It’s an eternal question for musicians who have roots in a traditional sound: is it a goal to cross over to the pop mainstream, or is it better to stay within your own culture? It’s a question that La Santa Cecilia has faced, but one of its members confirmed that it’s not a concern.
“Our main goal when we started was just to be authentic,” said Miguel “Oso” Ramirez, percussionist with La Santa Cecilia, in an interview from his home in Los Angeles. “For us, we don’t really think, ‘Oh man, are we an Anglo band or strictly a Latino band?’ We just want to be as honest as possible in what we play.”
This group that merges many styles, but does indeed stay true to its Latin American roots, headlines the Dia de los Muertos tour. Sponsored by Artown, the touring party stops in Reno on Nov. 1 at Cargo inside Whitney Peak Hotel.
Ramirez said the band usually does a tour around the Day of the Dead, but decided to join up with this one once they were invited.
“When you do tours like this with other bands, it opens up the audience to different styles,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for each group on this tour and I think it’s awesome that we’re all a little different from each other. We share the same community with the bands, as people, but I love that we’re each showing something completely different.”
From busking to theaters
Ramirez has been with the group, in its own quest to do things differently, since La Santa Cecilia’s inception. It also includes singer Marisol Hernandez, accordion/requinto player Pepe Carlos and bassist Alex Bendana. The group also tours with two guitarists -- Roberto Carlos and Marco Sandoval -- as well as a second drummer, Andres Torres.
Named for the patron saint of musicians, La Santa Cecilia started when Carlos and Hernandez met while both were busking separately on the famous Olvera Street in Los Angeles. They soon started playing together and eventually met the other members, including Ramirez.
“Marisol and Pepe had been singing together since they were 15, just doing boleros and rancheros there on Olvera Street,” Ramirez said. “It’s right in the heart of downtown, so we would all see them and we just eventually intertwined.”
Once they started playing both clubs and parties a decade ago, La Santa Cecilia started to go nationwide, and eventually international. They have released seven albums to date, including their latest from this year, “Amar y Vivar.” It’s an unusual live album, as it features recordings in open-air plazas, cantinas and historic theaters in Mexico City. Ramirez said this approach brings the band back to its roots on its 10th anniversary.
“This album is just a symbol of how we started up busking on the street,” he said. “It gave us an opportunity to come back to that stuff. Up until five or six years ago, we would still busk on the street and really loved that. There’s no filter and you have that direct connection with the people. And Marisol has such a strong and passionate voice. She grew up singing with her family and had to sing loud to get people to pay attention”
Modern and traditional, too
Unlike its previous albums, “Amor” features all traditional songs. Ramirez said that deciding to not write songs this time was another connection to the group’s foundations, as well as parts of its present day.
“When we hang out now, all we do is play those songs. That’s just how we live, how we keep connected to one another and our friends in L.A. We have a strong connection to our roots here. Our parents came to this country and we were lucky enough to be given the life we have here, to allow us to follow our dream and be part of the culture here as well.”
When it comes to its live shows, though, La Santa Cecilia doesn’t just stick with traditions. They pull songs from across the spectrum of music and weave it into their own sound. Ramirez said this is indicative of the generation he and the band are in.
“I think people in this generation have a filter,” he said. “It’s a bi-cultural generation. You can see that a mariachi band is doing some Dominican sounds or something from Puerto Rico or even do country songs in English. That kind of process is very natural for us. We are constantly processing two cultures, so for us to blend them together is just super fun.”
The other tour mates
The other artists on the Dia de los Muertos Tour have their own takes on Mexican and pop culture. The Mexico City band Mexrrissey takes its portmanteau name at face value: it plays songs by U.K. singer Morrissey in Spanish, closing the loop on the often fanatical following that the singer has in Latin America.
Led by musician Camilo Lara, best known for his work with the electro-Latin group Mexican Institute of Sound, Mexrrisey features songs from Morrissey’s storied solo career, including “Everyday is Like Sunday” and “The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get.” The group has played European festivals and toured in the U.S. with its fun blend of gloomy Britpop and bright mariachi-style horns.
Opening the show is Mariachi Flor de Toloache. They are the first all-women mariachi group and are based in New York City. Featuring singers Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol, the Flores are a multi-cultural group that like the tour headliner blends traditional music with other influences such as rock, jazz and hip-hop. They play both traditional and modern mariachi covers as well as write their own material.
Flor de Toloache recently open both European and U.S. tours for The Arcs, an indie-rock band fronted by Black Keys singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach. They were also nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2015 for their self-titled debut album.
Ramirez had high praise for both of his tour mates.
“We’ve known Camilo for a while and have done a bunch of events together. Mexrrissey does a great tribute to Morrissey, who is a big thing in Mexican American committees. He’s almost like a God figure to a lot of people. It’s really cool and I dig what they are doing. And, we’ve known Flor de Toloache for two years. They are just super talented and sing and play great. We’re great friends and we run into each other all the time.”