Lila Downs at the Mondavi

Lila Downs at the Mondavi

Photo Credits: MARCELA TABOADA / COURTESY / Portrait of singer Lila Downs.

A celebratory night filled with colorful Latinx music

Before audience members even stepped into the the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday, Oct. 10, the Mariachi Cielito Lindo performed a couple of popular songs for everyone waiting to hear Grammy Award-winning musician Lila Downs. Creating the ambiance for the evening, many audience members came dressed in traditional Mexican attire: colorful dresses, shawls with flower designs and flowers pinned in their hair.

Lila Downs and her band members performed songs from their new album “Al Chile.” The entire evening was centered around Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2. Before entering the hall, there is an altar, or ofrenda, where students and community members can pay their respects to their deceased loved ones until Nov. 2. 

 Downs began her performance with “Son del Chile Frito,” and audience members couldn’t help but clap along and dance. The stage was colorful with not only her music but also the visuals portraying the lyrics on a large screen. Her voice was powerful and rich, bringing emotion to every word she sang. 

As the night continued, she played cumbia, serenatas with the Mariachi Femenil Flores Mexicanas and rancheras. Many of her songs were dedicated to the powerful women she has encountered throughout her life as she paid respect to their histories. With the concert theme being Día de los Muertos, many of her songs also paid homage to the loved ones she has lost. When performing “Dos Botellas de Mezcal,” she mentioned how she would leave a bottle out at the ofrenda for her grandmother and her father, joking how the dead seem to get more drunk than the living. 

For most of her songs, the group Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company danced folklorico. Downs mimicked the arm movements of the dancers, picking up her shawl and moving to the rhythm like a paloma, or dove. The dancers’ traditional garb were elaborate and detailed. Dancers dressed in vibrantly colored skeleton clothing.

The audience could not get enough of Downs’ beautiful voice. Their gritos (or celebratory shouts) proved their admiration for her throughout the performance. By the end of the concert, the entire audience was up on their feet, dancing in the aisles. Before she left the stage, the audience began to yell “otra” (another) repeatedly in hopes of at least one more song, to which she complied. 

Nadia Barboza, a third-year community and regional development major, and her friend Ana Sandoval, a third-year sociology major, said they enjoyed the performance. 

Barboza heard Downs perform with other groups and artists before, like Los Angeles Azules and Natalia Lafourcade, and had listened to Downs in her childhood. 

“I honestly didn’t know what to expect but it was really fun,” Barboza said. “We just wanted to dance the whole time. She did a few covers I would listen to growing up like ‘Los Caminos de la Vida’ by Celso Piña.” 

Sandoval enjoyed hearing her favorite songs.

“When she sung my favorite songs, like ‘Cariñito’ I was surprised,” Sandoval said. “It’s amazing when you hear a song that is your favorite and you hear a performer like her sing it; it is just mesmerizing.”

Karewith Casas, a fourth-year studio art and art history double major, shared how the performance related to his heritage.

 “I have only listened to maybe a handful of her songs, but my family is from Oaxaca and my dad is always talking about her and [how] her music is world-renowned,” Casas said. 

Bianca Magannam, a third-year psychology and Spanish double major who came to the show with Casas said the concert was “freaking amazing.”

“She had a really good energy and obviously good performance, but you could tell when she put her emotions into her songs and the depth in her voice,” Casas said. “And I really like that people stand after. It was kind of painful sitting down and only clapping. It was great being able to dance after since it’s music that you have to move to.”

“[I enjoyed how Downs] orchestrated the music to go through different types of rhythms and started from high energy and then to a slow energy, taking her audience through a nice roller coaster,” Casas said. 

Downs added the Zapotec language to her songs. Casas found it interesting “how that language can be adapted to fit the music.”

Luis Guzman, the bass player for Downs, discussed his views on the importance of integrating the significance of food in Downs’ music.

“Lila has always respected her themes through her concerts,” Guzman said. “In one of her past records, she dedicated the album to corn and to women who make tortillas from corn. If you go to Mexico, all women make their tortillas in the middle of the day in the kitchen. She focuses on social aspects and transforms them into her music.”

One of Downs’ popular songs references chiles and Guzman explained how “the chile is quite important for our cuisine. It is one of those things that we always have in the kitchen. It is something indispensable. It is important to have chiles in our lives.”

Guzman credits his father as his inspiration for getting involved with music.

“My father is a musician, so we always had music in the home. He had a collection of classic music on vinyl that fascinated me. He had a collection of classic rock and Cuban music. Later, I was influenced by jazz and other music from around the world — Spanish music like flamenco and also Dominican music. Lila’s style is very unique because her time spent living in New York had a revolutionary influence on all of her music. In the beginning, she mixes traditional music like the song ‘La Llorona’ with jazz and Mexican elements to create something different. I think that her music is eclectic, with lots of roots and keys from Jewish, Mexican and Dominican music. She also has the dual influence of the United States and Mexico in her music.”  

Downs brought her modern Mexican music to life with colorful, celebratory movements. Her voice transcends genre and delivered pure emotion with every word.

The interview with Luis Guzman was conducted in Spanish and translated by Arts and Culture Editor Liz Jacobson, Arts Writer Gabriela Hernandez and Campus Editor Kenton Goldsby. 

Written By: Gabriela Hernandez — arts@theaggie.org