Back in 1996, the Mexican-born, US-based singer-songwriter Lila Downs issued a raw live recording that featured a mix of Spanish popular songs and English language jazz standards. Following on from her cassette-only debut recording, it presented the singer as seemingly torn between her Mexican roots and one of the musical languages of her home north of the border. Not long afterwards, with Mexico and its music more firmly in her sights, Downs began releasing a series of albums made in collaboration with her musical and life partner Paul Cohen that managed a far more successful, broader-ranging fusion of musics, adding Mexican folk and pop songs, American blues, Caribbean rhythms (including, increasingly, reggae), and pan-Latin styles to her repertoire.
Downs has become known to an ever-wider audience, especially since her appearance in the film Frida in 2002. Live à FIP presents a program of songs recorded in 2009 for the French radio station FIP. It draws on material stretching from 1999’s La Sandunga, the album where Downs really found her style, to her most recent album, the wide-ranging Shake Away / Ojo de Culebra (2008).
It’s an excellent selection of songs, including ones written by Downs and Cohen, some well-chosen covers, and seven traditional folk songs that represent various regions and cultures of Mexico. Downs’s international band, La Misteriosa, is on top form throughout, accompanying the singer with a mixture of horns, guitars, Latin percussion, and accordion. Multi-instrumentalist Celso Duarte is kept particularly busy, contributing harp to eight of the tracks and violin, guitar, and charango to others. Cohen is responsible, with Downs, for the arrangements and also contributes clarinet and tenor saxophone.
Downs’ interest in reggae is less on display here than on her recorded albums, though the influence can be heard on “La Linea”, which also benefits from Duarte’s Andean-sounding strings. The Zapotec-based song “La Martiniana” is given a sensitive reading, Rob Curto’s accordion merging wistfully with Cohen’s understated clarinet. “La Cumbia del Mole” mixes instrumental textures (accordion, horns, harp) and infectious rhythms as joyfully as the mole recipe its lyrics recite. “Get cinnamon and banana, get cloves and oregano”, the song commands, “grind the chocolate, grind it”.
Harp and accordion work brilliantly together in “Los Pollos”, a traditional song from Veracruz that includes improvised lyrics. Percussion (especially the cajón) is brought to the fore for the call-and-response number “Arenita Azul”, while voice takes center stage in Downs’s stripped-down version of Tomas Mendez’s “Paloma Negra”. She uses the song to engage in some impressive vocal work, stretching the middle syllable of “parranda” over twenty dramatic seconds midway through, then devoting another ten seconds to the word at the finale.
The migrant blues lament “Minimum Wage” is delivered in English, as it is on Shake Away. The blues boogie rhythm is ably offset by Cohen’s bright saxophone, Dana Leong’s trombone, and Juancho Herrera’s electric guitar; Curto’s accordion, meanwhile, offers up occasional trills to “Mexicanize” the proceedings. Herrera is again on excellent form (this time on acoustic guitar) for the version of Chuy Rasgado’s song of abandonment, “Naila”.
There is more than a hint of the late Mercedes Sosa when Downs introduces her and Cohen’s song “Justicia” with the dedication, “Por Bolivia, por Honduras, por Panama, por Peru, por Argentina, por Mexico, por Costa Rica”. Like Sosa, who guested on Shake Away‘s “Tierra de Luz”, Downs is keen to promote a sense of pan-Latin-American solidarity, recognizing the ability of the Spanish language and declarative song to create and maintain social bonds in audiences well-versed in each other’s cultural traumas. Elsewhere, Downs’s singing also echoes Sosa’s, showing a similar sincerity, clarity, and maternal authority.
Downs’ version of Lucinda Williams’s “I Envy the Wind” is just as wonderful here as it was on Shake Away. Downs maintains Williams’s elegant minimalism and sense of space, delivering the lyric first in her Spanish translation, which works brilliantly and sounds as though it was supposed to be sung in the language. Leong provides a suitably evocative trombone solo before Downs switches to English for one of the verses. The result is a beautiful matching of talents.
Downs long ago reclaimed “La Cucaracha” from its cheesy misuse as touristic shorthand for Mexico, reasserting its purpose as a song of protest. It’s given a vigorous reading here, with plenty of spiky contributions from all the instrumentalists. Downs delivers a half-sung, half-rapped lyric that offers defiant shout-outs to Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and the murdered Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara.
The album closes, as the show does, with the fairground ride of “Perro Negro”, which allows the instrumentalists to take solo turns over the frantic beat. The song itself, with its echoes of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Tom Waits, is a great way to sign off. It was equally carnivalesque on Shake Away and, if there’s any doubt to be cast over this excellent live album, it is only that many of these songs have been given just as much life on the wonderful studio albums from which they come. Those already in possession of those albums may find Live à FIP an unnecessary indulgence. However, for those who are new to Lila Downs or who have lost contact with her since Frida, it provides an excellent overview of a vibrant, border-crossing artist.