side, a neighborhood that's home to many of the city's nearly 100,000 Hispanic residents. Latino Arts engaged La Santa Cecilia in an educational workshop with its youth strings program, which gives Latino students access to instruments and music lessons, including a mariachi ensemble every week.
The students were starstruck meeting La Santa Cecilia, but when the band watched a rehearsal by the student ensemble, they were equally impressed by the incredible level at which these kids were playing.
“Oh shit! I feel so proud,” Hernandez remembers thinking. By the end of the rehearsal, tears of joy were running down the band's faces. They had to find a way to collaborate with the kids.
When planning for their upcoming album, producer Krys asked La Santa Cecilia to make a list of artists they wanted to feature on it, expecting a crazy wishlist of collaborators. But no: “They gave me the list, with the mariachi students from Milwaukee at No. 1,” he says.
The band returned to Milwaukee last winter to meet the students at a studio and collaborated on a song titled “Caminante Nocturno,” which will be featured on the upcoming album.
Krys, reflecting on the experience, says, “There are people all over this country preserving their culture and passing it down to their kids in places where you can easily lose touch with your identity.”
That was the real lesson La Santa Cecilia learned on their last tour. People you'll never meet in places you'll never go are struggling through the same issues, but the power of a song can travel and touch those people in ways you could never imagine.
“It bums me out how much violence is in the news. Police brutality, Donald Trump's stupid rants, journalists killed in Mexico. Things trend in my [social] feed, but nothing changes,” Hernandez says. “You may not be able to change the universe, but maybe you can change one person.”
Back in Los Angeles, some things have changed in the indie Latin scene. In a way, La Santa Cecilia going off the radar for a year may have been a good thing. It forced local promoters and festivals to expand and give opportunities to other bands making noise in the city, like Chicano Batman and Las Cafeteras.
When asked to name their favorite local artists, Hernandez and Carlos mention Afro-Latin funk band Jungle Fire, singer-songwriter Irene Diaz, tropical trio El-Haru Kuroi and eclectic Americana-jazz band The California Feetwarmers. “There's definitely something going on in L.A. that you need to check out, and it doesn't matter what style it is anymore,” Hernandez says.
As for what the future holds for La Santa Cecilia, she says, “We just want to make music that outlasts the years. To have a catalog of music that you stumble upon when you're old and fall in love with it.”