Chiles for the Altar

By Brian Sonia-Wallace
It’s early Tuesday morning, and Lila Downs is in her kitchen in Oaxaca with bandmates. She’s making ginger tea with honey and a friend is cutting up tasajo for a soup. They cook together a lot, to the background rhythms and bright horns of music.
“The beginning of this year was scary,” Downs says, contemplating her upcoming tour, “between politics and life and sickness. Life as a musician is unpredictable, even with the success I’ve been so fortunate to have. We weren’t sure we’d get to play.” 
But now, Downs is preparing for a three-month tour that spans both sides of the border. They will work their way from Yucatan in the south of Mexico, up through California and Arizona, and then back down. As an activist and musician, touring gives Downs a firsthand window on the state of the world. “Everywhere we go, people are aware of nature changing,” Downs says. “From Veracruz on the coast to the mountains of Jalapa where orchids grow on the electricity lines, it’s getting hotter. Too hot. People in Mexico are very conscious of nature and natural cycles, it’s an affinity with indigenous roots and we’re proud of that! In the US, some people are on…another channel.”
Joining Downs onstage for this multimedia tour de force will be Los Angeles’s own Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company in their signature costumed splendor, and the all-female Mariachi Femenil Flores Mexicanas from El Paso, Texas. For the Ford engagement, LORE Media & Arts will transform the grounds with larger-than-life Mesoamerican-inspired sugar skulls, an altar installation, murals and more. “We want people to feel proud of who we are, to walk away from the show and not be afraid or hide in shadows,” Downs says. “What’s been happening lately in the news with detention centers is trying to make us feel less than human. It’s important for us as a community to strengthen ourselves through our culture, to reflect on who we are and derive strength and happiness from that.”
The new album Downs will be performing from this tour is called Al Chile (to the chili pepper). “Al chile is also an expression in Spanish,” Downs says. “It’s like saying, ‘be honest.’” 
In the song “Dear Someone,” Downs sings, “I want to go all over the world / And start living free / I know that there is somebody who / Is waiting for me…” Downs sings it melancholic, an homage to something past even as the lyrics point toward the future. I think of the living and the dead, and of families divided by an increasingly hostile border. “We perform some songs that make people cry,” Downs tells me, “And that’s a beautiful emotion to express.”
The bi-national singer’s style is eclectic and always in dialogue with the range of traditions that have given birth to her sound. Downs mixes dominant and indigenous languages with classic and new songs. “It’s always about pushing forward and looking for new arrangements,” she explains. “The last album featured more string ensembles, this one is more sonidera, with amplification, low bass and lots of accordion and Cumbia — it’s more festive and urban.” Music, Downs explains, is about remembering and connecting the past and present through the communication of raw emotion. Tears and celebration can and must exist side-by-side.
“Singing about chile is also kind of comic,” Downs says, “I like the surprise of that for the audience. But there’s also a respect and love for chiles in our culture. People laugh but also are in awe of doing a tribute to a fruit.”
Downs’ tours in the past have always centered around an album, but this tour, which falls around Día de los Muertos (November 1), will also be a show in honor of the holiday. During the festivities of Día de los Muertos, tradition holds, the dead come back to visit the living, who leave food on altars as an offering for them to enjoy. “It’s about food and dance and enjoying life, while at the same time reflecting on ancestors,” Downs says, musing on both the tradition and the culinary title of her new album, which holds many of the same seeds of celebration and remembrance, tradition and renewal.
Lila Downs’ Día de Muertos: Al Chile performs at the Ford Theatres on Saturday, October 19 and Sunday, October 20, at 8pm.