It will be Cinco de Mayo in a few days. Before you drink that margarita, before you have those guacamole and chips or enchiladas with delicious mole, I want to tell you about my love of Mexico. Well I should actually say my love of Mexican culture (which includes the food!). Other than a quick trip across the border to Tijuana when I was eleven, I have not actually traveled there, though I hope that will change in the near future. Much like what St. Patrick’s Day has turned into, Cinco de Mayo has seemingly become co opted as an excuse for 2 for 1 bottles of Corona and taco specials, though of course it actually commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle Of Puebla in 1862. Not Mexican independence as some wrongly believe, but an important military victory. Despite the misunderstanding it has become in some places a defacto celebration of Mexican culture along with those 2 for 1 Corona’s. Regardless of the misunderstanding, celebrating Mexican culture is never a bad thing, and there is an awful lot of it to go around.
If I were to describe Mexican culture using only two words I would simply say ‘colorful’ and ‘passionate’. From the richly dyed and beautiful textiles woven into blankets and clothing to the often subversive art bright colors dominate. Mexican art somehow seems more visual than in other cultures, and I think it is precisely because of those bright colors used throughout. There is a lot of representation of death and religious themes utilized, but there are also a lot of satirical ones too. Art in Mexico seems to be everywhere, be it simple folk art or street murals. Even the masks worn by professional wrestlers there have a distinctly Mexican flair to them. I may not always understand the meaning of it all, but I admire it deeply for the appearance and style. Art can sometimes be unapproachable, and even exclusionary, but I do not get that sense from the Mexican art I have seen.
The passionate side comes out partly with a strong devotion to soccer, but especially in the music, and there are a bewildering number of styles throughout the country. In my opinion, when one thinks of the music of the Americas, certain countries jump to the front of the line. The U.S. of course with Rock, Country, Blues, Jazz and more. Brazil has Samba, Bossa Nova and Forro, to name just a few. Cuba has Son, Mambo, Chachacha and the Rumba. Jamaica is the birthplace of Reggae but there are so many sub genres like Dancehall and Rocksteady that make that island one of the most musical places in the entire world. But I think Mexico should be right there on that list too. Just a partial list includes Ranchera, Norteno, Mariachi, Huapango and Cumbia. And that’s before you even get to contemporary Rock, Pop and Indigenous styles. One country, with lots of very different sounds.
It can be difficult to understand them all as an outsider but fortunately there is at least one singer I can think of who has attempted to weave her way through the maze. Mexican American singer Lila Downs has been a fixture on the world music circuit for years now. I first became aware of her from an appearance singing in director Julie Taymor’s inventive biographical film about the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Lila Downs also featured heavily on the soundtrack to the film. It isn’t just that she explores Mexican music, but she also freely incorporates other sounds in to the mix, from Hip-Hop, Jazz, Indigenous styles and beyond with her staggeringly powerful voice. She is intensely passionate (see, there is that word again!) about the music, and you can clearly hear it whether you are a Spanish speaker or not.
I decided to feature two songs in this post. One of the first songs I heard Lila Downs sing, the sublime Paloma Negra (Black Dove) appears on her album Una Sangre. At first I did not know it was actually a well known song performed by other greats like Lola Beltran and Chavela Vargas, but I sensed something hearing Lila Downs perform the song. It isn’t just that you can hear her classical voice training in this song. It isn’t just that you can feel the devastating sadness of this song of heartbreak- ‘my eyes are dying without looking into yours’. It is so much more. The tempo, the buildup to that long mournful note just shout that Mexican passion to me. Other countries have their own ways of expressing pain and sadness in song, but I doubt many do it with as much raw feeling.
The second song here is the title cut to Lila’s most recent studio album-Balas y Chocolate (Bullets & Chocolate. The song cleverly balances between the real- ‘There’s bullets flying in our world, in our world. There are those who duck the bullets, on the ground, on the ground’ with a simple bit of escapism- ‘Gimme mami chocolate, You are my chocolate, My life my sweet. The rap in the middle of the song goes even further-
If a bullet don’t kill me, a hijacking, or assault,
if I don’t choke on the volcano’s ashes,
From diabetes, cirrhosis
Neurosis psychosis necrosis or from an overdose
If alcoholism doesn’t get me
Or egotism, stupidity, or partisanship
an earthquake or boredom from the soap opera
I’ll take off and toast my cocoa beans
There are dreams that are born in the pueblos and for the people
There are people who live those dreams each day,
Yet despite the harsh reality of those words, the video for the song, filled with those wonderful colors and folk art coming to life, with children dancing to the happy sounding music portrays something else. Like the passion that exudes with Lila Downs singing Paloma Negra, it is the vibrancy of Mexico coming out. Despite the real life issues and headlines about Mexico, there is much to admire and celebrate. Whether that is on Cinco de Mayo or any other day of the year, celebrating a country and culture as rich as Mexico is always a good thing.
Paloma Negra-Written By Tomas Mendez
Balas y Chocolate-Written By Lila Downs & Paul Cohen
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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle