The dead were dancing early in the evening Friday, October 30 at the third annual Día de los Muertos Celebration at the Santa Barbara Bowl, and they rose up time and time again throughout the evening – and never stopped. The much needed annual festival of Latino culture is still evolving and destined to become a crucial part of the Santa Barbara musical and cultural landscape, but it has kinks to work out and needs fine-tuning.
La Marisoul of La Santa Cecilia was the high point with her orgiastic, diva-quality voice knocking the lid off the Bowl and inciting all the giant puppet skeletons to dance. The entire evening was an explosive, psychedelic, and rocking journey into every mix of electronica, fusion, and Mexican and South American regional music with good old rock’n’roll. The ever-pervasive Colombian Cumbia beat was never far away in such diverse acts as Chicano Batman, Kinky, Bomba Estéreo. Still, the order and show times defied the habits of the audience. The festivities started so early that the regular flash dance Michael Jackson Thriller event played to a half empty stadium.
Still, this was a slate of extraordinary substance.
Chicano Batman arrived like time travellers fusing a Summer of Love ethos in their own Mex-psychedelic mix. As a community heroes in East LA, they definitely had their fans in the audience on their feet, despite the early hour.
La Santa Cecilia (named after Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians) arrived on stage with singer Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez in her usual Mesoamerican-tropical-Pop-Art attire, and it was clear in an instant we were in the presence of a major vocal talent, on par with great singers like Bette Midler, Celia Cruz and Janis Joplin. La Marisoul began her singing career singing for spare change on the streets. Here she was in full-throated glory, singing a mind-blowing multilingual version of “Strawberry Fields” filled with polyrhythmic beats, “Losing Game” (an Elvis Costello collaboration), and “El Hielo (ICE),” her anthem to undocumented immigrants. Her band matched her innovative fusions with an accordionist who wasn’t afraid to take his Mexican musical origins to post-modern territory.
Meanwhile, while the bands played, there were extra ordinary folkloric dancers, Day of the Dead make-up laden performers, and huge beautiful skeleton puppets cavorting all around. Kinky who perform a fusion of Latin Rhythms, Mexican regional music, electronica, and rock’n’roll, had his own stunning combination of dancers – some dressed as ladies of the night and others in schoolgirl uniforms. There was always something to look at, to hear and see, not least of all the crowd itself, dancing at their seats in half-painted faces and costume. At the same time, so much of the action was poorly coordinated and lit. Dancers were left in the shadows, and even the lead singers of these bands who thrive on audience contact lacked a follow spot.
Bomba Estéreo (slang for a badass party), a electronic trio led by the raspy rapid-fire rapping of Liliana “Li” Saumet, finished the night to a packed house against her punk-disco fusion beat with rhymes of self-assurance and pure party ethos. The band is phenomenal and killed at SOHO several years ago. But with only 40 or so minutes on stage, and a 10 p.m. moratorium, there was barely time for lift off.
Santa Barbara needs this festival, but the Bowl needs to invest and dig deeper to choreograph, visually stage and curate these performances, which are different from their prepackaged stadium acts, who arrive self contained. But the answer isn’t less – it’s more. What about a Día de los Muertos march down State Street? Or better yet, Milpas!