Everything about L.A. group La Santa Cecilia is unique, from their mix of Mexican soul, gutsy blues and antic energy, to the joyful powerhouse persona of lead singer “La Marisoul” Hernandez. Their ballad on deportation, ICE (El Hielo), and 2014 win of a Latin Grammy as accordionist Pepe Carlos struggled to gain legal status in the United States made them leaders in the immigration rights movement. Meanwhile, their musical moxie and passionate sincerity has earned them collaborations with the likes of Elvis Costello and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, and gigs everywhere from Latin American festivals to Bonnaroo to Supreme Court rallies to New York’s Lincoln Center.
With their latest album, Buenaventura, Santa Cecilia stays at the center of the cultural and political action, from the human rights anthem Nunca Mas (Never Again) to the we-just-wanna-have-fun spirit of Pa’ Que Trabajar (Why Work). In the video for the exuberant La Calaverita, Donald Trump is a zombie fenced out of a Day of the Dead celebration.
The Herald talked to La Marisoul and percussionist Miguel “Oso” Ramirez on a recent Miami visit about their inspirations and growing up in music, including the recent birth of Marisoul’s first child.
Q: You’ve played with some major artists recently. What was it like to perform with John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin and Pepe Aguilar?
Hernandez: We started off the year playing in the Todos Santos California music festival that Peter Buck of REM puts together. He told us John Paul Jones was into playing a song on our set. It was crazy, a British musician from a legendary rock band playing on a traditional Mexican song.
Ramirez: That was a trip, thinking of my 13-year-old self listening to Led Zeppelin and all of a sudden he’s telling you stories about [drummer] John Bonham. Pepe Aguilar, it’s the same thing — we grew up listening to him and his dad sing. Sometimes life is difficult, but then you play with someone like Pepe Aguilar and your musical dreams are coming true.
Q: Seems as if you’re taken more seriously not only as musicians, but as activists, first with El Hielo and now with Nunca Mas.
Ramirez: El Hielo opened our eyes to the power of music. Performing it taught us an immense amount about how powerful music can be, and how powerful it is to tell your story from within your own community and what that means to people. The attention you get in the music business can be very fickle. These songs are a powerful way to open up ourselves and open up people.
Hernandez: When we wrote Nunca Mas we were inspired by what happened to the 43 students [who disappeared] in Mexico, but also all the violence we see, the police brutality we see towards black people in the United States. It’s a way to release these feelings of impotence. In life there’s struggles, there’s things you want to change. Hopefully Nunca Mas inspires people to raise their voices.
Q: I really enjoyed Pa’ Que Trabajar, which expresses a frustration I think a lot of people feel these days about working so much.
Hernandez: Sometimes you don’t want to get up and face the routine. Yeah, we are living our dreams, but sometimes I want to stay home and do what I want to do.
Ramirez: This guy told me “congratulations, you’ve achieved your dreams, now you get to hate what you do.” A lot of musicians feel like that. You feel like an ingrate because you have to get up at 4 a.m. to go to Miami. You’re grateful and love what you do, but there’s parts of it that suck.
Q: Talk about Calaverita and why Trump got a role.
Hernandez: In Mexico and parts of Latin America death isn’t seen as the end but as the beginning of something else. We wanted to write about El Dia de los Muertos, to pay homage to this beautiful tradition. When Trump started all this nonsense we thought he earned himself a little part.
Q: How do you feel about his campaign?
Hernandez: To see [Trump] and his followers scares me.
Ramirez: [Trump] normalized racism again for a lot of people. It’s like it’s ok to be racist again. You see videos of his rallies with people hitting and punching people, saying next time we’re going to kill you – it’s just crazy. We assimilate all that stuff and naturally we want to say something.
Q: Marisoul, how has having a daughter affected you and the band?
Hernandez: As soon as I realized I was pregnant I was like ‘oh my God.’ We were recording the album, and I was out here promoting it at 8 months. Our last show was in early November, and Erandi was born on Dec. 13. Even when I was off I was working. But I love what I do. When I said I was pregnant a lot of people said “What’s gonna happen? What are you gonna do? How are you going to play?” It’s not an illness. It doesn’t make me handicapped. On the contrary it fills me with life.
Ramirez: I saw dudes say stupid [crap]. “Oh my God, are you going to give birth onstage? How is the band going to survive? Are you going to keep working?” And these are people in the industry. I’m like, just shut up.
Hernandez: Before I would freak out and stress out more. Now I’m like patience, man. I have her, I’m OK, so everything else is going to be OK. Thankfully her dad is very supportive, he’s an artist and works from his computer, so he can come along. As soon as the show is over I’m like “later, I got an after party with my kid.” I want to smell her and kiss her. I’m very happy I get to do what I love as a musician and be a mom.
Ramirez: We knew she wanted a baby really bad.
Hernandez: I would be like “guys, the time is coming.” And they’re like no, no, no, let’s do this album. Then one day it was like sorry guys, life just happened. Oops.