Carolina Theatre, Durham
Friday, May 2, 2015
swept onto the Carolina Theatre stage in a hot pink mermaid skirt, her black top emblazoned with matching roses. Black braids hung from her head; a clutch of flowers, just starting to wilt, hung from her microphone stand. Behind her and her cantina-ready band, visual and lyrical translations appeared on a projection screen, while house lights flickered in time with the music. With her prodigious vocal talents in evidence, Downs’ stage show drew wild acclaim from the Durham audience, all completely on board for a sense-saturated ride through indigenous and Afro-Mexican folklore.
Now 10 albums into a prolific career, the 46-year-old’s bio is well-known, as the daughter of a Mexican singer mother and American anthropologist father. As if born to be an interpreter between two worlds, it became her quest to explore her Mixtec heritage, plus opera, tango, country, jazz and Mexico’s rich tradition of popular song. With her latest, Balas y Chocolate
, Downs takes a radio-friendly turn, engaging commercial Mexican Regional sounds more than she has in the past. Rather than a sell-out move, it seems like an effort to get past college-radio art song and reach out directly to the Mexican people. Downs wants to communicate to a broad audience.
She certainly has the voice to tackle classic rancheras, such as the tour de force “Cucurrucucú Paloma,” which distinguished Lola Beltran decades before, and a string of dramatic pearls by José Alfredo Jiménez. If Downs merely sought riches, she could easily devote herself to commercial ballads. But, like José Alfredo, she is not just an interpreter but a songwriter. Her genius is using traditional folk imagery to address contemporary life. Death, truth, bullets, corn seeds as siblings to human beings, cacao beans as ancient currency, and a dancing burro in sunglasses: These are all elements of Downs’ latest phantasmagoria.
Keeping effects low tech, she used a mini-bullhorn to modify her raps in the middle of a tango or a cumbia. While the rest of the world was scratching its head over the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight, Downs’ two accordionists faced off in a much more exciting duel—Sonora vs. Tejas. One arrangement of a classic ranchera was so innovative, it moved from ballad to pop to heavy metal to rap, encapsulating the history of Mexican popular music within a song. While Downs discovers messages of social equality in old torch songs, she also puts their machismo in “drag.”
The consummate cabaret performer, Downs seemed to have as much fun as we did, dancing vigorously, even doing zapateado
, a folkloric tap dance with Spanish and African roots. After the show, the audience lingered in the lobby as 3D posters and CDs disappeard from the merch table. Most had gone home by the time she finally emerged. Still,eEnveloped by a cloud of admirers, she chatted and took pictures with a few before making her way across the plaza to her hotel, sweeping out just as she’d swept in.