Lila Downs’ latest CD a homecoming celebration
BY LAURA EMERICK firstname.lastname@example.org March 28, 2013 3:10PM
Lila Downs is touring behind her latest album, “Pecados y Milagros” (“Sins and Miracles”). | AP
♦ 7:30 p.m. March 30
♦ Congress Theater, 2135 N. Milwaukee
♦ Tickets, $30-$100
♦ (773) 276-1235; congresschicago.com
Updated: May 1, 2013 1:58PM
Home means many places for singer-songwriter Lila Downs.
Born in Mexico, in the southern state of Oaxaca, to an American professor and an indigenous Mexican woman, a cabaret singer, Downs has straddled cultures her entire life. After growing up in Oaxaca, she moved back to the United States, spending time in California and attending the University of Minnesota, where her father once taught art.
Earlier this month, she headlined a tribute concert, “Una Cancion Para Mi Padre,” at the university’s Ted Mann Concert Hall. “It was a great homecoming, and such a special night,” said Downs, who performs here March 30 at the Congress Theater. “A couple of his former students have remained close to me and my mom, and one comes down to see us often in [Oaxaca].”
For Downs, all roads lead back to Oaxaca, which figures prominently on her latest studio release, “Pecados y Milagros” (“Sins and Miracles”). Over six originals by Downs and Paul Cohen, her husband and creative partner, and eight covers of Mexican folk standards, it explores her trademark themes of cultural identity, social justice, spirituality and empowerment. Two traditional Oaxacan songs, “Dios Nunca Muere” (“God Never Dies”) and “Misa Oaxaquena” (“Oaxacan Mass”), based on a 1046 text, anchor the disc, which just came out in an expanded version with a DVD. “Pecados y Milagros” (2011, Sony) also won a Latin Grammy for best folk disc and then a Grammy for best regional Mexican disc.
“It’s curious. In Mexico, people are more excited about the Grammy win instead of the Latin Grammy,” said Downs, 44, calling from Oaxaca, where she, Cohen and their young son live in a house with “a beautiful view of Monte Alban,” the archeological site whose ruins mark a center of ancient Zapotec culture. “I think we stood out more,” she said, laughing, in reference to her competition, the much better known Mexican powerhouses Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Gerardo Ortiz. “It’s wonderful to see that people are appreciative of the work we have done.”
That appreciation comes through on the DVD, which documents a sold-out concert at the 10,000-seat Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. Earlier in her career, Downs had her biggest fan base in the United States, but that seems to be changing. “With this album we toured Mexico more than ever,” she said. “In part because we wanted to stay home and be closer to Mexico. The music [on “Pecados y Milagros”] has to do with that. A lot of people are feeling the same way about the social circumstances in Mexico. These issues, we know why they are happening but we don’t know what to do about them. But we tried not to be too serious. It’s important to laugh at yourself. In that way, the album was therapeutic for me, and also I hope for the audience as well.”
Along with its music, “Pecados y Milagros” also is a work of visual art. To illustrate the themes on the disc, Downs commissioned artists to create retablos (Mexican votive paintings) for each of the disc’s 14 tracks. Latin music luminaries such as Mexican cumbia master Celso Pina, Colombian folk singer Toto La Momposina, and Argentinian rockers Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas also contribute to several cuts.
On tour, she performs with La Misteriosa, her longtime band. Downs, who has appeared in Chicago at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Harris Theater, Park West and Symphony Center, finds herself back at Headbanger Central, the Congress Theater, where she also performed last March. “It’s a crazy place, and it’s strange on the artist-friendly side,” she said. “But they know how to draw an audience. When we got there, it seemed really empty. But it filled up quickly with paisanos. We’re always grateful to the audience in Chicago.”