Lila Downs, October 12th, 2019 Paramount Theater, Oakland
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
I find the United States as a culture is very removed from death outside of our fear of it and of course when it happens to someone close to us. We don’t like dealing with it, no sir not one bit. There are pockets were death is paid proper respect such as the voodoo culture of the Cajun and Creoles and many of the rituals of the the native tribes. Some may argue the pop blast of goth subculture has has a way with death though that seems dressed up more in cliches and cartoons than any serious association with our mortality or a deep cultural tradition going back decades. More Lydia from Beetlejuice than , “La Llorona”. But in Mexico and many other Latin American countries that have some version of Dia De Los Muertos it puts death front and center in one of the most famous festivals/holidays in the world. And it comes at you in all forms of artistic expression as something to celebrate that you are in fact still alive and also as a way to remember those who came before that have brought us to where we are now. Of course pop culture has bought and sold it’s share of Day Of The Dead sugar skulls and face painting kits but you can’t erase the burning heart of it from the cross-cultures it came out of.
And so once again music and dance prove they will rise above the soil in which the roots were planted to connect us all. At the show Saturday at the Paramount in Oakland Lila Downs and her band plus special guests brought everyone to together to celebrate death, life, and food through deep traditions with often with modern sensibilities.
I cumbia’d and swayed throughout most of the show feeling blissful to the point of almost being drunk. But show was emotional for me on another level because honestly I was jealous. I don’t’ have strong cultural roots like what was presented, as a mutt of a US citizen. Ironically Lila Downs is also a mutt, US born Scottish and Oaxacan but clearly grew up around some old school myths and magic it permeates just about every aspect of her music and live shows. I have no doubt that in some deep waters of my Irish and Italian backgrounds there lay some more paganistic celebratory festivals of death and I’m sure there are a host of other traditions once a part of my family tree but once my immigrant ancestors landed on this plot of land, if there was any magic left, it went out favor of being “American”.
Honestly, I can’t really tell you want it means to be a half Irish/Italian-American US citizen outside of a cynical answer like say we have a deep tradition of consumerism. U.S, culture on the whole certainly has roots like; jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, BBQ, beer, baseball… but there doesn’t seem to a universal reverence for these things in the same way Mariachi and Mole are revered traditions that are passed down and respected on a national and mainstream level within Mexican culture. I suppose the melting pot is our tradition and for better or worse it has proven messy and I don’t think we celebrate this nearly enough collectively on a national scale as much as we should. We also don’t have any unifying cultural symbolism like the jaguar or flaming heart. Again if I am to be cynical I would say Mickey Mouse because it certainly isn’t the bald eagle anymore. And what does Mickey even mean culturally? But whatever our symbols I do not see them resonating on the same scale that I saw Chile celebrated in the song “Son del Chile Frito” I know every Mexicano present at the paramount new every Chile that got name dropped like a who’s-who Oscar party.
And Lila has written several songs about Mexican food from Mezcal to Mole, and to the women who grind the chocolate among other things prominent to Mexican food culture. She even had a hit that celebrated Mexican revolutionary, “Emilano Zapata” who said one of my top ten inspirational quotes, “Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas,” I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.
And it is these traditions, bought forth through the music and the language that gave me a sense of loss of my own history but also allowed me to feel from many in the room and on stage a welcoming into their history a unification that extended beyond divisive borders brought by religion, economics, or politics and beyond me being a gringo. When the extended had of a dancer dressed in purple and black La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skeleton) called me towards the stage to dance I did so. I was the only one willing to do so.
And this brings to another very prominent aspect of the show, the audience. I was upfront and most of the audience in seats right around me were people like me (except not dancing but seated), and much more elegantly dressed in many cases. They looked like modern versions of those old audiences who would show up at theaters to see the amazing wonder from far off lands brought home by explorers and anthropologists. Whether they thought sitting was more respectful or whether they feared blocking the view behind them the music and the musicians so clearly were calling us to dance. On a related note: I saw Daniela Mercury at the same venue several years back and though she is Brasilian, she brought the same mix of contemporary music and deep tradition (in her case the Orisha tradition) to the stage for a mostly seated audience. This is important not as a slight against sitting but because those who could afford the seats down low and upfront were from my view largely NOT Latinos. The music of the people for the people… those people were in the back or upper balconies. And I’d look back every so often to see what “the people” were doing and sure enough they danced and cheered.
It was only towards the end of the show when she sang her latest single, that she formally asked people dance. “Cariñito“ meaning sweetie or little sweetheart is a joyous and upbeat cover of an old 60s Peruvian chicha (the fact that I not only KNOW THIS but have the original is indeed scary).
But even then many in the front rows seemed hesitant like they might be appropriating a culture. But if I have learned anything in my life on this planet you cannot appropriate the feeling and need to dance when called to do so. So much time now in the culture is spent on you can’t do A, B, C because of X, Y, Z. And so just her gentle nudge of “Please, dance…” is what we need more of to invite people in other cultural spaces and bring people together. In my hope and dreams of the future I Just wish it didn’t have to be requested. I wish so badly bring back the traditions of when people to just instinctively danced when the music called because it always does. And I always pick my seat based on where there is space to dance while being the least obstructive to others views. Upfront at the Paramount it is packed seating so I’ll admit I had about three seconds early on where I thought I should sit down but as is my tradition “screw it” soon followed and I danced, oh I danced in my little space in front of my little seat like it was paying my bills.
Even with the economics of who was sitting where being very apparent. That didn’t hinder the shows energy at all and from the audience cheers it was clear no matter where one came from or where one was sitting a GREAT time was being hand that could have only been made better if food were present.
And as the fiesta carried on about a two song in after the brief intermission I was served another “wake up” call. After one of the rancheras Ms. Downs thanked the Bay Area and Oakland for being a sanctuary for artistic expression because as she tours the country not every city is as open to what she brings. The Bay Area allowed her to be fully Mexican-American to freely go between Spanish and English to live her experience and culture out loud in ways that other places in the US may not (she didn’t name names but I can imagine some of them). She specifically sighted how the audience cheered and applaud in a way that called for “more” as opposed to a way that said “get on with it”. Also, other places in the US may bring audiences that feel less free to fully show their roots as well for a myriad of reasons. Plus the current cultural climate surrounding immigration and the border HAS TO be playing a factor. Me personally, outside of me bringing up my queerness, I can more or less walk just about anywhere in this country hassle free.
Knowing that artists and performers do not feel that freedom saddens me. So I do feel a sense of local pride that he Bay Area has tried hard to retain that be yourself wild west spirit my relatives came here for. Now, I am not sure if that freedom helped push the energy higher but Downs got visibly emotional several times, choke crying through part of a ballad at one point. I think in some ways the show was a a trinity of celebration of the culture, a release of tensions, and a mourning of how that culture has been treated recently but US politics and certain strands of the media. And so performing become a kind of political act and a unifying rebellion of sorts. Not to dissimilar form the Gogol Bordello show I had seen a few weeks prior.
Lila Downs is the best vocalist performing right now, period. The only singer who comes close for my money is New Zealander, Tami Nielsen. Downs can go low, and I mean Lola Betran LOW, and then hit the high notes we all wish Mariah Carey could still reach. 50s exotica singer Yma Sumac is the only other performer I’ve heard with that range . Now when I say she can sing let me be clear she is not as my fiend Deena calls them, “a buster”, like Adele or Beyonce or Sam Smith. She can belt but it is not shouted (there is real vocal control) and she can hold a note FOR-EV-ER! Good lord! And she can do so while dancing! Just to go back a moment to Daniela Merciry, she could also do the same, and so could for that matter Sammy Davis Jr. So I don’t need to hear or read another, “dancing and singing at the same time is hard”. No? Really? Have you tried practicing? No vocal power and range is all well and good on it’s own but to never level her singing there comes the emotions and the musical traditions she allows to shine. Most performers bring you the you the who, what, when, and where. Lila Downs also brings the how and why with every performance and that adds a layer to everything in the show from the flowers to the costume changes and the instruments.
And for this show she surrounded that voice with a fantastic band and as a special bonus the fantastic Mariachi Femenil Flores Mexicanas (an all female Mariachi band) from El Paso Texas. Marichai like punk and metal and many other male dominated genres doesn’t see a lot of all female groups in their ranks. And as somebody with a side obsession for females in male dominated genres of music history I LOVE seeing this kind of thing. And it was not tokenism by any stretch. The band like Lila Downs seemed to play with a freedom that maybe they don’t get when touring other areas I could see it in the smiles of some of the musicians faces.
There was also Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company as part of the festivities that came to the stage in a variety of traditional costumes doing traditional dances. There were refernces to the banidtos, to the claveras, to the luchedores many images that by the time I grew up with them were stereotypes and cliches but here were given the proper place and context.
I’ve been slowly trying to learn Spanish for YEARS. I started in high school but strayed from the path and have off and on gone back to try and master it. But on Saturday I didn’t even think about it Spanish words and phrases just came out of me. Even when talking to strangers. At one point I began to think part of me must be Mexican because I was either feeling ancestral call backs or music really does cross boundaries in a deep way. For the Latinos present I imagine it was a much needed and cracking kick off to the Dia De Los Muertos festivals ahead. For others maybe it was a bit of an education. For me I learned some things for sure but in the end got my usual reminder that I LOVE music. LOVE IT TO MY GRAVE. And LOVE dancing to almost all of it. And I was honored to be a part of one helluva an amazing fiesta all centered around the the lark that is life and the universality that is death with respect to food and love thrown in for good measure. So do me a favor, you owe it yourself and others (take your friends kids whoever) to see Lila Downs once in your life preferably now when she is in peak form just so you can see in person what a voice unadorned with theatrics but dressed in the riches of tradition can do.
Lastly. don’t think to much about death it will be here soon enough for now share some Mezcal and dance.
WHAT YOU WITNESSED OR WHAT YOU MISSED:
La Martiniana ([traditional] cover)
Son del Chile Frito
Viene La Muerte Echando Rasero
La San Marqueña
Cucurrucucú Paloma (Tomás Méndez cover)
Urge (Vicente Fernández cover)
Vámonos (José Alfredo Jiménez cover)
Piensa en mí (Agustín Lara cover)
Clandestino (Manu Chao cover)
La Llorona (Traditional cover)
Zapata Se Queda
Cariñito (Los Hijos del Sol cover)
Veracruz (Agustín Lara cover)
La Cumbia del Mole
FAVORITE OF SET:
Son del Chile Frito
Dancing with death during Viene La Muerte Echando Rasero