(This story originally appeared in Fusion)
The old, stately theater inside New York City’s El Museo del Barrio was stuffed rapidly to its seams on Saturday. As they peered at leaflets issued by the museum, the diverse audience (including families with children) sat and waited patiently for Lila Downs to take the stage.
The Mexican-born singer/songwriter was at El Museo’s beautiful El Teatro theatre to present songs from her new album, Pecados y Milagros. Released in January, it’s a collection of 14 tracks, some of them originals that Downs co-wrote with her husband and musical collaborator, Paul Cohen.
The stop at El Museo was part of Carnegie Hall’s free Neighborhood Concert Series, and part of the singer’s current tour, which runs through next month and places Downs in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, among other cities.
By the kaleidoscope of lights and instruments placed onstage at El Museo, it was soon apparent that the audience would experience something strikingly different from the regal feel of the theater they were in. Something earthly.
They are, after all, characteristics that have been associated with 43-year-old Downs throughout her career – and the concert at El Museo only reinforced them.
Downs’ music appeals to all ages. Deva Mangal, 34, was at the concert with his wife, Mayra Garcia, and their twin daughters, who are five.
“The girls like her [Lila Downs’] music,” Mangal said. One of the twins, who sat on her father’s lap, was too shy to say what her favorite Lila Downs songs were, so her mother responded for her: “Mezcalito” and “Zapata Se Queda.”
As sound rumbled into the theater – a blend of percussion and bass from Downs’ band – the lights were soon positioned onto the singer, who donned a corset and skirt with thickly stitched flowers in bold colors. Downs began the show by pouring what appeared to be tequila on stage – an offering to Mother Earth, she said.
She then helped herself to a swig of the liquor.The singer danced happily onstage for a bulk of the concert, backed heavily by her all-male band. Her long, dark hair was pulled back halfway – and two braided chunks of purple yawn moved with it as the singer stomped her feet and twirled onstage.
But the concert wasn’t all smiles for Downs.
“In Mexico some people have been dying lately,” the singer said reflectively midway through the concert, a reference to the rising violence in her native country. With that, the mood changed. The singer donned a country hat, and sang “La Reyna del Inframundo.”The singer’s reflective mood lasted for more than one song. “I want to dedicate this one to all the people who are grinding the corn from the tip of Alaska down to the tip of Patagonia,” Downs said before leaping into her next number.
“You are the corn people,” the singer added with a sweet and low laugh, before singing “Palomo Del Comalito.”The hour was over before the audience realized and, after Downs and her band bowed offstage, yells of “Otra! Otra!” grew loudly until the singer came back for a final song. Nuyorican Jose Acevedo and his wife, Petrina, enjoyed the concert. The married couple first heard of Downs’ music about three years ago while in Oaxaca, where the singer is originally from. They listened to her music the entire time while driving.
Downs’ voice is like “liquid smoke honey,” 61-year-old Jose said. “She inhabits every square inch of her body.”
“We were trying to figure out how tall she [Lila Downs] was, ‘cause on stage she looks like she’s 7 feet,” he added with a smile. “But she’s probably only 5’ 7’’.”
Though Guillermo Garcia had similar thoughts about Downs’ performance on Saturday, the 61-year-old expressed some worry after the show.
“It was incredible – a lot of energy. I was a bit depressed because of what she [Lila Downs] was saying about my country, Mexico,” he said. Garcia, who was there with his wife Anneli Fogelberg, said he felt there are two realities to Mexico.
“There’s the one of the border, the drugs, and then there’s the other reality,” he said, “that it’s [Mexico] is an incredible country that keeps on enduring bite after bite from those in power.”For 34-year-old Lisseth Morales, Downs and her music are a great source of pride. Like Downs, Morales also hails from Oaxaca. The housekeeper/student is also Mixteca, an indigenous group of people who are from Oaxaca, Guerrero, and/or Puebla.
“Being indigenous, it [Lila Downs’ music] always fills me with pride,” Morales said, “because we have a very unique culture and, though others don’t know about us, we continue to exist.”
For more information about Downs’ remaining U.S. tour dates, click here.