Fervent Fiesta

Lila Downs

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.

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