La Misa Negra’s fusion of Latin influences


A report by Alejandra Salazar for the San Francisco Chronicle.

In a small studio in downtown Oakland, seven people crowd around microphones and an eclectic collection of instruments: guitar, bass, saxophone, accordion, clarinet, a metal güiro, conga drums.

They make up the Bay Area’s La Misa Negra, an Afro-Caribbean music collective founded in 2011 by frontman Marco Polo Santiago, and they are about to begin their weekly rehearsal, increasing efforts in advance of the group’s upcoming tour, which kicks off at the New Parish in Oakland on Friday, March 24.

Chatter dies down to a few beats of loaded silence, and then lead vocalist Diana Trujillo begins to sing. Trujillo, along with the rest of the band, performs almost exclusively in Spanish.

“It’s cumbia,” Santiago says, laughing incredulously. “The songs are in Spanish because they have to be in Spanish.”

The language is a crucial part of La Misa Negra’s authenticity. The band describes its style as “heavyweight cumbia, porro y gaita,” as inspired by classics of the genre that Santiago fondly remembers from his childhood in Los Angeles. Santiago, who spearheads the songwriting, admits that he’s a bit of a purist about the septet’s sound because “we’re a cumbia band, and that’s what we do best.”

Visibility for Latinx, the gender-neutral term for U.S.-born individuals with Latin American heritage, and Latin American artists has been on the upswing in the past few years, especially within critically acclaimed indie circles. With the release of La Misa Negra’s debut album, “Misa de Medianoche,” and a second in the works, the band joins the growing ranks of dynamic energetic underground ensembles who have been redefining modern Latino and Latin music. Along with similar acts like La Santa Cecilia, Chicano Batman and Bomba Estereo, La Misa Negra has been upending the Latin music genre, infusing tradition with outside musical influences — like psychedelia, punk rock, metalcore, funk, even hints of rap and hip-hop — and contemporary subject matter that reflects the sociopolitical landscape of 2017.

Percussionist Elena de Troya has experimented with conga techniques in different bands.

La Misa Negra isn’t afraid to tackle heavier topics like interpersonal relationships, politics and culture in its songs — and the band does so with a lyrical elegance that pays tribute to the poetry of 1950s and ’60s cumbia. Compositionally, the band has been fusing its other musical strengths, interests and backgrounds with the more traditional Afro-Caribbean cumbia style that originally brought it together.

In her native Colombia, Trujillo used to be a rock singer. Elena de Troya, the group’s percussionist, used to experiment with different conga techniques in other local Latin fusion bands. Woodwinds (sax, clarinet) and bass bring classical and jazz to the mix. All of this input represents a celebration of music its members love, and this grand musical experiment allows them to not only reclaim but also share their heritage with diverse audiences.

“The music that we play appeals to a wide range of people,” Santiago says. “It appeals to people who don’t even speak Spanish. They don’t even know what we’re saying, but they’re dancing.”

La Misa Negra’s wide accessibility is evident in its lineup. Not everyone has a Latin American heritage, but every member has a deep appreciation for Latin music. Trujillo lives in Concord but originally hails from Colombia, and her bandmates are Bay Area transplants with roots across the globe — currently living in Oakland, Santiago is Mexican American; de Troya is a San Francisco native with Salvadoran and Mexican heritage; while Erich Huffaker (bass) was raised in Riverside and is half Arab; Vermont-born Morgan Nilsen (clarinet) and Wisconsinite Craig Miller (drummer) are Jewish; and saxophone player Justin Chin is Chinese American.

As founder and frontman, though, it’s Santiago’s background that has likely informed the band the most. Before cumbia, he used to perform in smaller, niche metalcore and rap projects. Traces of his past rapper and rocker days can be found scattered throughout the band’s work. La Misa Negra’s songwriting is grounded in the minor key, creating cyclical, rhythmic beats that get people moving — the same sounds popular in rock, rap, funk and hip-hop that’s often blared from speakers at the club. Live shows energize and enthrall crowds in a way that mirrors the fervor of dedicated metalcore fans. Even the group’s name — “La Misa Negra” translates to “the black Mass” or “the black ritual” — brings to mind a dark metal or underground hip-hop aesthetic.

The band’s fusion of different styles and genres, all while remaining rooted in Caribbean cumbia, has been been a successful approach. La Misa Negra has toured and performed with the likes of Arcade Fire, Ozomatli, George Clinton, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Florence + the Machine, which some band members still talk about with a giddy, dazed disbelief. De Troya and Huffaker recall how even skeptics in those crowds warmed up to their cumbia, to the enthusiasm and frenzy of a particularly infectious Latin song and dance.

“It’s very clear that in 2017, there’s still a demand for this kind of music,” Huffaker says.

“Bands like us are reaching deep,” Santiago adds, “and making it fresh.”

La Misa Negra: 8 p.m. Friday, March 24. $15. The New Parish, 1743 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. (510) 444-7474.

To listen to “Misa de Medianoche”:

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