Is La Santa Cecilia the missing link between Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Costello?
The Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles quartet, which fuses pop, rock and Latin music styles, leaps borders with ease
Vocal dynamo Marisol Hernandez may not be the missing link between Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello and deceased Mexican human rights crusader Marisela Escobedo.
But she is definitely a vital musical link that connects them, much as her Grammy Award-winning band, La Santa Cecilia, bridges stylistic and geographical borders with impressive skill and ease.
The quartet, which won its first Grammy in 2013 for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album, performs a Halloween night concert Sunday at San Diego’s House of Blues. The show is in support of the band’s eighth album, the enchanting “Quiero Hacerte Feliz,” which features guest appearances by Mexico’s Lila Downs, Nicaragua’s Luis Enrique and Colombia’s Juanes.
“We opened a Los Lobos 40th anniversary show at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 2013, and — at the time — we’d only been together for six years,” said Hernandez, whose uses “La Marisoul” as her stage name.
“For us to have that same kind of longevity as a band would be the greatest thing for me, to continue to grow with my bandmates and leave behind a group of songs we feel proud of.”
Stealing the show
Los Lobos was suitably impressed by Hernandez. In 2018, the band invited her to perform with them in Los Angeles at “JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration,” an all-star Joni Mitchell concert that later aired as a PBS television special.
The final standing ovation for Joni Mitchell at Wednesday’s “JONI 75: A Birthday Celebration” came after 21 of her songs had been performed, even though the iconic Canadian troubadour did not sing one note or say a single word.
Although she was one of the least known performers in a 14-act lineup that included James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Norah Jones and Seal, Hernandez all but stole the show with her stunning reinvention of “Dreamland.”
An airy, percussion-driven song from Mitchell’s edgy 1977 album, “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter,” “Dreamland” was exuberantly delivered by Hernandez and Los Lobos. They performed it in the style of a traditional Mexican son jarocho folk-music standard from Veracruz.
Hernandez demonstrates a similar degree of bold invention on the recently released album “Spanish Model.”
A reimagined version of Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ 1978 debut album “This Year’s Model,” “Spanish Model” features an array of Latin-music stars who replace Costello’s singing with new, all-Spanish vocals. Hernandez’s version of Costello’s “Little Triggers,” retitled “Detonantes,” transforms the song with remarkable results.
Other artists on ‘Spanish Model’ include Oscar-winner Jorge Drexler and Menudo alum Draco Rosa; also reviewed is Sierra Ferrell’s superb debut album
“The Joni Mitchell concert was a huge challenge,” said Hernandez, who also sang Mitchell’s more conventionally written “Nothing Can Be Done” at the 2018 tribute concert.
“Joni’s lyrics are something else! It was only when I got to the rehearsals that Los Lobos told me I was singing both songs. It was an honor to be able to celebrate Joni alongside Los Lobos, who are a huge influence and who I admire very much.
“And Elvis Costello is such a prolific songwriter and versatile artist who can sing anything. He’s a big inspiration. With ‘Little Criminals,’ I was just trying to make people feel what Elvis makes me feel.”
Emotional impact and versatility are also key qualities of La Santa Cecilia, which in 2016 was joined on stage by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Appearing together at a benefit concert in the Baja town of Todo Santos, they performed “La Morena,” a 1929 Dominican Republic merengue classic.
‘I Want to Make You Happy’
La Santa Cecilia is now approaching its 15th anniversary. The band’s albums and concerts expertly blend a panoply of Latin-music styles with elements of rock, pop, jazz and more. Performed entirely in Spanish, the band’s warmly inviting new album makes its intentions perfectly clear with its title, “Quiero Hacerte Feliz,” which translates as “I Want To Make You Happy.”
This sentiment comes as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The resulting shutdown of live events saw La Santa Cecilia perform just one in-person concert last year, a drive-in concert at Cal State San Marcos.
“Music was our savior and our refuge in these dark times,” Hernandez said. “As was the case for many others, to see our livelihoods come to a complete stop was so hard for us.”
La Santa Cecilia percussionist Miguel “Oso” Ramirez agreed, adding: “Music is a way to maintain our sense of hope. It really gave us a sense of purpose during the pandemic and let us (connect with) people, from a distance. ... We saw a lot of people doing TikTok videos, or whatever they did, to express themselves and to connect with others.
“So, we made an album with a lot of dance music, a lot of cumbias. We thought: ‘If all we can do right now is be at home with our families and dance, let’s do that.’ But the ultimate intention was to play these songs for people, in person, and maintain the hope that we would become a live touring act again.”
Named for the patron saint of musicians, La Santa Cecilia was formed in 2007 in Los Angeles. Connecting with others proved easy, thanks to the group’s inviting stylistic blend and well-honed ensemble work. Hernandez’s striking singing, as poised as it is passionate, and her charismatic stage presence sealed the deal.
The foundation of La Santa Cecilia was laid a few years earlier when Hernandez and accordion and requinto player Jose “Pepe” Carlos met while busking on Olvera Street. It is located in the oldest part of downtown L.A. and has long been a bastion for Mariachi groups and Latin-music street musicians.
“I will forever be a busker!” Hernandez said, speaking by phone in a recent joint interview with Carlos, Ramirez and bassist Alex Bendaña. Except for Carlos, who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, the band’s members are native Southern Californians.
“I have had the chance to perform with La Santa Cecilia at the Hollywood Bowl Disney Hall and in other countries,” Hernandez continued. “But for me, there’s nothing like being on a street corner, singing and playing your songs, just to see if it connects with anybody.
“I feel it’s one of the truest forms of performance and entertainment. There’s no nonsense, no lights, no microphones, and I love it! I busked about a month ago, and it was really nice. I think great artistry can be gained playing music on the street.”
Since its inception, La Santa Cecilia has proudly used some of its songs to reflect the band members’ shared devotion to social and political equality. Or, as Hernandez memorably put it in a 2019 interview: “We are as American as apple pie and tacos.”
When the group accepted its 2013 Grammy, Hernandez told the audience: “We dedicate this award to the more than 11 million undocumented people that live and work really hard in this country, and that still need to live a more dignified life.”
La Santa Cecilia’s dedication is also reflected in “Luz,” a stirring ballad on the band’s new album. The song was written for “The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo,” a 2019 Netflix documentary about the film’s namesake — a Mexican human rights activist from Juarez, Mexico — who was murdered in 2010.
“We have the privilege to express ourselves through songs,” Hernandez said.
“And doing that together is something I feel very fortunate to do and to be part of. We’re a band of brothers and, as with any family, sometimes that can be difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
La Santa Cecilia, with Dueto Dos Rosas
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: House of Blues, 1055 Fifth Ave., downtown
Tickets: $27.50 to $65, plus service charges (attendees under 18 must be accompanied by an adult of legal guardian)
Health protocols: All attendees must provide be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 at least two weeks prior to the concert or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test done no more than 72 hours before the event. Mask wearing will be encouraged.
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.