Saturday, January 28, 2017

La Santa Cecilia at Gusman Concert Hall

When I first started this blog it was meant to be about how music affected me. How certain songs or just moments in songs triggered sometimes mysterious emotional responses in me. It came from the fact that since I was a kid, there were always songs that would make me cry hysterically even if I didn't have a clue what they were about. I since have learned there is actually a psychology theory on this and that it has to do with high levels of empathy in some people that makes them respond emotionally to art. Last night, seeing La Santa Cecilia at The University of Miami's Gusman Concert Hall, I had what is probably the most intense moment of empathic response I've had in decades.

The Gusman Concert Hall at UM's Frost School of Music is one of the best secret venues in Miami. Its intimate size and cozy acoustics make performances there feel very personal without being constrained. It's not a fancy venue where the lighting might transport you somewhere. This is all about the music and the performers being right there, literally within reach, with no barrier between you and them either literal or figurative. We were in the first row, but I can't see how the experience would be that much different for those in the last row. 

I first heard La Santa Cecilia a few years ago and I'm not sure now if it was their Tiny Desk Concert or if I heard them on the Alt Latino podcast, also from NPR. Either way, I instantly loved their sound. They blend multiple Latin sounds from Cumbia, Rancheras, Boleros and more, with Rock, Soul and R&B. And last night I realized there's also a lot of Jazz in there that somehow glues all the pieces together. It never feels forced in any way and the balance between all of these genres is so perfect that it never feels like an experiment or anything other than authentic. And on top of the great players in this band (more on them in a bit) is the voice of Marisol "La Marisoul" Hernandez, with a voice that is equal parts passion, power and pride and communicates joy and anguish with every note and syllable, sometimes simultaneously. 

From the opener "Sucede" off their 2016 release Buenaventura, which is nominated for Best Pop/Rock Album Latin Grammy this year, I was struck by how tight they were as a group and how connected they are to each other and what they are doing. Song after song, their intensity and joy was coming through in their playing. Alex Bendana's bass was the ever present groove that flowed through everything. It was his playing, during the intro to "Falling" that first made me notice the jazz in their sound although I instantly felt like I should have noticed it all along in all of it, including some of Marisol's melodies. And of course the entire band was in sync, from Andres Torres on drums and Miguel "Oso" Ramirez on percussion to Marco Sandoval on Electric Guitar, who played a scorching solo at one point that had everyone headbanging. Orale.

But the moment that hit me was all about Marisol and Jose "Pepe" Carlos - accordionist and requinto player and in many ways, I think the member of the band that most anchors them to their traditional Latin roots. Before they played this song, Marisol gave an impassioned speech on love, off mic and clearly heard, saying she believed in love and how important it is for everyone to show love in these times of so much hate. As she spoke, her voice was already wavering and I already felt the intensity building in my eyes. She didn't only mean every word, she was feeling it and projecting it. Then, with only Bendana's bass and Carlos on requinto, they went into "Como Dios Manda" and I could literally see the tears rolling down her cheek as she sang. It turns out that the emotion that comes through in her voice on those albums is beyond real. I have no idea if she was going through something or if that song has so much personal meaning to her or if this is just how she approaches her art - by throwing herself into the moment full on - or maybe all of those. The point is, for that moment, the intimacy of the room, the raw nakedness of her emotions, the beauty of the song itself and the message of the lyrics all combined and I was right there, connected to her somehow through this song. I felt myself losing control and then, half way through the song, she went off mic and Carlos disconnected from the amp and she sob-sang the rest of the song in a way I've never seen anybody do before. I didn't look around, because as far as I was concerned the room had disappeared and there was only the song, the performers and me, but there couldn't have been a dry eye in the house. They finished the song, she wiped her tears and I tried to collect myself as everyone stood. Absolutely beautiful.

They went on to play several more songs, including "Amar y Vivir,"(above, shot by Carlos) a beautiful, traditional bolero written by Consuelo Velazquez.  The rest was mostly upbeat and heavy on the cumbia, a genre I've really come to appreciate a lot in recent years. They ended with their version of "Strawberry Fields" which is probably my favorite cover of that song ever, bringing new interpretations with each verse in a way that fits the self-interruptions of Lennon's lyrics as well as the piecemeal style of George Martin's production on the original recording (music nerd moment). When they ended, everyone wanted more and I did what I've never done, screaming out my request for "En Fin." I didn't get that request fulfilled, but I'd be a real entitled dick if I felt disappointed because of it. After the show we met most of the band and they were beyond humble, gracious and friendly. I do wish I'd met Marisol so I could have thanked her for giving so much of herself in that moment and allowing us to feel that with her. It's a moment that will stay with me. 

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