Bilingual singer/songwriter Lila Downs (pronounced lee-la), the daughter of a Mixtec mother from Oaxaca and a Scottish-American father from Minnesota, is an authentic representation of the mezcla of culture, language, and heritage found across the nation, especially in places like San Antonio.
With her musical performances, Downs dazzles her audiences who come from all walks of life, giving them a taste of Mexican folk music and her original work, which is a fusion of influences and genres from around the world. One show can feature cumbia, jazz, reggae, soul, and even rap music with lyrics in English, Spanish, and other Mesoamerican and native languages. Many regard Downs’ performances as a veritable feast for the senses.
Downs draws musical inspiration from “Lola Beltran, Mercedes Sosa, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and also indigenous music that may not be attributed to anyone but has (been) passed down through generations.” She thinks her music attracts diverse audiences because it’s full of a variety of emotions.
“We try to speak the truth through our music, as we live and perceive it. Sometimes with humor, other times with anger and pain, or forgiveness. Perhaps (audiences) are attracted to those things, the catharsis of emotion and the human experience,” she said. “But ultimately we try to have fun – and everyone wants that.”
On Friday, Aug. 26 San Antonio will have the unique opportunity to see Downs in action at the Henry B. González Convention Center’s Lila Cockrell Theatre. Performing alongside the Grammy Award-winning artist will be the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center‘s Guadalupe Dance Company, which is hosting the event along with Arts SA to celebrate both organizations’ 25th anniversaries.
“Lila Downs is an iconic singer. She represents the highest value of this genre of Folkoric song,” said John Toohey, Arts SA president and executive director. “Our niche in the community is to bring the world’s best performing artists here so that our audiences can experience the same quality of work that they could experience in any city in the world.”
The show will begin at 7:30 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, which are affordably priced between $19 and $79, click here.
While the show in August will be Downs’ first time performing at Lila Cockrell Theatre, it won’t be her San Antonio debut. The Esperanza Peace & Justice Center previously hosted the Oaxacan singer at the Majestic Theatre in 2014, and she performed at Trinity University in 2012. Downs currently lives in Oaxaca, “but (my family and I) travel a great deal and it sometimes seems that we don’t get to be there as much as we’d like,” she said in an email to the Rivard Report. The artist comes to San Antonio every few years, she said, alternating with Austin.
“I love San Antone,” she added.
Downs’ and Guadalupe Dance Company’s performance in August will “be a true collaboration” of song and dance that tells a story, said Jeannette Chavez, Guadalupe Dance Company director.
Chavez has been working with longtime choreographer Juan Carlos Gaytan Rodriguez, assistant director of Ballet Folklorico of the University of Colima, Mexico, to prepare the dance sequences that will complement Downs’ music and themes throughout the performance. It will be unlike any other show the dance company has put on, Chavez said.
“This is not quite a traditional (dance). (The choreography is) being created specifically for this concert,” she said, not wanting to give away any specifics about the performance. “It’s going to be a whole other level of entertainment and a whole different experience that people will not forget.”
The 14 male and female dance company members have been rehearsing for the performance for the past few months, Chavez said, preparing for the coming rehearsal with Downs later this month. The show will feature elaborate costumes and a curated setlist of music accompanied by a mix of traditional and more contemporary dance by the seasoned performers.
“We’re marrying some of (Downs’) signature themes that she includes in her music and some signature details that are specific to the dance company,” Chavez said. “So, mashing those together, there’ll be some surprises.”
Over the past 25 years, Arts SA has worked to bring diverse arts programming to the city to “enrich the cultural heritage, elevate the reputation, and magnify the potential of our citizens and community by joining San Antonians with world-class artists.” The organization has been revered around the city for its work in engaging both youth and adults with thoughtful arts collaborations and performances.
The Guadalupe Dance Company has exposed its audiences – who come not only from the Westside neighborhood, but from all over the city – to traditional Mexican Folklorico and Flamenco performances since its inception in 1991. Some of the company dancers have performed with the group for more than 20 years, said Chavez, who was one of the original dance company members. The company has progressed to include more contemporary styles of dance, but each routine contains contextual social and cultural storytelling elements, said Belinda Menchaca, Guadalupe education director.
“The productions over the years have gotten lots of support because they tell the stories of our community,” Menchaca said. “Our community feels empowered by that work. While we still train in traditional dance, the fact that we can incorporate contemporary movement and also tell stories that have social context, has been one of our signatures.”
Along with portraying immense pride for her native country and culture, Downs is also known for using her music as an outlet for her own social and political commentary. Some of her lyrics candidly touch on topics like immigration and Native American marginalization, leading some to refer to her as a musical activist.
“I love to show the world the beauty and spirituality of Mexico. Through music we are able to partake in the rituals of food, celebrate the strength of our Native American traditions and languages that are very much alive,” she said. “Especially in these times, I feel we need to teach people in the U.S. about who we are and the importance of our diversity.”
It’s that level of unapologetic passion, Toohey said, that Arts SA wants to expose the community to each time the organization books an artist or performance. Working with the Guadalupe on this special performance with Downs, he said, will allow for a “blend” of audiences, something that is important for the city’s art community.
“Arts SA doesn’t do a lot of work on the Westside and the Guadalupe doesn’t do a lot of work off campus, so theres a stretch in here for all of us,” he said. “This demonstrates that our organizations have the ability to get out of their silos to actively work toward a blended experience, the kind of experiences that are wonderful (and portray) the characterized culture in San Antonio that is often missing in other cities.”
For more information on Lila Downs’ performance, click here.
Top image: Lila Downs will perform at the Lila Cockrell Theatre on Aug. 26, 2016. Photo by Elena Pardo.