Lila Downs stuns Ordway with eclectic reimagining of traditional Mexican music

Lila Downs

Lila Downs Elena Pardo

With long braids and bohemian scarves trailing down from a black velvet dress, Lila Downs swept into the Ordway accompanied by her small brigade of musicians on Tuesday, filling the packed hall with her exquisite contralto voice.

Downs’ signature blend of Mexican traditional music, fused with jazz and pop, and with a few resistance songs thrown in, was met with enthusiasm at the Ordway—not surprising given Downs’hometown status. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico, the singer split her time growing up between Mexico and Minnesota. Her father was a professor at the U of M, which Downs herself attended as an undergrad.

Downs even played a new song dedicated to Minnesota. The only English song of the night, it lifted up what she called “First Nations people with brown skin,” and called attention to the invisibility and marginalization of indigenous communities, including those from Latin America.

There was a consistent political edge to Downs’ performance. With its chanted sections and rousing feel, “Son de Juárez” (about the 19th Zapotec president of Mexico, Benito Juárez) had the sound of an anthem, and during one section of the song Downs listed different tribes of Latin America and the United States, as though making a call for unity and strength with all First Nations people. She also made room for a dig at Trump, saying, “You are jealous of us” before launching into “Envidios,” a rowdy song about demanding respect.

Downs’ nine-person band, led by its musical director (and her partner) Paul Cohen, included trumpet and trombone, guitar and bass, accordion, and both drums and traditional percussion instruments, as well as a few moments of zapateado percussive dancing. The variety of styles made for a big sound—in fact, at times the drums and lower-toned instruments threatened to overwhelm Downs’ vocals, though this was a minor issue.

Behind the musicians, a screen displayed video projections created by lighting and video designer Christian LeMay. These sometimes showed documentary-style footage of Mexican workers or farmers, but there were also clever animations.

During “Peligrosa,” a pop ballad about a dangerous woman taking control of her desires, the projections illustrated a scene of graffiti and low riders, with tough-looking women strutting their tattoos and looking fierce. The projections for “La Iguana” had iguanas hanging out as part of its tapestry, while a number of songs delved into a Dia de Los Muertos aesthetic, full of skulls and calacas.

The trippy dancing skeletons were indicative of a thread of dark humor that ran throughout the show. “I’m melancholic by nature, Minnesota style,” Downs said, after her rendition of the legendary “La Llorona,” about a woman who lost her children and spends the rest of her days weeping by the river.

Downs’ soulful voice, rich and deep with resonance, aided her ability to go dark quickly. She can belt like no other, enrapturing the audience with her spell, and she’s got insane range as well, leaping into an almost falsetto sound in some moments, and an operatic high voice in others. Other idiosyncratic flourishes included Downs’ infectious laugh and a scratchy scream.

The evening offered a mix of new songs from Downs’ latest album, Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo, which she said focused on boleros and jazz standards, as well as old favorites, like the magical “Cumbia de Mole,” the perfect song for her encore.

La Llorona
La Iguana
Son de Juarez
The Daughter
Patria Madrina
Viene La Muerte
Cuccurrucucu Paloma
Un Mundo Raro
Son de Difuntos

Zapata se Queda
Cumbia del Mole
Seguire Mi Viaje

Pre-show notes: Curandero, which mingles pre-Columbian Indigenous instruments with electronic sounds, performed in the Ordway atrium earlier in the evening. Introduced by Rebekah Crisanta de Ybarra of Electric Machete Studios, the event also displayed visual artworks by 2017 McKnight fellow Xilam Balam as well as the pre-Columbian style flutes used in Curandero’s music.

The crowd: The Twin Cities Mexican and Latinx community showed up big time. The crowd erupted during the encore, with many leaving their seats to dance and take photos near the stage. Points go to the folks in the center balcony, the most vocal and enthusiastic members of the audience.

Heard from the crowd: A great many loud gasps were emitted any time Downs did one of her heart-stopping sustained belty notes.