A Conversation with La Misa Negra: Electrifying Afro-Latin Punk Music

La Misa Negra will be performing with Dos Santos at The Cedar this Friday, July 19th.  Both bands create cutting edge music reflecting their Afro-Latinx roots and surrounding local communities by fusing cumbia influences with psychedelic, Latin jazz, and punk threads. We recently interviewed Marco Polo Santiago who is the founder, composer, guitarist, and accordion player for La Misa Negra.  He will be joined on stage by Colombian-born Diana Trujillo (lead vocals), Justin Chin (tenor and baritone sax), Morgan Nilsen (tenor sax and clarinet), Craig Bravo (drums and percussion), Elena de Troya (percussion), and Paul Martin Sounder (upright bass and percussion). 

Photo of the members of La Misa Negra.
It’s important for our live shows to be supercharged with energy, to the point where it feels more like we’re a punk band that just happens to play big band cumbia.
— Marco Polo Santiago

MJ Gilmore, The Cedar’s Box Office and Office Manager, reached out to Marco Polo Santiago in anticipation of his show this Friday, July 19th.  He shares with us his energy and inspiration for creating his Cumbia and Afro-Colomiban-Latin band La Misa Negra. 

La Misa Negra performing “Me Voy Pa’ Porce,” courtesy of LaMisaNegra’s YouTube channel.

MJ Gilmore: What influenced you to start this band and your band name?

I saw an opportunity to create something new that was inspired by something really old.
— Marco Polo Santiago

Marco Polo Santiago: In 2011 I jumped back into listening to a lot of the Colombian bands from the 1950’s and 1960’s and just got inspired to want to make that kind of music.  Those bands had big horn sections and were taking many cues from what was happening in Cuba at the time. They were transforming cumbia, which had primarily been performed by smaller combos with percussion and maybe an accordion or clarinet, into this big band thing with giant horn sections and adding elements of mambo.  They were also incorporating other, faster, Afro-Colombian rhythms, like puya and gaita. I felt like no contemporary bands were really tapping into that sound, so I saw an opportunity to create something new that was inspired by something really old. I love cumbia, I love mambo, I love fat horn sections, groove, and heavy percussion.  There are a ton of bands that play cumbia but very few truly understand its essence and history, and fewer still have any knowledge of the larger scene and all of the styles that made up that golden era of Colombian music. I got really excited about starting a project that would give me the opportunity to write dope horn lines and incorporate many of these great styles or, at the very least, take inspiration from them.  I wanted to be true to the genre but at the same time find ways to take the genre to a new place. It was also important for our live shows to be supercharged with energy, to the point where it felt more like we’re a punk band that just happens to play big band cumbia.

I got really excited about starting a project that would give me the opportunity to write dope horn lines and incorporate many of these great styles or, at the very least, take inspiration from them.  I wanted to be true to the genre but at the same time find ways to take the genre to a new place.
— Marco Polo Santiago

I’m a huge metal head and I love Black Sabbath, so I wanted to name the band something that kind of sounded like Black Sabbath in Spanish.  I came up with La Misa Negra almost instantly. It means “Black Mass.”

MJ: How has the diversity of your band influenced your Cumbia and Afro-Colomiban-Latin sound?

Marco: I write all of the music, so that pretty much dictates the band’s overall sound but there are opportunities where we showcase people’s personalities and influences, like when the horn players take solos.  Justin Chin has a bit of a jazzy approach, while Morgan Nilsen has more of a Balkan and Klezmer background. Diana Trujillo, the singer, also plays an important role because she’s the only member who is actually from Colombia.  She brings a lot of that authentic Colombian flavor to the way she sings the songs.

MJ: How do you musically respond to our current politics?

We have songs about gun violence, water scarcity, and gender inequality, and I expect to delve more into those types of issues on future material.
— Marco Polo Santiago

Marco: We’re not really an overtly political band but I am a very political person, so it’s hard to not want to write about the problems we’re facing today. Prior to La Misa Negra, I was involved in hip hop projects that were 100% political. When I started La Misa Negra, I tried to stay away from that type of subject matter, but somehow I’ve been finding ways to incorporate more of that into La Misa Negra. On our latest self-titled album, La Misa Negra, we have songs about gun violence, water scarcity, and gender inequality, and I expect to delve more into those types of issues on future material.

MJ: What have been some of the musical transformations and transitions La Misa Negra has gone through?

Marco: Early on, I set these rigid parameters of what La Misa Negra is supposed to sound like but I’m learning to experiment more and be less afraid of trying new things and incorporating more of my non-cumbia influences.  On La Misa Negra, we have a salsa song that directly taps into my love of vintage Latin jazz. I’m also more willing to let my metal side seep into what we do by covering Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains. I never would have done that in the early days.

MJ: What is your composing process like?

I tend to play a bigger role in the political songs, because I’m usually the one pushing for certain topics and have very specific ideas of what I’m trying to communicate.
— Marco Polo Santiago

Marco: I write by myself and usually on my computer.  When I bring a song to the band, it’s pretty much a finished product with all of the horn parts, bass, and basic percussion.  The horn players just learn the horn lines at that point but I’ll spend more time with the rhythm section to work out their specific parts.

On our first album, Misa de Medianoche, I wrote all of the lyrics myself, but for our second album, La Misa Negra, I let Diana take the lead. I took more of an editor role and worked with her to make the lyrics the absolute best that we could. There were a few songs, however, like “Pistola,” “El Agua Ya Se Acabo,” and “Sancocho,” that were co-written by me. I tend to play a bigger role in the political songs, because I’m usually the one pushing for certain topics and have very specific ideas of what I’m trying to communicate.

MJ: Will you talk about a few of your favorite songs?

Marco: It’s tough to pick favorites, but a few that stand out are “Pistola,” “Acosadora,” and “Veni Pa’ Ca.”

Pistola” is my first attempt at writing a salsa song.  It’s a heavy mambo with monster horn lines and great lyrics that addresses gun violence.  It features a bunch of Bay Area musicians and friends of ours on backing vocals, trumpet, trombone, piano, and percussion.  Since we perform as a 7-piece only, it’s hard for us to really replicate that song live.

La Misa Negra performing “Acosadora,” courtesy of LaMisaNegra’s YouTube channel.

Acosadora” is a real funky cumbia with a mambo feel.  It starts off, however, with another Colombian rhythm called, currulao.  We mixed it in a way that the currulao section sounds real rootsy and small and then explodes into this big mambo-cumbia mash.  The groove on this song is ridiculous.

Veni Pa’ Ca” is on the opposite end of the spectrum from “Pistola” and “Acosadora.”  That’s a stripped down, accordion-led cumbia with no horns or drum kit. I came up with the bass line first.  It switches off every two beats from cumbia to more of a funk feel. The accordion lines are dark, but kind of sexy too.  The whole thing comes together to create this slow, hypnotic, rootsy cumbia.

MJ: What have been some of your touring highlights?

Marco: Getting to share the stage with bands I love is probably the best part. Some of my favorite bands we’ve played with include, George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, and Budos Band (we just got to play with them again last week). It’s pretty incredible to play this type of music and be able to perform with artists that I listen to and admire.

MJ: Who are some of your musical influences? 

I’ve tried to study what the greats have done and learn from them—artists like: Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Cal Tjader, Perez Prado, Los Corraleros de Majagual, Pedro Laza, and Pacho Galan.

MJ: What are you excited about right now?

Marco: I’m excited that we have an election coming up next year.

MJ: Who is your favorite film director?

Marco: Wes Anderson.

MJ: What do you plan on playing at The Cedar Cultural Center?

Marco: We’re playing almost every song from our latest album La Misa Negra and a few key songs from our first album Misa de Medianoche.  You’ll definitely hear “Acosadora,” “Sancocho,” and “Veni Pa’ Ca.” We might drop in some Slayer and Pantera too.

Catch La Misa Negra with Dos Santos at The Cedar this Friday, July 19th. Tickets are still available here.