Part Oaxaca, part Minnesota: musician Lila Downs

Lila Downs

Ticketholders for the Lila Downs concert on Sunday, March 1, may want to scout nearby restaurants to find one that’s open after the performance. The singer’s current tour is based on Al Chile, her ninth studio album, which was released last year and is in large part a celebration of the central role played by chiles in Mexican cuisine.

While the tour playlist includes several hits from earlier albums, as well as jazz-oriented material for a future CD, chile provides the overall flavor, especially in “El Son del Chile Frito.” It could be called a pepper patter song, an uptempo number driven by the brass and percussion, with Downs reeling off the names of all the different chiles and dishes she wants to eat. Alas, many aren’t currently available in our stores and restaurants, but we can certainly identify with the conclusion: “I wouldn’t know how to go on without chile.”

“You know chiles are very funny in Mexican folklore. They’re strongly related to ideas about male virility,” explains Downs, who speaks four of the 68 languages spoken in Mexico. “So, there are lots of double entendres about them in the kitchen, which in our culture is usually women’s domain.”

The aural concept underlying Al Chile comes from two sources, the Mexican sonideros tradition and the work of legendary producer Camilo Lara. The sonideros (sound men) are DJs who host high-energy outdoor dance parties, usually in less affluent urban neighborhoods. Unlike producers who spend hours and hours in search of sonic perfection, Lara embraces a rougher-edged approach that has a live performance quality.

To capture the sense of a sonidero playing songs by a variety of groups, Lara and Downs worked with several different bands, eventually involving more than 200 musicians in the album. Lara also added subtle touches of electro-funk to several of the tracks, reinforcing its urban sensibility.

“I think of Al Chile as a dance album, a fiesta album for a gathering of people who are eating and drinking and dancing,” Downs says. “I love to sing about food and to cook as well. It’s a subject that’s taken us all around the world.” Several of her past hits highlighted Mexican food and drink, including mole and tequila, and her new album includes a song called “Two Bottles of Mezcal.” (Some concert reviews have mentioned that a bottle of what may have been mezcal might have made its way from the stage into the audience.)

She tours with an eight-member band, led by her husband Paul Cohen (a reformed professional juggler) on keyboards, saxophone, and clarinet. They met in Mexico when his car broke down outside an auto parts store owned by her family and he heard her singing in the background.

Their random meeting paralleled that of her parents. Her father, Allen Downs, was a University of Minnesota film professor who had flown south while working on a documentary about the blue-winged teal, a duck that overwinters in Mexico. In a cabaret one night he heard Mixtecan singer Anita Sánchez, and they fell in love. (The Mixtecs are the third-largest indigenous population in Mexico and live primarily in the state of Oaxaca.)

As a result, Lila divided her time growing up between Oaxaca and St. Paul, Minnesota, a highly unlikely pair of civic bedfellows. At one point, she had dyed her hair blond and was studying at the University of Minnesota, but she eventually realized that she felt much more kinship with her mother’s indigenous roots than her father’s Anglo heritage, so she returned to Mexico.

Downs is one of today’s most admired artists in Latin music, known for her facility in genres ranging from ranchera, cumbia, and son to jazz and American pop. She’s performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony, sung in the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and the White House (for Barack Obama, not the current denizen), and recorded duets with Nora Jones and Carlos Santana.

Her live performances have been described as “irresistibly theatrical” by the San Francisco Classical Voice, and “hugely entertaining” by The Guardian. She also possesses a highly distinctive sound, thanks to an especially wide vocal range and her ability to mine a variety of expressive colorations.

Many Santa Feans will be familiar with the legend of La Llorona, the betrayed woman who drowned her children in sorrow and now haunts local riverbeds. Downs’ take on the traditional story features her dusky alto register, singing in Zapoteco, an indigenous language of Oaxaca. She’s backed by a large children’s band. They recorded it in a small town just after it suffered an earthquake in 2017.

Children’s issues have a special resonance for Downs these days. She and Cohen are parents of a 9-year-old son, which “really opens you up to another universe,” she says. “As a woman, I understand life in another way and the ‘why’ of what I’m feeling. I can see more colors and the geometry of life.”

That geometry suffuses “Los Caminos de la Vida” (“The Ways of Life”), which begins with a recording of her mother speaking in Mixtec. “That’s the language I grew up with,” she says. “The song’s about the relationship that kids have with their parents. They nurture you throughout your life and then it becomes your turn, so everything can go on.”

In addition to the food association, al chile is an idiomatic expression that means “straight up” or “That’s the truth!” It’s a term that certainly applies to Downs’ forthright stance on women’s issues, indigenous communities, and U.S. immigration policies and border detention centers, which inform virtually all her recordings and concerts. They’ve also led to death threats against her family, but she has no intention to dial it down.

Her new album includes an updated take on “Clandestino,” a ballad written and first recorded by Manu Chao in 1998 about the challenges faced by migrants encountering increasingly harsh societies. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Downs said, “This time around I mention the immigrant children in the detention centers and sing from the feminine perspective about the thousands of women and children who migrate today.”

One of her most powerful additions to the song is the plaintive cry, “If we don’t fight for the children, what will become of us?” It’s deeply al chile. ◀

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