Death stalked her homeland, then started sniffing around her home. Lila Downs responded the best way she knew how: She made death the subject of her ambitious new album, “Balas y Chocolate” (“Bullets and Chocolate”).
Not if you could hear Downs chuckling heartily on the phone from Mexico City, just before the start of a tour that will bring the Mexican American singer-songwriter to Lisner Auditorium on May 1.
“I venture to say this is probably the happiest album that I’ve done,” she says. “Death certainly brings out the best in us!”
There’s no weeping here. Accompanied by upbeat melodies and bouncy rhythms, the narrator of these unflinching songs in Spanish by turns teases, challenges and — given death’s tendency to win in the end — accepts death, without losing hope.
It’s a worldview steeped in the utterly sane yet mystical attitude toward death that comes from the Mexican side of Downs’s identity. On the Day of the Dead in early November, Mexican families visit gravesites and celebrate departed loved ones as though they were still present. Growing up near Oaxaca, Downs, 47, listened to her maternal grandmother have casual conversations with the dead and watched her mother burn incense and resin to create the fragrant smoke that was a wispy medium through which the dead might be present.
Now a savage and unnatural brand of death grips Mexico, including the unsolved disappearance of 43 college students last fall, just as Downs was working on the new music.
On top of that, Downs’s husband and close musical collaborator, Paul Cohen, became seriously ill with an enlarged heart two years ago.
“They told us that he was going to pass away,” Downs says. “I thought, So, he’s going to die. Then I have to get my [stuff] together, and I’ve got to just keep going. What would I normally do as Lila? Well, yes: I will sing to death. I am going to look at her straight in the eye, and I’m going to say, ‘Okay. You’re taking me on this trip now, and I’m going to enjoy, and I’m also going to be strong, and I’m also going to be sad. I’m going to be all those things, which is a very Mexican way of dealing with death.”
The doctors were wrong about Cohen’s immediate fate.
“He’s doing fine,” Downs says. “He had to cut out coffee, which was a tragedy for him. Now he’s been doing so well that he’s even having a little coffee. It kind of scares me, but you know, you’ve got to live.”
Cohen also is back in his accustomed place in Downs’s band for most gigs, playing saxophone and clarinet.
The lyrics and music of most of the songs on the album are credited to Downs and Cohen, yet when they began writing and jamming to work out the songs, they didn’t know for sure if Cohen was going to pull through.
“It felt like the cycle” of life, she says. “It’s our ninth album. It kind of felt like at this point in my life, it’s about giving thanks. It’s obviously about talking about social issues that we’re going through that have a lot to do with death. But at the same time, it’s about appreciating life and hoping the ones you love don’t die. And I think that’s the way that a lot of Latin Americans are feeling in these times.”
Downs and Cohen met more than 20 years ago, when she was launching her career singing in clubs in Mexico. New Jersey-born Cohen was traveling through Mexico as an itinerant clown-turned-musician.
It was an uncanny repeat of the way Downs’s parents had met: Allen Downs, a film professor at the University of Minnesota with an intense interest in Mexican culture, fell in love with Anita Sánchez, of Mixtec descent, after he saw her singing in a Mexican cantina. Lila was born near Oaxaca and grew up between Minneapolis and Oaxaca. As she sorted through the strands of her Mexican/American/Mixtec identity, Downs studied anthropology and opera singing in Minnesota, did field research in Oaxaca and spent a few seasons as a Grateful Deadhead, following the band and selling beads on the road
Downs’s career since the early 1990s, with Cohen at her side (they have a 4-year-old son), has been an extended exploration of Mexican, indigenous and folk traditions. In her music, cumbia-rock and ranchera-rap, electric guitars and requintos, brassy mariachis and bluesy boleros, old folk tales and new social-justice anthems all make perfect sense together.
At the center is Downs’s singular voice — cantina-classical — a three-octave instrument that delights in sustaining notes longer than an Olympic swimmer can hold her breath.
On the new album, the song “Patria Madrina” (“My Home Country”) is an anthemic duet with Colombian rocker Juanes. The lyrics (below in translation) and the video make clear that it’s a call to action against the crisis of violence across Latin America:
Woke up today with my eyes stuck together
Saw hell, saw the news
Graves, the dead, destruction of Mother Nature
Ambition, power, and I got depressed
The narrator is defiant:
You are the country of all my dreams
He who disrespects, I will cut his heart in two
Today I planted a seed of corn in an old tire in my barrio
Even though everything falls to pieces around us
I see you like a cannon in the center
At the end, Downs chants the slogan of the families of the disappeared:
They were taken alive, and we want them back alive
Downs says she insists on hope over the temptation to “stop believing that there’s any light anyplace. I can’t do that to myself, I can’t do that to my people, to our country.”
But she’s not naive. The title song, “Balas y Chocolate,” is dedicated to the children who are riding the roofs of trains through Central America and Mexico to escape the bullets flying in the ancient Latin American cacao cultivation zone. In the refrain, a child is asking his mother for chocolate, as an escape and a protection.
“Humito de Copal” (“Copal Smoke”) is a memory of the fragrant smoke her mother used to let the dead speak, only this time the smoke carries the voices of the silenced students, the disappeared, the murdered women. The song also is a commentary on journalism in the line of fire — the frustration of reporters who can’t unearth the truth of these crimes, the disillusion of the public that doesn’t get the truth from the news.
For a poetic survivor like Downs, the way to conquer death is to make it — or her or him — a character. In one song, the singer pictures “la pelona” sitting on a bench and deciding who will go next. In another, Downs takes wry consolation in the fact that we’re all going to die, including the killers.
There’s no song here that addresses losing your partner in life, but Downs sings a delicate ballad, written with Cohen, that celebrates what it’s like to have one in the first place, called “Cuando Me Tocas Tú” (“When You Touch Me”):
I lose myself in you
And I find my destiny
I am a fleeting light on this path
When you touch me
Lila Downs May 1 at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. NW. Tickets: $40-$60. 202-994-6800. lisner.gwu.edu.