For her upcoming concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lila Downs promises to perform “our exitos” (hits) but “mix it up a bit.” Her program will draw heavily from “Balas y Chocolate” (2015), her latest disc, written as usual with her partner in life and music, Paul Cohen, who was facing a near-fatal illness as they wrote the album; he has since recovered. Though the specter of death courses through “Bullets and Chocolate,” Downs calls it “one of the happiest albums I’ve done. Death certainly brings out our best!”
Here’s an annotated set list:
“Una Cruz de Madera” (Luis Méndez Almengor) from “Balas y Chocolate”: In this ballad, a dying person asks to face death with dignity and without much ceremony: He doesn’t want a fancy coffin, or tears or sadness, just a “Wooden Cross” and a joyful song to send him off into the afterlife.
“La Martiniana” (traditional, arr. Cohen) from “Border”/”La Linea” (2001): Based on a traditional Mexican waltz, this jazz-inflected ballad implores a mourner “not to cry because if you cry, I’ll be filled with sorrow.” Instead she promises, “If you sing to me, I will live forever, I will never die.”
“La Iguana” (traditional) from “Tree of Life” (2000): This allegorical song, written in the son jarocho style (from the state of Veracruz), about a lizard that can’t get anywhere in life, is one of Downs’ most popular concert numbers.
“La Patria Madrina” (Cohen/Downs) from “Balas y Chocolate”: Recorded as a duet with Colombian superstar Juanes, “The Homeland” decries the impact of the drug trade and environmental devastation on Mexico, as it builds to a statement of purpose: “You are the country of all my dreams; he who disrespects [it], I will cut his heart in two.”
“La Promesa” (Cohen/Downs) from “Balas y Chocolate”: In this cri de coeur, the narrator laments: “How could you take everything from me? You promised you would love me. … I am looking, and there is no answer.”
“Viene La Muerte Echando Rasero”: (Cohen/Downs) from “Balas y Chocolate”: Based on a poem by Asunción Aguilar Galván, “Death Is the Great Equalizer” affirms the Mexican tradition of treating la muerte as a natural extension of life.
“Cucurrucucú Paloma” (Tomás Méndez) from “Pecados y Milagros” (2011): One of the most beloved of all Mexican popular songs, this huapango requires a singer with operatic technique, to scale the melody’s octave-spanning leaps. A signature song of the great Lola Beltrán (1932-1996), it tells of a man who believes his lost love, reborn in the form of a dove, has flown to his window and comforts him with its cry (“cu-cur-ru-cu-cú”).
“Zapata Se Queda” (Cohen/Downs) from “Pecados y Milagros”: A spiritual paean to Emiliano Zapata, leader and hero of the Mexican Revolution, written in a mash-up of Latin styles (norteño, son, cumbia). “Zapata Stays” asks: “Could it be you, Zapata? When I dream about you, there’s neither fear nor doubt about my destiny.”
“Son de Difuntos” (Cohen/Downs) from “Balas y Chocolate”: Set to a cumbia rhythm, this exuberant song confirms life’s brutal truth. Downs has introduced this son in concert with this benediction: “Even the diplomat and congressman … everybody dies, and we dedicate this song to the deceased ones.”