Grammy award-winning musician Lila Downs is performing in the bay area at San Francisco Jazz Center for four nights, beginning this evening, touring her new album Al Chile.
Upon the album release of Al Chile earlier this month, Downs playfully explained in a statement that the work is, in part, a tribute to the indispensable chili pepper, a source of great desire and at times some suffering. The chile is also an almost mythical entity that absorbs the energy of her Mexican homeland. “We fry the chile, add beats from the city, then saxophones, trumpets and drums from the Mexican coast to keep the dance going. The village and the city are united by the same beat. With a mezcal in hand, we dream of a place with a palm tree where one falls in love and reflects.”
Downs embraces the cultural traditions and indigenous languages Mexico in her songwriting, singing in Mixteco — following her mother, in that respect — as well as an intimidating few others like Zapoteco, Mayan, Nahuatl, and Trique. You know, no big deal, she’s just capable of speaking more ancient and indigenous dialects than you can count on one hand. Multi-talented, Downs has also appeared in film playing minor roles, including as a tango singer in Frida. Behind the scenes, she has worked as a composer for several film soundtracks.
Her music is a blend of art and politics, with a clear and unapologetic humanitarian bent. A cover of Manu Chao’s track “Clandestino” updates the classic with a modern, relevant twist, both in sound and in lyric. “I mention the immigrant children in the detention centers and sing from the feminine perspective, about the thousands of women and children who migrate today,“ she told Rolling Stone Magazine. She referenced the vast history of humans migrating to emphasize her point that migration is inherently inhumane. “Ten thousand years ago, the first humans came over the Bering Strait. Human immigration has been the universal human story.”
The first single released from Al Chile is “Cariñito,” in which Downs takes her sound south of the equator, channeling Peruvian cumbia beats. The music video for the track draws a funky crowd of bar-goers to the dance floor of a colorful, low-ceilinged venue, where Downs’ presides over the floor in traditional garb, working her understated magic. It’s a celebration of pan-American folklore and modernity.