‘Bullets and Chocolate’ on the Lighter Side

Mexican-American musician Lila Downs brings her new album to Lisner Auditorium Friday.

April 26, 2015

Mexican-American singer Lila Downs knows she can be pessimistic. Blame it on her leftist nature.

“I try to be progressive, and that goes hand-in-hand with being righteous in a way—and critical,” she explains.

She isn’t shy about using her full-bodied, three-octave voice to condemn governments and admonish injustices in her music, which generally has a symbiotic relationship with the Latin American news cycle. Her new album, “Balas y Chocolate,” or “Bullets and Chocolate,” came together as outraged Mexicans demanded answers about the kidnapping of 43 students in Iguala—an abduction allegedly ordered by the city’s mayor—and amid a U.S. border crisis that left more than 68,000 children in a tangled web of immigration red tape.

It is unsurprising, then, that “Balas y Chocolate” is marked by a particular bleakness. But obscured in the album’s themes of death, violence and drug warfare, there’s a dim light. It comes out in buoyant bursts—in a couple of bright-eyed lyrics, in some triumphant choruses. Those moments almost eclipse the darkness and leave room for a hopeful Latin American future.

Leading up to her performance Friday at Lisner Auditorium, the Grammy winner spoke to George Washington Today reporter Julyssa Lopez about the contradictions in her music and the range of emotions that went into “Balas y Chocolate.”

Q:  Your work orbits around social issues in Latin America. How did a year of such heavy news events influence the tone of this album?   
A: I have to say that it’s scary to live in a country that has so much violence. You think about the reasons that there is a drug war in the first place, and it makes you angry, it makes you fearful, it makes you upset. You actually feel like being violent yourself. But it’s always been an important journey for me to show love and pride through my music and to rise above the anger and outrage that I feel.

I did compose a few songs on this album that deal with the issue of the truth, which has been an issue in the news for quite a while in Mexico. I also invited people, like Juanes, on songs discussing the future of our Latin American countries in terms of morality. The songs are done in a way that I hope isn’t so explicit but provokes catharsis.

Q: Tell us more about the collaboration with Juanes.
A: I ran into him a few years ago, and I invited him to be on a track. He couldn’t make it, but then, we saw each other in Spain, and he said, “OK, I’m ready.” So I sent him “La Patria Madrina.” It was important to have him on this particular song because I wanted Colombia as well as other Latin American countries to be represented. I didn’t want it to be exclusive to Mexico because I hope the notion of the homeland is something that we feel proud of all over Latin America.

Q: The refrain in “La Patria Madrina” is “todo amanecio mejor,” which roughly translates to “everything was better in the morning.” It’s an idealistic line in a much gloomier song. Does it mean you are optimistic about the future of Latin America?
A: I tend to be a pessimist, so I turn myself around in music—it makes me want to survive and to live and to be appreciative of the gift in life. But through my music, I try to be the opposite. Maybe that’s why my whole thing is a bit of contradiction.

It’s funny because sometimes in a song like that, I can almost sound cynical—many people have taken those lyrics that way. But in this case, the optimism is truthful.

Q: You have said that you incorporated a Day of the Dead theme after your husband was diagnosed with a serious illness. What was it like adding that level of intimacy to the music?
A: I started writing about this issue of death and the Day of the Dead because of something that was close to my person. Because of that, this was probably less thought out than my previous albums. It’s difficult to deal with death— you can’t really express it in a logical way. Therefore, art served its purpose on this album.

Q: Does it change your live performance of songs if they are more personal and rooted in emotion?
A: I think so. I have new feelings, and I’m not quite sure what they are—each album is like that for me. I learn more about the songs that I write as we go on the tour. I’m discovering a lot of anger, but also a lot of happiness. It’s confusing right now, but I love that.