Lila Downs–Voice of Mexican Tradition and Soul

My first exposure to Mexican American singer Lila Downs was in 2010, on my first visit to the City of Oaxaca. In the bar of Casa Oaxaca, a wonderful restaurant near the beautiful Santo Domingo de Guzman temple, I enjoyed my very first mezcal before being seated for dinner. They were playing some incredible music and I asked the waiter who was singing. “Lila Downs!” he exclaimed with obvious pride as Oaxaca was very proud of her and with good reason. On that trip I bought her latest CD called La Sandunga and played it non stop for a long time afterward. My family has made a point of seeing her concerts each time she visits our area. I visited Oakland last week to attend her concert for the 2019 San Francisco Jazz Festival with them.

San Francisco has an impressive Jazz Foundation with devoted supporters and followers. Seven years ago they funded and built the first free standing auditorium in America exclusively dedicated to Jazz. The design created by Mark Cavagnero feels intimate while accommodating a large audience of up to 700 people and the acoustics provided by the sound system designed by Meyer Sound Laboratories are fabulous. The band was made up of a wonderful selection of musicians on guitar, bass, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, drums, cajón and African percussion representing areas as distant as New York, Seattle, Jamaica, Chile and of course Mexico. Lila’s presentation was outstanding in costume, expression and style and her operatically trained voice was clear and forceful. She radiated her Mexican heritage and pride.

Beginning with a spirited version of the Peruvian Cumbia by Anibal Rosado, Cariñito, and the moving Las Marmotas that paid tribute to a music director who was victim of violence in which she asked us to rise above adversity putting vengeance aside and soar like the eagle, she moved on to a jocular jarocho favorite La Iguana with the traditional instruments of Veracruz including accompaniment on the jawbone of burro, jaranas and the inspired zapateado dance. She brought the audience to tears with her moving rendition of Oaxacan La Sandunga singing “daughter, when I die, don’t cry, sing to me a Sandunga and I will live on forever”. When she presented the folkloric La Llorona, I understood the cultural influences from the Spanish and indigenous peoples for the first time. In a plea for respect and justice for her brave people in her poignant cover of Manu Chao’s Clandestino she urged us to save the children at the border and in her interpretation of Los Caminos de la Vida by Vicentico, she sang of resignation to life, much of it in her indigenous language. Both were moving and full of love. She celebrated her native Oaxaca with its chile and mezcal with El Son del Chile Frito and Dos Botellas de Mezcal giving rise to spirited dancing and participation from an ecstatic crowd of admirers who demanded an extended encore creating a frenzied party atmosphere for a finale.

Lila is definitely a great ambassador for her native land spreading a poignant message filled with joy and pride. Watch for this talented artist’s performances in Mexico, Canada and the US. She is absolutely in a class of her own. Purposely avoiding a “mainstream” image, she spreads her message in her own way. Her new CD Al Chile is available on iTunes as well as other sources.

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