Fletcher Hall at the Carolina Theatre of Durham was not quite full, but it was filled with passionate fans of Mexican-American singer Lila Downs for her performance, which was co-sponsored by Duke Performances, and was the final offering of DP’s 2014-15 season. The fans rained love – “te quiero, Lila!” – and requests down on the opulent singer and her eight-piece band. The group is touring in support of Downs’ 2015 CD, Balas y Chocolate (Bullets and Chocolate).
Downs has a compelling backstory: she’s the daughter of a Mixtec woman who ran away from her Oaxaca home to sing in Mexico City cantinas. A University of Minnesota professor who heard her there fell in love. Downs grew up in both places, with both cultures, and studied classical voice and cultural anthropology at the U of M. She draws on all sorts of roots music in making her own, although the traditions of Mexico and Mesoamerica exert the strongest pull. She sings in Spanish, English and Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan and Nahuatl languages. She’s a popular singer in the best sense, making lyrics about difficult social conditions and cross-border migrations, as well as love, death and other traditional topics. Her band is rich in rhythm, with two drummers and a bassist; golden with the flaring joy of tenor saxophone, trumpet and flugelhorn. It shimmers with guitars and jaranas, and skips and boogies with two accordions. One of the more amusing bits of the concert featured a duel by the accordionists, one from the state of Texas, one from the state of Sonora (one gathers that national borders mean little to Downs, but local areas mean a great deal). Sonora won.
Downs is quite a show-woman, and presented herself in a series of variations on her identity during the 100-minute concert. This self-presentation in the accoutrements of various Mexican cultures was reminiscent of the painter Frida Kahlo’s, especially given Downs’ vivid features and long braid of black hair, as was the melding of Mexican and Ameri-European content and style in the artwork. Like Frida, Lila favors the dramatic power of gorgeous shawls; unlike Frida, she can wear the hell out of a hat.
But it is the voice, Lila Downs’ remarkable voice, that this reviewer went to hear. If you don’t know it, try to imagine a blend of Virginia Rodrigues and Linda Ronstadt (on Canciones de mi Padre, etc.). Downs has a wide range, from falsetto and delicate high soprano, through a melting alto, to a growling contralto, and she can torch out like Ronstadt. But the voice is so clear, so pure – almost without vibrato, like Rodrigues’. Downs can also sustain those clear notes unwaveringly for an astonishing length of time. Combined with her flair for the dramatic, her storytelling rhythm within each song, and the rich instrumentation, the voice led the way to comprehension, no matter which language the listener did not understand, in this warm, heart-felt concert and beautiful encore that had the house dancing in the aisles.