Concert Review | La Santa Cecilia with the David Wax Museum, Live at Royce Hall, April 11, 2014
Latinamericana, from City to Country: La Santa Cecilia with the David Wax Museum, Live at Royce Hall, April 11, 2014
Concert Review by Ben Doleac
Climaxing the program of “Fandango: Singing the Lanscape,” a two-day series of lectures, performances and workshops centered around the Mexican traditions of fandango and son jarocho, the David Wax Museum and La Santa Cecilia presented two very different Latin-American musical fusions during their performance at Royce Hall on April 11. Confounding genre classifications through a wide-ranging mixture of musical idioms traditional and contemporary, both groups drew upon the Latin-American folk past to forge their own unique visions of the American present. While Wax’s rootsy romanticism evoked small-town byways from Appalachia to West Texas, however, La Santa Cecilia proudly repped Latino Los Angeles, where a bilingual, hybrid culture is woven into the fabric of everyday life.
Opening the show with an hour-long set, the David Wax Museum were true folk-rockers, with their half-acoustic instrumentation, huddled-around-the-mic harmonies and fashionably boho attire all calling up the rustic hipster mode popularized by latter-day troubadours from Fleet Foxes to the much-derided Mumford and Sons over the past half-decade and change. Yet David Wax’s rhythms were a whole lot trickier than anything that Bon Iver, say, has ever assayed, and he had the band to make them flesh. Nor did he pull these beats out of thin air – although he has named the norteño-inflected roots rock of Los Lobos as a key influence, the roux of the band’s stylistic gumbo is the Mexican son, a polyrhythmic folk song form that likely originated on the Gulf Coast in the 18th century. Although the style eventually developed regional variations such as son huasteco, son jarocho and son jaliscience (or mariachi), its characteristic blend of Spanish guitar melodies with Afro-Caribbean cross-rhythms, ostinato-based chord progressions and vocal call-and response has persisted across the centuries. Raised in rural Missouri, Wax fell in love with son mexicano while attending Harvard College. In 2006, he secured a year-long fellowship to study in Mexico with some of the tradition’s old masters. Back in Boston two years later, he met Suz Slezak, a Virginia-born fiddler and vocalist with a background in old-time music, and the pair soon formed the band which bears Wax’s name today.
On record and onstage, the David Wax Museum strikes a fine balance between rock, country, and the rural folk traditions of Mexico and the American South. Their opening and closing numbers at the Royce Hall show were the most explicit nods to son jarocho, the earliest and the most overtly Africanized variant of son mexicano. “Yes, Maria, Yes,” the opening number, saw Wax declaim about a flighty lover over a lively rhythm section, accordion, and the staple son jarocho instruments quijada (a jawbone percussion device) and requinto (a smaller, four-stringed relative of the guitar). “It’s Gonna Get Harder Before it Gets Easier” ended the set on an anthemic note, with Wax inviting the audience to join in on the chorus harmonies as the band overlaid the three-against-two rhythmic counterpoint of the sesquialtera with countryish chord changes and a ranchera style bassline. In between, the David Wax Museum flitted effortlessly through rockabilly (“Leopard Girl”), mariachi (“Oh, Beatrice”), and Springsteenian rave-ups (“Born With a Broken Heart”), with Wax’s lovelorn lyrics and his bandmates’ harmonies providing all the stylistic unity that the show needed. In perhaps the most effective segment of the performance, the band gathered around a single microphone to back Slezak on the country spiritual “Let Me Rest” before striding into the audience for the uptempo, bilingual “Staggering and All.” Trading verses in English and Spanish across the aisles, prompting whoops and laughter from the delighted crowd, they made the imagined Mexicamerican folk community their music evokes into a temporary reality.
Putting the electrical shocks to the David Wax Museum’s hootenanny, the L.A.-based La Santa Cecilia displayed their cool mastery over a breadth of Latin American styles without kowtowing overmuch to any one tradition. The band formed in 2007, when singer Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez and accordionist and requinto player joined forces after years of busking on Olvera Street, a tourist district in downtown Los Angeles where family shops and street vendors hawk relics of Spanish and Mexican folk culture. Taking their name from the patron saint of music, the band steadily built a following over the next several years. If La Santa Cecilia’s intoxicating blend of hard rock, blues and ska with Afro-Cuban rumba, Colombian cumbia, Mexican son jarocho and norteño, and Brazilian samba occasionally left record executives scratching their heads, it also felt like an artistic inevitability for bilingual youths equally at home with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Trio Los Panchos. The band first attracted major national attention in 2013, when they released “El Hielo (ICE),” a wrenchingly understated bossa nova ballad that details how contemporary U.S. immigration policies tear families apart.
La Santa Cecilia drew on personal experience when composing “El Hielo”: some of the members’ parents came to the U.S. as undocumented laborers, while the Nicaragua-born Carlos lived in fear of deportation until he finally secured a work permit and Social Security card last year. The song has made the group heroes to many of the country’s undocumented workers, who now number over 11 million, and in the wake of their recent Grammy win for Best Latin Rock Album, their performance at Royce Hall felt like a homecoming.
The audience’s energy level spiked palpably as soon as the band took the stage, with La Marisoul instantly commanding all eyes and ears in a striking green tutu and rhinestone cat-eye glasses. Opening song “Someday, Someday New” swung with a slight country lilt, while “Cuidado” melded tango-style button accordion and an almost surf-rock guitar line. I admit that for these first few songs, which were largely midtempo, I didn’t quite understand what the fuss was about; sure, they rocked harder than the openers, and La Marisoul had charisma to spare, but there was no spring in their step. Yet after La Marisoul regaled the crowd with a nugget about learning the hard way to heed her mama’s wisdom, the band launched into the sly norteño of “En Fin,” and I was won over. The band displayed their impressive stylistic range on songs like “Falling,” a reggae-inflected number with a screaming, bluesy solo from guitarist Marco Sandoval, and a samba-laden cover of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever.” La Marisoul’s confident alto powered the band’s uptempo numbers as surely as the rhythm section, yet she was especially effective on ballads like the ranchera “Como Dios Manda.” Her bandmates apparently agreed; percussionist Miguel “Oso” Rodriguez was visibly moved after “Como Dios Manda,” and stated, “You make me proud, man.”
Throughout the performance, La Santa Cecilia maintained a conversational intimacy with the audience that most bands would kill to reproduce. As they ably demonstrated, there is an art to building such a rapport: after Rodriguez announced that the band was going to play a son jarocho, La Marisoul offered “a big shoutout” to all of the participants in the fandango dance that had preceded the concert in the courtyard outside, and she introduced “Ya Sé” by stating, “This next song is for all the enamoradas.” The most powerful moment of the concert, however, came at the beginning of the band’s encore. “Right now we’re gonna do a song for the 11 million undocumented –” La Marisoul began, and before she could finish the sentence the entire hall went up in cheers for “El Hielo.” “I hope that one day we won’t have to sing this song anymore,” she commented. As Marco Sandoval gently plucked the chords of “El Hielo,” La Marisoul sang about the plight of Eva, the housekeeper, and Jose, the gardener, both hard-working souls living in fear of losing everything to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (the song’s title is Spanish for “ice,” a play on the government organization’s initials).
With the audience silent and transfixed as “El Hielo” concluded, the singer promised to raise our spirits. “We’re not gonna leave you sitting down – we’re gonna leave you standing up,” she stated, and as the crowd took to its feet, the band closed with the fierce, accordion-driven “Cumbia Morada.” Where openers the David Wax Museum strove towards a folk community rooted in a half-remembered, half-mythic past, La Santa Cecilia’s community was no myth; it was right here in modern-day L.A., coming together to celebrate the irreducible multiplicity of the cultural present. What a joy it was to be a part of that community, if only for one evening.
Johnson, Reed. “La Santa Cecilia is an L.A. Story.” The Los Angeles Times, August 30, 2011.
---. “La Santa Cecilia’s New Single ‘El Hielo’ (ICE) is Cool Take on Immigration Law.” The Los Angeles Times, March 5, 2013.
“La Santa Cecilia, Una Banda de Los Angeles.” YouTube video. Posted by “AnahuacSoul,” June 26, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owveB4i-Fq4.
McKinley, James C., Jr. “Finding a Path to Mexico in Appalachia.” The New York Times, September 5, 2012.
Ben Doleac is a Ph.D student in Ethnomusicology at UCLA, and an associate editor of Ethnomusicology Review.