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Singer, Activist Lila Downs On Death, Music And Chocolate

For her latest album, Lila Downs said she 'took celebratory approach, which may be a certain form of denial.'

At a recent concert in London, seconds after taking the stage, Mexican-American singer and activist Lila Downs, 47, swigged from a bottle of mezcal. She spilled a few drops on the ground ("a show of thanks to Mother Earth," she told the crowd), passed it down to the front row and proceeded to perform a breathless 2-hour show. If there is a more cool way to start a show, I'm not aware of it.

Downs' voice, meanwhile, is one for the ages, with a mind-blowing range, endless sustain and operatic agility, capable of reaching down your throat and squeezing your heart.

On her latest album, "Balas y Chocolate," recorded shortly after husband and collaborator Paul Cohen received a terminal diagnosis (his condition has improved, thankfully), Downs sings about life and death, violence and corruption, missing students, murdered journalists and Mexican drug cartels. She mixes traditional and contemporary Mexican styles with funk, klezmer, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban beats, cumbia and gentle balladry. Very little escapes her grasp.

Downs brings her excellent band to the New Haven Green for a free concert Sunday, June 12, as part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

Q: Congratulations on performing at London's Royal Festival Hall. Did you get to interact with some of your British fans?

A: Yes, I did. I signed autographs at the end of the concert and met people from different parts of the world, some came from other parts of Europe to see the show, which was gratifying.

Q: What are some of the ways European audiences react to your music? Do you find there is a big difference between European and North American audiences?

A: Each country has a different understanding of culture and diversity. Both audiences are surprised to learn about our Native American languages in Mexico, their survival, and the beauty of our poetry.

Q: I listened to the BBC World Service interview you gave. In England, did you find there was a general awareness of some of the subjects — the communities along the Mexico-U.S. border, child migrants who come from Honduras, an important cacao producing culture — that you've sung and spoken out about over the years?

A: A lot of people are not aware of the complexity of these issues. I dedicated the song, "Balas y Chocolate," to the children who migrate from several cacao-producing countries, because I've read very sad articles in the newspapers about children looking for their families and being deported back to their countries, and end up being assassinated. I thought I should write something depicting the contrast of something so sweet as chocolate and the reality of cacao producing countries.

Q: You wrote more than half of the songs on "Balas y Chocolate" with your husband and collaborator, Paul Cohen, after receiving some terrible news about his health. Did you feel a sense of urgency at that point to say what you wanted to say, together, in a timely manner?

A: I decided to write some verses directed at "La Muerte," to death herself (as she is feminine in Latin America), as is the tradition in Mexico to compose some verses challenging her during the Day of the Dead festivities. Let's say I took celebratory approach, which may be a certain form of denial.

Q: Early on in the process, what sort of discussions did you have about the type of album you wanted to make, the sounds you wanted to achieve, the themes you wanted to sing about?

A: The homeland was very important, the celebration of cacao offering, of what we call giving and receiving, and certainly critiquing the lack of justice in Mexico.

Q: You've said that "Balas y Chocolate" is more personal than any of your other albums. Were there additional factors that contributed to the personal nature of the songs?

A: I think if you are a sensitive person it's inevitable to be affected by your society. I think this album was less thought out, and we worked on it together with the band in a more organic way.

Q: Along with the wide variety of lyrical themes on the album, you also celebrate so many different styles and genres of music. Some of the songs on "Balas Y Chocolate" switch abruptly between tempos and grooves, including funk, rock and hip-hop beats. Did that happen more or less organically while you were writing the songs?

A: Yes, we did workshops with the band, ate and drank good Oaxacan food and mezcal.

Q: Before the album was officially released, I read that some of the songs were leaked online. Was that upsetting to you?

A: No, I don't mind it because it is beautiful to know that people appreciate our music.

Q: What's next for you and Paul, in terms of recording and performing?

A: Recording some American standards, some huapangos and boleros and looking forward to performing with symphonic orchestra presentations.

LILA DOWNS performs on the New Haven Green on Sunday, June 12, at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Information: artidea.org.

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