In its own sultry, melancholy way, the official music video for Lila Downs’s song “Urge” may be the most subversive thing on YouTube at the moment. Dressed in a ragged, asymmetrical denim skirt and stilettos, with a giant white lily nearly as big as her head tucked behind her left ear, the singer strides purposefully into a dark salon full of silent women who regard her with inscrutable expressions. She begins to sing, and her lovelornplight becomes both the subject of a flashback to happier times and the soundtrack to an all-female dance party. The expressions on those women’s faces, once filled “con desprecio y con rencor,” gradually turn sympathetic and even joyous as they move to the slinky rhythm. Yes, the lyrics yearn for a wake-up kiss — “un beso enamorado” — but they also demand the love that has been denied to all these women, “porque también tengo de derecho de vivir.”
For Downs, who will be at the Granada on Wednesday, September 27, to open the 2017-18 season for UCSB Arts & Lectures, a woman’s right to live and to be loved is at the center of a musical journey that has taken her both around the world and back to her Mixtec roots in Mexico, where she is a national hero. Blessed with an opera singer’s vocal range and an intellectual’s acute perception of the relations between knowledge and power, Downs delivers a live performance that blends robust traditional elements with sophisticated messages about liberation and oppression. For “Peligrosa,” which appears twice on her most recent album, Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo, she studied interviews with women who had been hurt and read testimonies from the victims of domestic and political violence. The result is a ranchera with a difference, a mariachi-sounding song that celebrates the bittersweet reality of the millions of women that she sees as latter-day Adelistas, the famous women warriors of the Mexican revolution. “People respond differently to the music based on gender,” Downs told me by phone from her home in Mexico, “and that’s something that we can work out onstage.”
The concert on Wednesday will be preceded by a dance party in front of the Granada, a gesture representing the determination of UCSB Arts & Lectures to take its high-quality programming and mission of uplift and enlightenment ever deeper into the life of our community. Like Downs, who will be swarmed by music lovers hoping for selfies with the owner of one of the most recognizable voices in all of world music, Arts & Lectures spans a remarkable range, from the seminar to the street. Although the Grammy-winning singer can compete with any traditional Latin American artist for the hearts of a popular audience, she simultaneously operates on a musical level that routinely brings her into collaborations with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, with whom she is recording her next album.
On her latest, the title of which she translates as “Tears and Desire,” Downs celebrates both the diversity and the raw power of such classic genres as cumbia, danzón, and bolero. She said that the music is filled with “dedication to this disheartening situation,” referring both to the politics of contemporary North America and to the fate of a Mexico in which the gap between rich and poor seems to widen perceptibly with every passing day. “Peligrosa” means “dangerous,” and it shows the way that the personal remains political for women who refuse to accept the status quo. Come out to join in this chorus of those unafraid to let their feelings show, in whatever language.
Lila Downs performs Wednesday, September 27, 8 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). UCSB Arts & Lectures invites the public to join in a dance party with Chinelos de Santa Barbara on State Street in front of the theater beginning at
7 p.m. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.