Lila Downs likes to collaborate. Her last disc, the Grammy-nominated “Raiz” (2014), teamed her with Argentine folk singer Soledad and Spanish flamenco vocalist Nina Pastori. For earlier albums, she recruited Spanish rock icon Enrique Bunbury, American singer-songwriter Raul Midon and Mexican cumbia master Celso Pina to record duets.

But for “Balas y Chocolate” (Sony), her 11th studio disc, released in April, the Mexico-based singer-songwriter snared two of the biggest names in Latin music, Juanes and Juan Gabriel.

She jokes that the two also represent the “bullets” (balas) and “chocolate” of the album’s title: Colombian rocker Juanes shares her passion for social activism, while Mexican singer-songwriter Gabriel echoes her love of life’s pleasures (including the fruit of the cocoa tree).

Downs, who will perform Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre, describes “Balas y Chocolate” as her most personal album yet. For an artist whose musical identity has been intensely forged from her distinctive bicultural existence, that’s quite a statement. “It’s the most personal, but it wasn’t as consciously so as the other albums might have been,” said Downs, 47, who grew up in Minnesota, California and the Mexican state of Oaxaca, the daughter of an American professor and a Mexican artist.

“This project flowed so beautifully. I credit the band because they really pulled us through on this one. We had the spirits of los difuntos (the deceased) helping us out.”

The specter of death runs throughout the songs of “Balas y Chocolate,” which she co-wrote with Paul Cohen, her husband and musical director. First the personal: Cohen was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart condition two years ago. “We thought he might die, so the album is a reaction to this crisis,” Downs said. “I decided to face this head-on, because that’s my style.”

To that end, she and Cohen turned to Mexican iconography and, even more so than on previous projects, wove these themes into the songs of “Balas y Chocolate.”

“In Mexico, we have a dialogue with the dead. Death is viewed as a natural progression of life,” she said. “I love the great equalizing value that it has. Everyone is going to die one day. That’s the beauty of folk traditions. They permit us to deal with that, but in a celebratory way.”

The album closes with Downs and Cohen’s impassioned statement of this theme, the cumbia-tinged march, “Viene la Muerte Echando Rasero” (“Death Is the Great Equalizer”), set to a poem by Asuncion Aguilar. “He was a farmer from (the state of) San Luis Potosi,” she said.

“He talks about the way we look at death and observes that even murderers, or the carpenter who makes his own coffin, everyone’s going to die. There’s something comforting about that.”

As for the political, the title track references the plight of immigrant children fleeing from the cocoa trade.

“My mind was on the border, because of these children coming from these (chocolate-producing) countries and the violence they often meet,” she said.

Her duet with Juanes, “La Patria Madrina” (“The Motherland”), also addresses the violence that plagues Latin America, as the song implores citizens to take action. “I have great admiration for him,” she said. “I love ‘A Dios Le Pido’ (‘I Ask God,’ Juanes’ signature hit). It expresses the nature of Latin American society, about not losing faith despite all the problems facing us.”
Downs had been trying to collaborate with Juanes for years, and after her third attempt, he accepted. “I felt very comfortable with Lila,” he said an email. “The power of her voice and the passion of how she lives makes me want to be part of her fan club.”

Perhaps an even greater coup was Downs’ success in getting often-reclusive Juan Gabriel to collaborate. “He was very gracious, kind and loving, yet crazy like he always is,” she said. “He told me we have three things in common: Juarez (his hometown), la patria (our homeland) and music.”

In a career stretching back to the ’60s, Gabriel has written thousands of songs. His duet with Downs on “La Farsante” (“The Pretender”) would not seem to be an obvious choice. It’s a tale of a lover’s accusations but as performed by Downs and “Juanga,” it serves as an allegory for a wounded Mexico. “That wasn’t planned, it just worked out,” she said. “But you can feel the anger when we sing this song in particular. In Mexico, it’s going to be tough. But if enough of us keep pushing, there can be positive change.”

By Laura Emerick

Originally posted in the Chicago Tribune