At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Tuesday, April 18.
Reviewed by Felicia M. Tomasko
From the moment Lila Downs stepped on stage, it was impossible not to smile. She is a fiesta embodied, a celebration in the flesh that bears tidings of joy, heartbreak, history, tragedy, and triumph. Her beaming face and dancing body draped in velvet, beads, and epic-length braids bore a passing resemblance to wild-woman artist Frida Kahlo, a comparison often made. This isn’t surprising as Downs’s won some notoriety for singing her composition “La Llorana” in the film Frida.
In person, Downs possessed an infectious exuberance as she danced, bent at the waist, arms akimbo, failing, undulating. While sometimes crossing genres can fall flat, Lila Downs’s music is satisfying in its texture. She has mastered the art of merging a clarinet solo with references to mole sauce, a Mixtec tune about a woman who smells like an armadillo, and a band that includes an electric harp, accordion, and a cajon. This talent is rooted in her own life which is filled with crossing cultures since she grew up straddling the border, living in the disparate locations of Minneapolis and Oaxaca’s Sierra Madre mountains.
Downs’s fusion-filled work ranges from the overtly political to the humorous; the evening contained selections from several albums. Her “Medley: Pastures of Plenty/This Land is Your Land/Land,” sung in English and Spanish, was particularly poignant in light of recent immigration law protests. Although plaintive and emotional, the song never seemed heavy-handed. The message was heightened by the accompanying video segments mixed by Johnny Moreno. Interspersing creative live footage of the band with other images, including migrant workers toiling in fields, brought the message home of what our land really means.
Her newest album, La Cantina “Entre Copa y Copa …” explores Mexican songs belted out in cantinas from the cancion ranchera tradition: songs of heartache, love, and longing. Although cantina songs may seem superficial after political commentary, that was far from the case, especially when sung by Downs. Her voice ranged from a deep resonance to a clear upper end of the soprano range and she segued from lamenting lyricism to delivery reminiscent of scat or rap.
Downs’s status as a role model was evidenced by the throng of not only enthusiastic children, but cheering adults, gathered for her post-show autographs. For nearly an hour, the entire band gathered for a discussion in both Spanish and English. This night, though, was not merely about Downs. The musicians sharing the stage were all virtuosos and during the Q&A, Downs was sweetly demure, encouraging bandmates to offer up answers and giving space for each to speak about their varied musical backgrounds. In music and in an evening of collaboration, Downs and her band reigned supreme.