On the sonic level, Lila Downs’s new album, Salón Lágrimas y Deseo, occupies a beautiful but not readily identifiable place. Have those ska horns been lifted from Kingston, Jamaica, circa 1964, or are they a somewhat Caribbeanized take on Mexican mariachi music? Is the singer channelling some Parisian chanteuse, or deploying contemporary pop-ballad moves, or can we detect a touch of Eartha Kitt in her purring confidences? Jazz turns to cumbia; hints of tango appear and then fade away; the oompah rhythms of Tex-Mex border music are softened and urbanized.
Downs is a cosmopolitan; of that there is no doubt. But when the Straight catches up to her in polyglot New York City, she quickly gives credit to her husband, songwriting collaborator, and saxophonist Paul Cohen for the new sophistication that can be heard on Salón Lágrimas y Deseo. In fact, she suggests, their music is set to acquire even richer depths by the time she and Cohen next head into the studio.
“He’s really into classical music lately,” Downs says fondly. “He’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s Schubert today! And then it’s Beethoven!’ So I think his references are becoming more classical in nature—and yet we have been fortunate to visit certain places, like the Balkans, and collaborate with the musicians there. We went to Slovenia, I remember, and Greece, and Macedonia, and now we find those genres part of our music as well.
“But that’s just kind of being true to the world-music scene,” she adds. “I don’t think we see music as having to do with genre. Rather, we just learn from all the music that’s out there in the world—and that’s very exciting.”
Look deeper into the meaning of the music, however, you’ll see that it derives from situations closer to Downs’s home—or homes, as the case may be. The singer’s father was a Scottish-American professor at the University of Minnesota, while her mother was a Mexican singer of Mixtec descent; Downs spent her childhood in both Minneapolis and the Mexican state of Oaxaca. At the moment, however, neither place feels entirely safe to the 49-year-old singer, a situation reflected in her lyrics.
“Envidia”, for instance, sounds celebratory, with Jerzain Vargas’s virtuoso trumpet sketching out a Middle Eastern–inspired melody atop a driving party beat. But Downs’s words paint a darker and more complex picture: the song addresses both a lone woman’s resilience in the face of neglect, and the enduring presence of Indigenous culture—“Lakota, Inca, Azteca, Mapuche, Maya”—even after centuries of colonization and, as the title suggests, envy. It also, Downs says, speaks to the worsening situation of women and minorities in Donald Trump’s U.S.A.
“It’s really about this confrontational situation that’s going on,” Downs explains. “Feeling like you’re not even being seen as a human being, as a legitimate human being, is a difficult situation. Of course, it reminds me of the civil-rights movement, and I think that’s the moment that we’re in, in a certain way. So that’s what the song is really about: it’s about the notion of envy and jealousy and belonging and, I guess, fighting for respect.”
Lila Downs plays the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts next Saturday (March 10).