Lila Downs can already smell the copal incense burning from homes during strolls where she lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. The aroma signals to the songstress that Día de los Muertos is near and her neighbors are expecting spirits of the dead to soon arrive. The traditional celebration where offerings are made upon altars for loved ones lost dates back centuries in Mexico. But death came closer to Downs with the rampant violence in her country and doctors giving a grim prognosis for her husband Paul Cohen.
"No matter where you go, you are confronted with the news which is very alarming and sad," Downs tells the Weekly by phone from Oaxaca. "At the same time, my personal life was affected by the possibility of losing my husband after 23 years together."
Transforming the specter of impermanence into inspiration, the singer began recording Balas y Chocolate ("Bullets and Chocolate"), a Día de los Muertos-infused collection. The album's artwork includes a sketch of Oaxacan anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón folding his hands like a gun and an altar with an ofrenda of cocoa beans. "It's the contrast between the human relationship with danger and this wonderful gift of chocolate," Downs says of the album title. "The vapor from the chocolate is what the ancestors come and crave."
Much like the ancestral tradition, the sound of Balas y Chocolate is upbeat and festive in the face of death. Cohen began crafting songs with Downs after he fell ill with an enlarged heart. Doctors didn't give him much time to live, a devastating blow for the couple raising a young son together. "We still have him so we're very grateful for that," says Downs.
They continued recording and now are touring the album together defying the odds. "My husband and I both try to invoke this melancholy and beauty of celebrating life. That's at the essence of this album," she adds. "In the end, it's about having hope even though death comes and takes her turn among each one of us."
Día de los Muertos travels from the spiritual to political realm when remembering lives lost taken by the government. After the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa last year, protesters in Mexico chanted "Fue el estado!" (It was the state). The rampant violence from drug cartels and security forces isn't lost on Downs when thinking about death.
"Most of the people who have been disappeared come from poor backgrounds," the singer says. "My mother always instilled in me to be very conscious of our roots and her background, which is very poor, Indian and from a rural community." In a duet with Colombian superstar Juanes on "La Patria Madrina," Downs echoes the popular slogan "Vivos se los llevaron y vivos los queremos!" for Mexico's disappeared.
The songstress also teams with the legendary Juan Gabriel on the new album to retool "La Farsante," one of many classics in his epic canon. "Oh my goodness, I never even dreamed that it would be possible because I've never had the opportunity to meet him," she says of working with Gabriel. The two traded emails with the icon praising Downs' music and even penning playful verses about her name.
It's been that kind of journey for the singer in recent years. Unexpected joys dance with whispers of death. So long as Downs can sing she can live through it all.
"When tragic things happen, of course, it takes its toll," Downs says. "But we're so blessed to have music and be able to express our fears, anger, frustration and, in the end, our resignation."
Lila Downs performs at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 556- 2787; www.scfta.org, Sun., 6 p.m. $49. All ages.