Mexican-American, singer, songwriter and actress, Lila Downs debuted at Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place from mid-September to October 15th.
Downs was born in Oaxaca to Mixtec indigenous singer Anita Sanchez and Allen Downs, a Scottish-American art professor and cinematographer and spent the better part of her childhood alternating between Mexico and Roseville, Minnesota, where she went to school.
While in college at the University of Minnesota she studied voice and anthropology and took an interest in her Mexican roots. Shortly thereafter, she withdrew in order to focus on her musical career and plunged into Oaxaca’s vibrant music scene.
She’s come a long way since I saw her perform at the Museum of the American Indian in 2006. At the time, she bore a striking resemblance to Frida Kahlo and was on the brink of “crossing over.”
She’s a Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards winner, she has recorded ten highly acclaimed albums as a leader and thanks to Mané Alta Costura of Oaxaca, who designs her costumes from traditional regional clothing and the textiles of Mexico, Downs resembles a Mixtec Goddess.
What hasn’t changed is her idiosyncratic vision and diverse repertoire, which includes a mix of traditional Mexican music, indigenous styles (sung in regional dialects) and a fusion of folk music, rock, cumbia, flamenco and jazz and her penchant for telling the stories of ordinary people and advocating for social justice.
In concert, Downs was joined by her 8-piece band “La Misteriosa,” led by her husband and longtime collaborator, Paul Cohen, who she met in Oaxaca when their respective bands played on the same bill.
Onstage, the set took flight with a lively “Jarocho” (a style of music from Veracruz), a romantic bolero and “La Sandunga,” the unofficial anthem of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the state of Oaxaca.
Between tunes, Downs told stories, lamented recent events in Mexico, acknowledged her Mexican, Native and African roots and thanked the audience for “opening their hearts to the Spanish language.”
As the set heated up Downs pulled out all the stops with “Zapata Se Queda,” belted out the classic tunes, “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps), “Cucurrucucú Paloma and the haunting, “La Llorona.” The set closed with the heart-wrenching ranchera, “Fallaste Corazón,” which brought the audience to tears.
Downs returned to the stage after a well-earned standing ovation and dedicated the tune “Smile” to President Obama and Immigration Reform. In this writer’s opinion, the tune was an odd choice. Having said that, I realize that there is always a method to her madness.
Her recordings and films shine, but there is nothing that compares to seeing Lila Downs live.
As I write this, Downs and Cohen are busy at work on her new recording, based on Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
“Si Va’ Llover” and the Advent of Música Artesanal
Henry Cole & Villa Locura release a new song featuring Alex López ‘El Callejero’ – “Si Va’ Llover” – and a new form of making and sharing music.
Alex López and Henry Cole met in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico sometime around 1992 when Henry attended the Manuel A. Barretto School.
Two images of Alex have remained forged in Henry’s memory. One is of Alex hanging out with Henry’s oldest sister, Tidzia Cole, and her friends in front of his grandmother Angelina Simon’s house on Calle Estación. The other is of Alex watching him from a little store next to the Cundo Rovira Pharmacy, where they sold “icys” (snow cones) and “empanadillas” (meat pies). Henry sensed that Alex was letting him know with his eyes that he was looking after him.
In 2006, the two met again in New York City during a Bomplenazo in which Henry participated as a guest of Los Pleneros de 21. Alex was part of the group Cocolay y sus Pleneros. As soon as they discovered they’re both musicians, they knew they wanted to collaborate. Whenever they met up, they talked about doing something together.
The opportunity arose in 2019. Henry was to appear with this group, Villa Locura, in Mayagüez for the first time, and he invited Alex to join them. He also asked Alex if he had a song that he’d like to adapt for Villa Locura. Alex sent him “Si Va’Llover.” Henry listened to several versions of the song and created a new arrangement within a couple of hours. And then, the gig in Mayaguez was canceled.
Henry performed “Si Va’Llover” in Santurce last December (2019) and although Alex didn’t sing with him, it was clear that people loved the song.
In 2020, Henry decided to record the arrangement of “Si Va’Llover,” this time with the participation of Alex López and a dream band. This is the result!
About The Process
The recording of the song entailed two experiments. The first was for Henry to see how his music would turn out with Villa Locura, his band made up of local Puerto Rican musicians, with the exception of keyboardist Jason Lindner.
The second experiment was to explore the legendary AQ30 Studios in Bayamón, which during the 1990s Merengue era recorded many greatest hits. Perhaps the most famous was, Elvis Crespo’s megahit “Suavemente.”
Discussing the process, Henry says: There’s a lot of analog equipment from that era that wasn’t being used because most of the work now is done with Pro Tools. I wanted to get the gears cranking again on the machine that had been so successful.
I started listening to some of the albums that were recorded there to relate the space to the music. I called trumpeter Luis Aquino and asked him how they recorded and what kind of equipment they used. Every time I saw the founder and recording engineer, Ricardo Marty I asked him a thousand questions and slowly I gathered fascinating information about the use and the history of the space.
Through these experiments I got a sense of what it would be like to record my next album in Puerto Rico.
At one point I felt that the equipment and the space spoke to me and welcomed me. This was confirmed in the takes that we recorded. Especially when I saw how the artists shone as their parts were added, and how easy it was done. It took Alex only one and a half takes to record his vocals. ‘I put on my headphones and went on a trip. I felt everything flow at once,’ he told me.
We only had one rule in the studio: no plugin’s (signal processor, equalizer, or compressor). The sound had to come from the subject to the analog machines without “filtering.”
About The Art
The artwork was inspired by the Portfolio de Plena series, a set of prints created by the Puerto Rican painter, printmaker, calligrapher, Lorenzo Homar, and painter and the draftsman, graphic artist, muralist, and illustrator Rafael Tufino, who celebrated Afro-Puerto Rican music in the 1950s.
Also, Henry called the painter, Martin Garcia Rivera, who is very familiar with Homar and Tufino’s works, and respects the Puerto Rican culture.
“Martin’s process was an incredible learning experience for me. In the middle of the pandemic he sent me photos and meditations about his process for creating the piece, a process called Intaglio, using Punta Seca. One day Martin called me and I heard the joy in his voice, and knew that he had succeeded. That call lasted about three hours. We talked a lot about the painter, Francisco Oller, Puerto Rico, our culture, and Martin’s story.”
“The press is manual, it’s like traveling back in time to a hundred, two hundred, even five hundred years ago. The past is the present with different actors and all that today has to offer,” says Martin Garcia Rivera.
La Música Artesanal is Born
Once the “master” was finished, Henry shared it with some people in the music industry, garnering the usual results. Some said, “Wow, this amazing, it’ll stick.” And others said, “We don’t know if it belongs on a playlist, it’s too long, it’s too instrumental, it’s too jazzy, it’s regional, people consume a more urban sound.”
Henry was aware that even if there were some interest, he would have to give away his song for streaming, which generates less than a penny per play. And with a schedule of canceled concerts for the rest of the year, he realized he wouldn’t be able to continue in that direction, nor could he expect the industry to dictate what he should do with his music.
So Henry decided to take inspiration from the figure of the artisan, using this analogy: Craftspeople make their handiwork —whether it be jewelry, or furniture, or carved nativity scenes— but they would never expect to make a living by simply giving it away as if it were a free sample. This would leave the artisan with no profit to buy food or materials.
For example, there’s craft beer, craft coffee, craft jewelry. A craft beer is more expensive than a regular beer. Why? Because of the quality of the ingredients, the process by which it’s made, the attention to detail.
Henry developed the idea of launching his own platform to sell his art in conjunction with visual designer Abdiel Flores.
La Música Artesanal also seeks to bring together artists who share this same thinking and passion for their crafts. In this way, they’ll form a Mercado of craft musicians.
“And so,” says Henry, “I offer you here my Música Artesanal, created with the best musicians, artists, engineers, machines, and processes.”
“The ‘mission,’ was to create an aggressive, punchy, in your face, groovy, virtuosic sound. Also, I wanted to present my vision of New Plena and send a message to the other Plena, Bomba, and Salsa Bands in Puerto Rico, that, ‘This is 2020 and Henry Cole and Villa Locura is here!’ Aside from the lyrics, I composed all the parts. I brought in the bassist Ricky Rodriguez, who gave me the aggressive, nasty bass lines I was seeking. This virtuoso type of bass playing happens in Merengue but rarely in Plena. Also, there is Trap (a sub-genre of hip-hop ) played by musicians, not computers. ” — Henry Cole
Well, my people
If It’s Going to Rain, Let it Rain
Nothing Will Stop My Plena!
HENRY COLE AND VILLA LOCURA’S DYNAMIC SOUND AND ALEX LOPEZ’S POWERFUL LYRICS TAKE PLENA INTO THE 21ST CENTURY!
Henry Cole – Music, Drums
Alex López – Lyrics, Vocals
Martin Rivera Garcia – Art
Michael Brauer – Mixing Engineer
Emanuel Santamaria – Punteador
Axel Rodriguez – Guiro
Jason Lindner – Keyboards
Piro Rodriguez – Trumpet
Jahaziel Garcia – Trumpet
Jonathan Acevedo – Tenor Sax
Victor Maldonado – Baritone Sax
Javi Perez – Guitar
Giovanni De La Rosa – Guitar
Ricky Rodriguez – Bass
Jay Laboy – Coro
Antoinette Rodriguez – Coro
Sebastian Otero – Coro
Glorimar Nogueras – Coro
Recording & Editing
Giovanni De La Rosa
Idania Valencia – Mastering
Abdie Flores – Cover
José Diaz – Video
Joealis Filippetti – Promotional Voice Over
Tomas Peña – Promo, Editor
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