With the eye of an anthropologist and a voice that can blast like a brass band, Lila Downs has created an album, Al Chile, that recreates the boisterous spirit of parties under the stars along the coast of Mexico. “Some [albums] are more introspective and speak of emotions,” the singer said recently, “and some are more extroverted and about the senses and I think that’s what this one is about. I try to explain to people it’s about the waist on down.”
While her Salon, Lagrimas and Deseo in 2017 bristled at the election of Donald Trump and included songs such as “Peligroso” about dangerous and powerful women, the new album, on Sony Latin, is in a more convivial mood even if politics are never that far off.
For the first time, she has teamed with producer Camilo Lara, a former music executive who made his mark with a series of albums under the name Instituto Mexicano del Sonido (The Mexican Institute of Sound) that electrified Mexican regional and traditional music, and his modernizing touches are evident throughout. Downs met Lara in the 1990s when she had an album on the Narada label, and he worked at EMI. “He was instrumental in teaching me about world music,” she said, recalling that he would make cassette tapes for her with artists such as Colombia’s Toto La Momposina.
The two had a similar appreciation and anthropological perspective for the traditional music of Mexico. “You kind of don’t mess with the music,” Down said of Lara’s approach, “and just record the essence of people and their vision of music – and that may mean it’s a little off and a little not-so-in-tune. That’s a little new for me, and I always wanted to do it.”
While she had intended to explore Mexican banda brass-band music with the new album, it veered more toward cumbia. “It was pretty improvisational in it all came together in a surprising way,” she said.
During a visit to Acapulco, she said, she heard a group called La Banda del Chile Frito or the Band of the Fried Chile. “I thought, ‘That is so amazing. I love that’ and went with that.”
On “Son del Chile Frito”, the song sets the tropical scene with a distant bird squawking and then the musicians play a rollicking homage to the pain and pleasures of chile peppers, while Downs sings out a list of various chiles. “Yes,” she sings on the song, “it stings the chiltepin [pepper], but without chile I do not know how to live.”
The coastal sound soaked its way into the album’s musical formation along with that of the sonideros, or deejays blasting cumbia music and saludos, or shout-outs, from flatbed trucks piled high with speakers for outdoor parties.
Many of the songs move to the clippity-clop rhythm of cumbia, an Afro-Caribbean style that began in Colombia and spread throughout Latin America. On “Los Caminos de la Vida”, Downs and Lara borrow the trebly electronic sound of psychedelic “chicha” cumbia that was a cult favorite in 1970s Peru and has been rediscovered in more recent years.
The first single off the album is “Carinito”, a Peruvian chicha hit from the 1970s that Downs makes her own with her strong vocals and a fuller band sound. A video of the tune transforms it again through a collaboration with Mexican ska band Panteon Rococo.
In her search for inspiration for the album, Downs recorded with a children’s orchestra at a finca, or farm, in Juchitan, a city that is home to the indigenous Zapotec people and is, unusually, a matriarchal society.
“The kids were great, [but] I did contract dengue fever. It was my little gift from the area,” she joked. “It was very hot and tropical and a wonderful experience and crazy.” With the children’s orchestra, Downs recorded the classic “La Llorana”, which itself is based on an old legend of a woman who killed her own children and is tormented even as a ghost – a story that was recently tapped for an American horror movie.
One song in stark contrast to the exuberant album is the beautiful, slow waltz “Dear Someone”, sung by Downs and Norah Jones. The song, written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, is given a mariachi treatment with a vihuela harp and mournful horns and strings, but the centerpiece is a lovely duet of vocalists, a contrast of altos – Downs’s intense delivery with Jones’s velvety purr.
“Her vision on music is very pure,” Downs said of Jones, looking back at their recording session in Brooklyn. “She chose the song and it’s a song that talks a little about someone yearning to go away from their place of origin to find love, of course, and maybe find something else.”
Politics aren’t absent from the album: Downs remakes the 1998 Manu Chao song “Clandestino” about immigration and refugees, undergirding its original reggae rhythm with a cumbia beat. The song continues to be relevant today, though it was written originally about European immigration. “Running is my destiny to circumvent the law / Lost in the heart of the great Babylon / They call me clandestino / For not having papers.”
Immigration and the relations between the United States and Mexico have always been a heartfelt and personal concern for Downs, who was born to a Mixtec-Mexican mom and a Scottish-Minnesotan dad. She was born in Oaxaca and moved as a teen to Minnesota, where her father was a professor; then returned to Mexico after he passed away.
In contrast to the rise in hostile talk between the neighboring countries, Downs said “I can only speak highly of Minnesota,” but felt enough of an outsider to dye her black hair to blonde at one point during her time there.
After studying anthropology in college in the US, she began to be more interested in her cultural heritage and after dropping out of college and pursuing a stint as a Deadhead, she felt more open to explore.
She pursued singing in Mexico, initially recording traditional songs, until she found international success with her third album, La Sandunga, in 1999 on the Narada label.
Over the years, she has explored various themes on her albums, but has sung mostly in Spanish. She won one Grammy and five Latin Grammys and has collaborated with a range of musicians and acted as well.
Downs said that despite the ongoing presence of violence these days, she is hopeful for positive change in Mexico as a result of the election of a progressive president. Downs noted that her two home countries have a complicated relationship and compared it to a long marriage where the partners have to learn to get to a “peaceful place” to discuss their conflicts. “We have to get along,” she said.