Thursday night at Prospect Park Bandshell, Lila Downs and her lavish twelve-piece band put on a show that was as American as America gets these days. Early in the set, the intense, impassioned singer and bandleader explained that Mexican music is a joint celebration of three cultures, African, Spanish and Native American. Then, addressing the Mexican contingent in Spanish, she made it clear that this was in defiance of the demagogue in the Oval Office. Even the non-Spanish speakers figured that one out – and roared their approval.
The red-flare trumpet cadenza that her Mexico City-based trumpeter fired off to open a duel with his American jazz counterpart, Josh Deutsch? Spanish flamenco, but with the biting chromatics of North Africa and the Middle East hovering in the distance. But then Deutsch took it straight into volleys of African-American jazz.
The insistent, off-kilter metrics of a couple of mariachi songs drew a dotted line across the water to Africa, while their bouncy melodies were pure, native Mexican. And the overtone-rich jangle of the Rickenbacker guitar – when it could be heard ringing through an awful sound mix – was pure heartland America, or Liverpool, if you go back a little further.
Downs’ latest album Salon, Lagrimas y Deseo goes deeply into the mariachi tradition, but as the show went on, she also took on the role of angst-ridden ranchera diva, cumbia siren and wounded Mexican film ingenue. Over the keening strings and frequently spine-tingling flights of a trio of members of New York’s own all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, she belted with characteristic raw power in her low register, and took a couple of dramatic flights up to the very top where she held on for dear life – and held the crowd breathless with how long she managed to stay up there.
There are many cultures in Mexico, but one common quality is resilience: the Mexican people have been through a lot, especially lately, and Downs’ songs reflect that. It would be an overstatement to say that love under an occupation is one of her themes, but any Spanish-speaking American can relate to her irony-infused narratives of trying to keep things together on a personal level while embattled from all sides. Minor keys soared and pulsed, guitars and cuatros rippled and strummed amidst blazing brass and undulating, eclectic grooves. Downs hadn’t been here in awhile, was psyched to be back and everybody was glad to have her here.
Another band who’re taking Mexican music to new places, Orkesta Mendoza, opened, cursed with an even worse sound mix. Yet while they were also missing their usual secret weapons – baritone saxophonist Marco Rosano and lapsteel player Joe Novelli – their songs proved to be so strong, and catchy, that they stood alone with just a guitar-bass-drums setup frequently spiced with trumpet, clarinet or creepily carnivalesque roller-rink organ. Like Downs, they played a bunch of slinky cumbias; at one point, leader Sergio Mendoza tried to get the sleepy early early-evening crowd to count down a number, James Brown style, but they weren’t having it. Charismatic baritone singer Salvador Duran worked up a sweat punching out the beat with his shakers while Mendoza switched back and forth between acoustic guitar and organ and their multi-instrumentalist played just about everything else And bassist Adam Rogers sang a number that was part latin soul, part Thirteenth Floor Elevators. Which makes sense: the Elevators were a Texas band.
The afterparty was at Barbes, and was even wilder. With their biting, chiming, punchy acoustic guitars and singer/dancer Julia del Palacio firing off machinegunning beats with her tap shoes, Radio Jarocho celebrated the pan-latin sounds that have steamed into Veracruz over the past many decades. With their colleagues Mariachi Flor de Toloache in the house, New York’s only original son jarocho band sprinted through a mix of funny, often smutty, wryly aphoristic songs about drinking, chasing women and smoking weed. Yet just when it seemed the party had reached its peak, they completely flipped the script with the best song of the night, a gorgeously stark, bolero-ish minor-key lament. This is what Trump wants to keep out of the country with his wall? Put a wall around this, wigface. Happy Fourth of July, everybody.