La Misa Negra (which translates to the “black mass” or “black ritual”) blends the vintage sound of 1950’s cumbia, the rhythms of Afro-Colombian dance music, and the stage presence of chicano rap and heavy metal.
ounded in mid-2011, the band found -- and lost -- various members before settling on the nine musicians that make up the band today. Earlier this summer, the band embarked on its first tour of the east coast, making stops along in the way in major cities including Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn before heading back to California.
La Misa’s live show is not for the faint of heart. Immediately after all nine members get on stage, the countdown starts and the stage becomes smorgasbord of instruments. A tenor sax, clarinet and upright bass join güira, accordion and guitar for a true big band feel. Breaks were few and far between; lead singer Diana Trujillo instructed the crowd to jump in sync with her throughout the night. When we weren’t jumping, we danced the basic cumbia step, which both veterans and newcomers of the style did instinctively.
I interviewed founder and guitarist/bassist Marco Santiago on the formation of La Misa Negra, how they developed their live show and the concept behind their debut album Misa de Medianoche (“Mightnight Mass”).
How and why did the band form?
Santiago: I felt that there wasn’t a band that was playing that golden era style of cumbia and big band Colombian music, so I decided to start my own. I started looking for musicians in the summer of 2011 and found most of the first members through Craigslist. None of them lasted very long and over the next couple of years, I slowly pieced together the band that currently makes up La Misa Negra.
Our current line up has been together for about a year. Our sax player, Justin Chin AKA El Chino Sonidero, is the veteran of the bunch. I met him via Craigslist in December of 2011, so he’s been with me the longest. Diana Trujillo, our lead singer, joined us in the Fall of 2012. We heard through the grapevine that there was a Colombian singer in the Bay area who was performing with various salsa bands. We hit her up and invited her to audition for the band.
She blew us away and got the gig on the spot. As the band began to make a name for itself it became easier to get other people involved. Craig Bravo became our drummer in 2013 and everyone else, Anthony Anderson (trumpet), Elena de Troya (percussion), Erich Huffaker (upright bass), and Morgan Nilsen (clarinet), joined us in 2014.
Are there any artists or bands that were reference points for La Misa Negra?
Pedro Laza, Lucho Bermudez, Pacho Galan, La Sonora Cienaguera, Los Corraleros de Majagual, and bands like that. The big band sound is the thing that really drives what La Misa Negra does.
We also tap into the stripped-down, accordion stuff though, like Andres Landero and Gildardo Montoya. Los Corraleros is the band we come closest to. They did the big band thing, the rootsy thing, the straight-ahead cumbia stuff, the fast and wild gaita stuff, and everything in between. That’s pretty much the band we’re trying to be but with our own take on things. Collectively, we all listen to many different styles of music and it all seeps into what we do, in one way or another.
How was your experience on the East Coast? What did you think of the audiences?
This was our first time playing on the East Coast and it was amazing. People really seemed to embrace what we were doing and it was pretty clear that they hadn’t seen a band quite like ours. We’ve been killing it on the West Coast for a couple of years but it was really validating to come out East and be able to leave our mark the way we did.
We played for about 800 people when we opened for Balkan Beat Box in Brooklyn to a mainly non-Latino, non-cumbia audience. Shows like that are some of my favorites because most people there may not know what they’re in for when we walk out on stage but we win them over every time.
It’s very cool to be able to introduce people to a genre they may not have heard before and that’s one of my favorite things about being in this band. I grew up listening to cumbia, so to be able to share this music with people on a larger scale like this is simply amazing. It’s very different from doing hip-hop, which I used to do, and performing for a 100% hip-hop audience.
Were you familiar with any artists from the D.C. area?
Not current ones. Mainly, the only DC bands I’ve followed of are hardcore bands like Minor Threat and Bad Brains. I can get down with some go-go though.
What was the concept behind your debut album?
We tried to make a record that had a vintage feel to it. The album starts off with that vinyl crackle and pop to make the listener feel like they’re about to listen to something really old. We tried to give the album some rawness in the way we recorded and mixed the whole thing, while at the same time keeping some more modern elements, like fat bass.
Frank Merritt, who masters a lot of the Soundway Records releases, like the stuff by Ondatropica and Miticos del Ritmo, as well as most (if not all) of their Latin and West African compilations, mastered the album. He was able to give the entire thing some additional texture and the right aesthetic.
Musically, we tried to have the right balance of original material that fits well with the vintage songs we cover on the album. Our style is rooted in the big band Colombian sound of the 1950’s and 60’s, so we do our best to adhere to some very strict rules in order to retain those unique characteristics that made that kind of music special.
We color outside of the lines here and there but we do a pretty good job of staying within the confines of that sound. Certain bands from that era also delved into some faster rhythms. We’ve taken some of those rhythms and play them even faster. People often think we’re playing ska or punk but we’re taking a direct cue from what cumbia bands were doing at the time and just injecting a little guitar and bumping up the BPM’s a bit.
We really try to be loyal to the sound. There are plenty of other bands that turn cumbia into something else. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re just on a mission to deliver authentic Colombian cumbia and an intense, high-energy Afro-Colombian sound.
How did you develop your live show?
My favorite artists to see live have always been those that bring a lot of energy on stage - mainly metal and hardcore punk bands but also certain hip-hop groups like Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Psycho Realm, and Beastie Boys. I knew when I started this band that, even if we were doing cumbia, we still had to bring an extremely high level of energy to whatever we did.
It comes very natural to me to jump around and bang my head but for some of the others in the band it’s been a bit of a process for them to come out of their shells. We play some very intense and infectious music though, so it’s hard to keep your body from automatically moving.
On top of that, we thoroughly enjoy ourselves on stage and that just adds to the positive energy that fills the room. I don’t like to feel like we’re just performing but more like we’re throwing a party and we want people on the dance floor to party as hard as we’re partying on stage.
Do you think you captured that live energy on the album?
We tried but I think it’s probably impossible to capture what we do live on a record. The album is a great way to appreciate the music and the songwriting but what La Misa Negra does live is something that can only be experienced in person.