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In If You Can Stand The Heat, a fabulous book about chefs, restaurateur and their stories, Rick Bayless, aficionado of authentic rather than California Taqueria-style Mexican cuisine, describes how, during one of his many recipe-hunting trips south of the border, he came across Chiles Nogada -- roasted poblano chiles stuffed with shredded pork, dried and fresh fruit and various spices covered with an unctuous white cream sauce made from barely ripe walnuts whose skins were individually hand-peeled -- in a roadside stand during Dia de la Independencia.
Concerned he wouldn't find someone to share the recipe with him, he in fact found five ladies, one of whom even sent her daughter to acquire all the ingredients and then sat down with Bayless to write down every detail of the recipe. Writes Bayless: "Because it's so complex and time-consuming, I couldn't believe that such a luxurious meal was being made at a market - you have to hand-roast the chiles, hand-peel the walnuts, shred the pork. But in Mexico, preparing dishes for special occasions is so much a part of life that even market stall vendors make the effort."
Lila Down's La Sandunga album is exactly such a complex, time-consuming, mouth-watering aural dish of sharply contrasting, bold and piquant flavors. It's specially prepared for a momentous occasion - the celebration of Oaxaca and its often Mestize/Mixtec composers. Through the glorious pipes of Lila Downs, they gift us with deep-Mexican Zapotec waltzes, rancheros, habanera/contradanse derivatives, boleros (which we learn resulted from a mix of Cuban ballads and Colombian bambuco), corridas, malagueñas, sons, chilenas brought to Nueva España/Mexico by African slaves during Pizarro's conquest of Peru; and three bonus tracks of the classics "Perfume de Gardenias", "La Malaguena" and "Besame Mucho".
From guitar-accompanied tunes to raunchy, slightly out-of-tune oompah bands of massive brass and woodwind players, La Sandunga revels in the Mexican fondness for sacred festivities and ancient traditions tracing back to Spain, Africa and the Mestizo and Indian cultures in between. At ease with dreamy flights of fancy as well as highly charged romps -- whose mix of humor, mockery and saucy challenge completely transform Lila' entire mien, gestalt and voice as though turning her into an old, wrinkled and wicked bruja selling your soul to twisted love charms -- this album is extremely colorful and passionate. It's filled with life and death, the heat of chiles and the sweetness of hortacha, dancing on the potent tension between these atavistic poles whose presence makes itself felt far more powerfully in third-world countries than our sanitized, sterilized, safety-fied, 150 cable-channel "New World".
You'll hear sorcery and Catholicism, brightness and shadows, hope and despair, all revolving 'round Lila's evocative singing whose breadth, depth and fluid flexibility recalls Dulce Pontes, another personal favorite. It's very much like entering a different world stepping off an airplane and being simultaneously assaulted by intense humid heat, foreign smells both revolting and strangely attractive, visions of tropical trees carrying flowers, fresh and rotting fruit all at once. With death, ancestors, ghosts, saints and dancers wearing skeleton costumes flying around the market place, your experience of living intensifies. In its own way, La Sandunga gives us a potent dose of this very intensity. Lila Downs manages to wear all these disparate personalities and fill their skins to bursting. And that is quite the marvel to behold and experience, merely by pressing 'play' on an inanimate machine. Magic - that's what anyone but technically desensitized Westerners would have to call it. That's what I call it, too...