Lila Downs hypnotized Morelia and absconded with the city's heart a few weekends ago. For a time, we Morelianos forgot about la crisis económica, we forgot about la influenza H1N1, we forgot about the violent problems that have plagued our city for more than a year. We forgot everything except the essence of la Lila, who worked her black magic on all of us and captured our every sensibility with her voodoo moves and bewitching voice. In a jam-packed Morelia theater, for a couple of hours on a Sunday evening, Lila Downs gave us the gift of letting us remember our best selves.
Mexico Cooks! has watched Lila (pronounced LEE-lah) Downs grow as an artist since 2004. We first saw her perform in the patio of the University of Guadalajara's Escuela de Artes Plásticos, and again at the city's Teatro Galerías, then in a marvelous get-the-crowd-dancing open air concert in the Plaza de las Américas in Zapopan, and most recently this September in Guadalajara, where she opened her 2009 Black Magic Woman tour.
The tour, scheduled to run from August through November, started late because, as Lila said, "Me metieron un cuchillo..." ('They stuck a knife in me...'). Just before the tour was due to open in Denver, Lila had a different, unexpected opening: her appendix had to be removed.
A scant month after surgery, still looking a bit physically challenged from the procedure, Lila launched the Black Magic Woman tour at the sold-out Teatro Diana in Guadalajara. But oh boy, two weeks later in Morelia, Lila was back at the top of her form.
Lila Downs and her incredible troupe of musicians took the stage with a bang in Morelia and never let up.
Lila is the daughter of a Oaxacan Mixtec cabaret singer and a father from the United States who taught at the University of Minnesota. Raised in both Oaxaca (in the far southern mountains of Mexico) and Minnesota (in the far northern plains of the USA), Lila grew up conflicted by her roots in two worlds. Viewed as an exotically brown-skinned girl in north, known as the daughter of a gringo in the south, Lila herself barely knew where she fit in.
When her father moved to Southern California, her mother sent teenage Lila to live with him to finish high school. After high school, Lila returned to her mother's home in Oaxaca. While visiting them at their home, Lila's father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Left alone with her Indian mother, bitter and angry that her father had disappeared from her life, Lila started college in Minnesota but dropped out prior to finishing her education. She stopped singing, although she had sung while growing up and studied voice in college. She drifted with the Grateful Dead, a Deadhead and latter-day hippie.
After a two-year mix of intensive psychotherapy and deep personal introspection, Lila returned to the University of Minnesota and finished a degree in voice and anthropology. Consciously or unconsciously, her studies mirrored both of her parents.
When she returned to Oaxaca after college, she finally discovered herself: rooted deeply in Oaxaca, profoundly influenced by the suppression and hardship suffered by Mexico's indigenous peoples, she composed. And she sang, for the first time in several years.
Lila! For a sneak peek at Lila in action, watch and listen to her perform La Cumbia del Mole.
In the mid-1990s, Lila met Paul Cohen, an East Coast saxophonist. They soon joined their lives and their careers to ponerse las pilas (put on the batteries) for huge success. Paul encourages her to keep exploring Mexico's music traditions: ranchera, bolero, ballads, and more. Lila's next CD, which she hopes will be on the market in 2010, will be a compilation of música ranchera, from the mariachi tradition.
On Saturday night before the Sunday evening concert, Lila graciously received Mexico Cooks! for a little private conversation. We both wanted to talk about Lila's newest project, a musical theater version of Laura Esquivel's book, Like Water for Chocolate. Lila and Paul are writing nearly 20 original songs for the musical, songs that Lila hopes will endure long after the curtain closes on the play. Like Water for Chocolate will have a libretto by Quiara Hudes (In the Heights, running since early 2008 in New York), with creative direction by Jonathan Butterell (most recently, Fiddler on the Roof revival) and music direction by Ted Sperling (most recently, Guys and Dolls and South Pacific revivals). Lila expects the music to preview in concert in 2010 and hopes for an off-Broadway opening soon after that--and then to Broadway!
Like Water for Chocolate, published in 1989, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. There are nearly three million copies in print. When Like Water for Chocolate became a movie in 1992, it won all eleven of the Ariel awards (analogous to the Oscars) for that year.
"I'm really excited about this project." Lila drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair. "So many things about this story remind me of life in Oaxaca, even though the book is set in the north of Mexico. Like Water for Chocolate has already had such huge success as a book and a film! It's just made for the musical stage. The work is a tremendous opportunity for us."
Lila grinned when I asked if she likes to cook. "I do! I really do! My recipe for mole is fantastic! I love nopalitos (strips of nopal cactus, often served as a salad), and I love beans." She rolled her eyes and ducked her head. "My husband calls me a real beaner." She laughed. "Seriously, the fragrance of beans cooking, the flavor of the nopal--those are things that say 'home' to me. Those are the things that give me so much nostalgia. That's one of the reasons I love Like Water for Chocolate so much: home, love, and food are all mixed together. But you know that. That's what I believe, and that's what your Mexico Cooks! is all about, too: a Mexico that is home, love, and food."
Lila moves to deep rhythms and moves her audience to intense feelings. "Lila, te estoy queriendo!" shouts a fan. "Y yo a ti..." Lila responds from the stage, blowing a kiss. ('Lila, I am loving you!' 'And I am loving you...')
Lila Downs' life is a complex mix of intellect and feeling, tradition and the modern, of joy and pain, of hard work and well-deserved success. She gives exquisite voice to her deepest self, she offers unusual accessibility to her adoring fans, and she's made it to the top in a very harsh world. If you are ever in a place where Lila will be singing, get a ticket. Whatever the cost, it's worth every penny.
Qué viva Lila! Te estamos quieriendo...(Long live Lila! We are loving you).
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