By Pablo Jaime Sáinz
Lila Downs has become an icon of the fusion between Mexican and world music. Her enigmatic personality, together with her smoky voice and great selection of songs, has turned her into a modern-day Frida Kahlo of music.
Her new album, “Pecados y Milagros/Sins and Miracles,” is the culmination of a journey intricately tied to her sense of purpose as a human being and an artist.
In the new album, Downs once again crosses the boundaries of music, of time, of countries, to create a spiritual work inspired in part by traditional retablo art, but also from her new role as a mother.
Lila Downs will be performing at the Balboa Theater, in Downtown San Diego, on Sunday, Feb. 26.
The new disc finds her once again unrestrained by borders, the Mexican-American singer/songwriter drawing inspiration from her new role as a mother – what she refers to as a “miracle”— and reflecting on the meaning of “sin” in today’s complex modern world.
Downs recasts the grand narratives of religion in light of contemporary issues while adding a visual component to the music by commissioning a series of Mexican devotional paintings that are thematically connected to each song. Each track on the CD is matched by a new retablo that explores an aspect of the CD’s intensely personal themes. The Latin Grammy-winning artist’s indomitable spirit is the common thread that seamlessly ties it all together to create a singular, multimedia work of art that transcends categorization.
“I find it fascinating that retablos continue to be an expression of the realities in today’s Mexico,” she said in an interview with La Prensa San Diego. “There is a truthful dialogue with God and the santitos about our wishes, moments of desperation, and gratitude for life. It is similar for me, to be going through these emotions.”
Some of the emotions imprinted in “Pecados y milagros” are turned into statements about the violence hitting Mexico in recent years. But in her music, Downs looks beyond the violence, into the depths of the Mexican soul.
“Being Mexican, people ask, what is my opinion of the violence associated with organized crime in Mexico, and my natural reaction is to feel sad and frustrated, ashamed and angry,” Downs said in the interview. “So I look to find elements and role models in Mexican culture that can transport me to some other place emotionally. I’m looking for the heroines and heroes of my time- one of them, I composed a song about- the women who make tortillas- they are the strength of our country and they work with their hands the sacred element of our sustenance in all of the Americas: corn.”
“Pecados y Milagros,” whose physical release was on January 31 was recorded in Mexico and New York and is a collection of 14 tracks, six of them originals that Downs co-wrote with Paul Cohen, her husband, producer, and musical collaborator. The remaining songs are re-workings of classic songs from famed Mexican songwriters such as Marco Antonio Solis, Tomas Mendez, and Cuco Sanchez, among others. She also collaborates with a cast of special guests that includes Mexican vallenato king Celso Piña, Colombian vocal legend Totó La Momposina, and Argentina’s Illya Kuryaki & The Valderramas.
Some of the classic songs include “Tu cárcel,” “Fallaste corazón,” “Cucurrucucú paloma,” and “Vámonos.” Six of the songs in the album are Downs’ originals.
“Three years ago I started to compose verses that reflect the emotions I feel about what is happening in my country,” explains Downs. “But I really needed the sacred part of life, something spiritual to accompany me and give me strength. And I started thinking about songs that give me wings, songs that take me places.”
“We are so very excited to bring an artist of Lila’s talent, creativity, intelligence, passion and beauty to Balboa,” says Bob Vogt, President of Will Power Entertainment. “It’s perfect timing to be able give the people of San Diego and surrounding areas such a magnificent musical gift.”
Lila Downs is the daughter of a Mixtec Indian woman who ran away from her village at 19 to sing in Mexico City cantinas and a Minnesota-born, Scottish-American professor who saw her singing and fell in love at first sight. Since she was a little girl, she’s been crossing all sorts of borders: cultural, linguistic, physical. That’s the reason why, she always includes San Diego in her U.S. tours.
“I love the Border,” Downs told La Prensa San Diego. “It’s like coming home. It always reminds me of the necessary movement that humanity needs to refresh itself. The border fence makes people think a lot about our similarities and our differences. There are so many different realities that converge at the border, and a sense of excitement, and also a fear of the unknown. It’s mysterious to me.”
Tickets for the Lila Downs concert range from $39/$49 and can be purchased in advance at the San Diego Theatres Ticketing Services, located at Third Avenue & B Street in downtown. They can also be purchased on-line at Ticketmaster.com. Proceeds for the Lila Downs VIP Reception will benefit the Latina women organization MANA (www.mana.org). For more information call: (619) 570-1100.