Lila Downs and Buika pay homage to Chavela Vargas


Lila Downs

I first saw Lila Downs perform almost 15 years ago at a party in Mexico City. She performed jazz standards at the house of the American ambassador.

Over the years, I've seen her perform at least a dozen times in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Chicago. Her best performance I've ever seen was Friday night at Symphony Center in Chicago.

Her performance of the ranchera song "Paloma Negra" literally brought some people in the audience to tears.

The night was a tribute to Chavela Vargas, at 91, a legend in Latin American music. Vargas, who lives in Mexico, was there in spirit.

"The songs of Chavela will cure the sickness of the soul," Downs told the audience.

Downs talked about meeting Vargas. The first time she asked to meet her Vargas didn't respond.

"Maybe she didn't know who I was," Downs humbly said.

Here is Downs singing "Paloma Negra" in 2008.

On a second try, Downs met the Costa Rica-born singer, who has popularized the Mexican ranchera and made more than 80 albums.

They agreed to sing together and Downs asked her which key she would like to start with.

"Key-oooo," Vargas replied telling Downs just to sing.

Vargas' voice has been described as "the rough voice of tenderness." I would describe Downs' voice as having the sweetness of a butterfly and the passion of a crying woman. Her range is amazing from soprano to contralto.

Among the songs she performed were classics like "La Sandunga," and "Cucurrucucu Paloma." She put her own rap spin into "La Vida No Vale Nada." She also brought her unique voice and message of social justice to songs like "Minimum Wage."

For her encore she sang "La Llorona," based on the Mexican folk tale, drawing cheers from the audience.

Downs was born in Oaxaca to a Mexican mother and American father. Some people have compared her style of dress to Frida Kahlo, who adopted the dress of the indigenous women of Mexico. Kahlo's mother was mostly indigenous and her father was German.

Downs' mother is of Mixteco indigenous ancestry and her father of Scottish ancestry. Her style of dress celebrates the richness of Mexico. On Friday night, she wore a blue multi-colored skirt and blouse made from the colorful patterns seen in Mexican blankets.



Opening the show was Spanish singer Buika, whose voice is raw, deep and raspy.

She was born in Mallorca to parents from Equatorial Guinea, one of the smallest countries in Africa, where the majority of people speak Spanish.

Her voice is a cross between a flamenco singer and Tina Turner. Actually, early in her career Buika worked as a Tina Turner impersonator in Las Vegas.

She was striking on stage on a sleeveless black dress and oversized red beaded necklace. She sipped from a glass, a mystery drink, and every so often splashed drops to the floor as if for a ritual. She also took photos of her band while on stage.

There was raw emotion in her voice but at times it was hard to understand the lyrics which she slurred together in places.

She gave unique interpretation to songs like "Volver" and "Mentirosa." She used Spanish bulerías, the flamenco rhythm in 12 beats, in some songs and salsa and bolero in other songs.

Buika did not lack passion and was generally thrilled to perform in Chicago. She told a story of how she told her mother she would be performing in the United States but she didn't believe her. She then called her mother the night of the show to tell her she was in Chicago.

"What do you want?" she said her mother asked.

Buika was not deterred at all, not even by her mother's doubt.

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