It is no secret that many Latinos, especially in this country, have cultural hybridity. Many of us speak more than one language and are part of more than culture. “Complex” nor “complicated” don’t even begin to encompass this required “double consciousness” to navigate the U.S.
Yet, on Oct. 11, 2023, one woman proudly displayed her musical mixture in the OC.
Singer, songwriter, musician Lila Downs performed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. To describe it as gracefully bittersweet only scratches the surface of her powerful performance.
Admittedly, before that night, I had no idea who she was nor what her music was like. My close friend, who has seen Downs a dozen times over the last 20 years, asked me to join her as her plus one for Downs’ show. While I had no expectations, I was moved, in more ways than one, at this show.
As we entered the Segerstrom, in the center, there was a beautiful altar in honor of Día de Muertos. There were many white skeletons with hints of various colors, along with candles and plants. There even seemed to be red gerbera daisies and cactuses. And, of course, Mexican papel picado also made up this shrine.
Walking to our seats, the screen read, Lila Downs, Dos Corazones (Two Hearts). The stage was full of instruments. It was obvious this show was going to be rambunctious!
She came on the stage promptly at 8 p.m. She wore a layered dress, with a purple and light red floral pattern from the waist down, and a colorful top with white ruffles on her shoulders, adorned with white beaded necklaces. Her hair was braided in an indigenous style, with purple, blue, and pink ribbons intertwined.
Her dress attire and adornment symbolize who she is. With origins in both Oaxaca and Minnesota, Downs is the daughter of a Mixtec Indigenous woman and a U.S.-born father. Her narratives are about indigenous resistance defending the original vision of the sacred plants and food of her Oaxacan culture while continuing the traditions of the American continent. While she has produced songs in Mexican indigenous languages, she did not sing them on this night. In addition to being a human rights activist, her lyrics often tell stories varying from social injustice to the exploited Latin American chronicles of women of indigenous and working-class backgrounds. It is such intertwining that has resulted in her winning five Latin Grammys and one Grammy. Since 1994, she has released a total of 15 albums. Undoubtedly, she is one of the most prevailing and única voices that exists today.
She also wore a purple scarf from Michoacán throughout the show. At some point in the show, she also put on a black cowboy hat. She was certainly dressed for the occasion, which she explained was to “dar ofrendas” (give offerings”) to loved ones.
She opened her show with “Son del chile frito,” followed by “La Campanera.” For many of her songs, she gave details about where the song came from in Mexico. I remember saying to my girlfriend at some point, “It’s like she’s giving us a tour of her country.”
As if being entranced by her powerful voice and range, from bass to soprano, wasn’t enough, with her stunning seven person-band, we received another surprise: El Ballet Folkórico de Los Angeles. At first, these dancers were mainly women and dancing as Mexican-American cholos. This is known as cholo or cumbia dancing. When I saw this during her performance, I was reminded of the 2020 Netflix film, I Am No Longer Here. That was when I first saw this mixed dance style (which is certainly connected to Chicanismo).
As the night progressed, the dances also included males, and became more traditional. However, women were the main stars moving on the stage on this evening.
And this was the tone, really, of the evening: a mixture of music and dancing.
Last but certainly not least were the images on display on the big screen (on top of the band). With each song, there were either titles or different icons like cartoon instruments or caricatures of individuals at war. At one point, the screen was all in black, emulating Lila’s movements in skeleton form through neon colors. To me, this was all aligned with the Día de Muertos theme of her show.
The most heart-felt ofrenda that night was made to her late husband, Paul Cohen, who passed away last year. An image of him appeared on the screen during her rendition of La Llorona. Thus, this evening was truly a celebration of remembering our loved ones, a noche de muertos.
That was the only part of the show that was beautifully sad. It was also one of the few songs that she didn’t give a description beforehand (which makes sense: she wanted to keep her heartache private).
But just like the fusion that she is, she lifted us up from that sadness with more upbeat songs. No doubt, my favorite part of the show, the one that got me out of my seat and dancing, was when she did a cover of the Peruvian cumbia, Cariñito. I recognized this song, by Los Hijos del Sol, from The Roots of Chicha compilation album. It’s a song professing one’s love, with the hopes of never being abandoned by their partner (and believe me when I write, I was not the only one dancing to that song).
She played for about 90 minutes (and came out for two encores during that time). Of course, we all wanted more of Lila. Because she is alluringly magical. And, more importantly, she is us: a global fusion. She is a warrior and nurturer, speaking English and Spanish, representing both Mexico and the U.S. during this season of remembrance.