Balas y Chocolate, Lila Downs' 11th album, is easily her most personal. She and her longstanding musical and life partner Paul Cohen focus squarely on the current condition of Mexico, and the turmoil that rages within it: the violence of the drug war, the disappearance of students, the migration of children, rampant international greed, and unrestricted capitalism played out on its soil are destroying a large, varied ecosystem and indigenous cultures. In originals and a canny choice of covers, Downs juxtaposes folk and popular styles from mariachi and cumbia to hip-hop, pop, son, ranchera, and even klezmer. "Humito de Copal" is a rumbling cumbia. Amid guitars, horns, and layers of percussion, she sings (in Spanish), "...I am the person who disappeared/I am the woman who fought for her life/I am the student who is changing the rules/I am the one who demonstrates...I am nature's witness/I speak the word that the earth cries…." "Mano Negra" weaves klezmer and cumbia on pre-Colombian instruments and mariachi horns. Lyrically, it juxtaposes Mexico's violence with the beauty of its landscape. The title track addresses the plight of children who migrate across borders while their remaining families stay as it weaves funky, danceable pop adorned with swirling synth presets, accordions, horns, fat basslines, wah-wah guitars, and a hip-hop breakdown. Single "La Patria Madrina" is a killer duet with Colombian singer Juanes. The pair bridge the distance between Latin American struggles in the lyrics: "Saw hell, saw the news/Graves, the dead, destruction of Mother Nature…." Rock & roll, cumbia, mariachi, and bachata come together seamlessly in a militant statement of a truth that refuses to surrender: "You are the country of all my dreams/He who disrespects, I will cut his heart in two...Today I woke up and my sight was clear/Today I planted a seed of corn in an old tire in my barrio…."
The covers here edify the originals. Juan Gabriel's mariachi classic "La Farsante" is sequenced before a burning arrangement of Jesús Rosas Marcano's "La Burra." Downs and Cohen don't forget the importance of love, either (there can be no revolution without love songs). "Cuando Me Tocas Tu" is a simmering ranchera with saxophones, nylon-string guitars, hand percussion, and lithe horns that illustrate longing, commitment, and desire. The closer, "Viene La Muerte Echandro Rasero" ("Death Is the Great Equalizer") is a poem by Asunción Aguilar set to music. It is a celebration of death as a natural extension of life reflected in the celebration of Mexico's Day of the Dead. Martial snares, horns, pulsing guitars, bajo sextos, and chanted choruses detail resolute determination, the hope in the moment. It, and Balas y Chocolate as a whole, express that as long as one breathes, change is possible. Everything is on the line on this album. Though it reflects the dire present, it is also a statement of profound faith in humanity's future and an act of resistance against the powers of darkness.