The Levitt mission is all about joy, community and fostering connections through the power of free, live music in public spaces. So when it came time to select the artist for the 2023 Levitt National Tour, La Santa Cecilia was a fitting choice for this collaborative programming effort that celebrates the collective impact of Levitt venues across the country and showcases artists that reflect the diversity of America. The GRAMMY-winning Los Angeles band has been acclaimed by critics and embraced by Levitt audiences for their passionate, captivating and ever-evolving music; they’re also a group that values the role of public spaces in building community. Recently, we had the pleasure of interviewing the band in Los Angeles before they head out on tour, speaking about everything from their new music to the palpable sense of community that permeates their work and the vital role of arts access in public life.
La Santa Cecilia combines music genres like cumbia, rock, bolero, bossa nova and jazz into its signature style, and got their start performing nearly two decades ago in tiny venues around L.A. as well as on busy corridors of the city’s historic Olvera Street downtown. Comprised of vocalist Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez, percussionist Miguel “Oso” Ramirez, requinto and accordion player Jose “Pepe” Carlos and bassist Alex Bendaña, the group drew on deep roots of musical tradition while also forging a unique and thoroughly modern sound that gained them many fans. As they garnered a loyal following, La Santa Cecilia soon received invitations to perform on festival stages and at iconic venues like the Hollywood Bowl, Walt Disney Concert Hall, and Lincoln Center.
Throughout their rise, La Santa Cecilia has continued to recognize the role of public spaces in inspiring their artistry. As Hernandez shared during a recent interview, “I think it’s the purest form of artistic and musical expression: when you can just go out and find a space in a park and sing, without any expectation but the desire to share your feelings,” she said. “Just putting yourself out there and hoping to connect with someone. It’s one of the main reasons I sing.”
Starting on May 12 and continuing throughout summer, La Santa Cecilia will perform at six Levitt venues across the country as part of the 2023 Levitt National Tour. Veterans of Levitt stages, the group has performed at Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles, as well as at Levitt Pavilion Denver and Levitt Pavilion Arlington last summer, where they kept audiences dancing throughout the evening and even held an impromptu jam session with fans following the Arlington show. The band is thrilled to headline this year’s Tour, as they’ve always felt a special connection with Levitt audiences.
“A band like ours is built by our community, and so are the Levitt venues,” says Ramirez. “People feel like the Levitt is theirs. It’s a place where they can come and be themselves, feel connected to the community, and see themselves [reflected] on stage. I think that’s really important and empowering.”
“People come and set up a whole living room at the Levitt,” Hernandez adds with a laugh. “They bring their food, their chairs, their snacks, their blankets. It’s a very family vibe, and I love that. I love seeing the abuelitas, the tias, the parents with the kids on their shoulders, and then the young people…this is probably just the beginning of their night. And we get to be a part of all of that.”
That Levitt concerts are free to the public makes them meaningful for audiences, as well as artists, Bendaña notes. “It’s important for the public that these concerts are free and open, and it’s important for bands like us, too, because we don’t necessarily get played on the radio. Places like the Levitt allow us to share our music, express ourselves, and grow our audience.”
Ramirez concurs: “It has a different vibe when it’s a free community concert. It’s relatable. It’s like there’s no separation between the people in the audience and the people onstage, and that makes everyone feel a part of the moment.”
Named after the patron saint of music, La Santa Cecilia traces its roots back nearly 20 years, when the four became friends based on shared passions and eclectic musical tastes. “We all grew up in L.A. playing salsas, boleros and cumbias, but we were also influenced by rock, by so many other kinds of music,” says Carlos. “We were all children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves, in this beautiful place that’s full of people like us. We feel very fortunate to have found each other—people with the same dreams, same goals, and same musical backgrounds.”
Inspired by their immigrant upbringing and early experiences performing together, the group made a name for itself relatively quickly, earning their first Latin GRAMMY nomination for a single off their debut album, Noche y Citas, which was released in 2010. Politically-charged songs like the immigration-themed “Ice el Hielo” and the anti-violence anthem “Nunca Mas” attracted further attention, and the group soon started appearing on programs like TBS’s Conan and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, and later contributed songs to the soundtracks for films like Cantinflas (2014), The Book of Life (2014), and Pixar’s Coco (2017). La Santa Cecilia earned their first GRAMMY Award in 2014 for their third album Treinta Dias, and more nominations would soon follow for subsequent albums Queiro Verte Feliz and Buenaventura.
Throughout their musical journey, the foursome has always taken time out to get back to their roots. For the 2017 album Amar y Vivir, the group recorded songs in a variety of nontraditional settings across Mexico City, from bars to public parks. And most recently, La Santa Cecilia recorded a series of cover versions of the members’ favorite songs around a campfire in a Baja California vineyard, releasing the sessions in two parts as Cuarto Copas: Bohemias en la Finca Altozano this year and last.
Cuatro Copas features an eclectic array of covers, from David Bowie to Jose Jose, Los Angeles Negros and Juan Gabriel. What unites the songs, according to Ramirez, is their personal significance to the band. These are the songs that the four play when they get together in informal settings, the songs they remember their parents listening to during their childhoods, the songs that shaped them as musicians and as friends.
“A lot of those songs are portals for us,” Ramirez says. “They open up a memory. It takes you back to a place or a moment or a feeling or a smell from childhood, where you saw your parent feeling something, your family getting together. You get to see pieces of people’s souls in those moments when people are getting together and asking for certain songs from the mariachi or the cojunto. All these songs on Cuatro Copas and Amar y Vivir are songs where we have those sorts of connections.”
Creating these types of connections with an audience is what still drives the band to this day and inspired their decision to come full circle and bring an acoustic show to their Levitt National Tour stops, in keeping with the atmosphere of the Cuatro Copas sessions. Levitt audiences should get ready to dance, sing along, and celebrate. As Bendaña says, “When we do the stripped-down acoustic shows, you can just feel the audience’s passion. They’ll shout out requests, or start singing along with us.”
As the band celebrates its quinceaños this year with dates on the Levitt National Tour, it’s this sense of community that inspires La Santa Cecilia to stay true to its roots while evolving and refining their style—expanding their fanbase as more discover their music through the magic of the band’s live performances.
“Things have been coming full circle a lot for us this year,” Ramirez says. “We have families now, and we’re just starting to make some of the best music we’ve ever made. We’re growing so much as artists and musicians, and all the things that we dreamt about 15 years ago are coming true, which means that now we’re getting to dream new things. Like Miles Davis said, it takes a long time to learn how to sound like yourself. And these last 15 years have allowed us to finally sound like ourselves.”
“And we all still love each other, which is crazy,” Hernandez says with a laugh. “This band is the longest relationship I’ve ever been in, and I love it.”
The Levitt National Tour launches in Arlington, Texas on Friday, May 12, and continues to Denver (Saturday, May 13); Dayton, Ohio (Friday, June 23); Sioux Falls, South Dakota (Saturday, June 24); Los Angeles (Saturday, July 22); and concludes at Levitt Pavilion SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Saturday, August 26). Stay tuned for more from the Levitt National Tour featuring La Santa Cecilia, and we’ll see you out on the lawn! Be sure to share your favorite photos/videos from the tour using the hashtag #LevittTour for your chance to win a signed ukulele from the band!