Death hangs over world music star Lila Downs’ latest album like a cheerful, skull-faced specter, its jaws clamped in a macabre grin.
The inspiration behind “Balas y Chocolate” (“Bullets and Chocolate”), the Mexican-American singer-songwriter explained, is the corruption and violence plaguing her native country — as well as her own close call with personal loss.
“We’re going through really tough times in Mexico,” she said, and that’s left her struggling with a wave of emotions. “I’ve been angry, scared, sad, pissed off, feeling like I wanted to kill somebody. … It’s difficult to feel anguish and anger, but to not be able to do anything about it is very difficult.”
Music, the musician added, has not only helped her cope but also provided a sense of release — one she hopes to share with audience members when she performs Tuesday in San Luis Obispo.
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The daughter of Mixtec singer Anastacia Sanchez and late University of Minnesota art professor Allen Downs, Lila Downs spent her childhood shuttling between Minnesota and the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca.
“Culturally, it’s quite different,” acknowledged the Oaxaca-born singer-songwriter, who also lived in Los Angeles as a teenager. “It was quite difficult to me as a child to pick up and go.”
But, she added, the ability to acclimate to different environments proved to be a “wonderful tool.”
Downs studied classical voice and cultural anthropology at the University of Minnesota. While working on her thesis on symbolism in textiles, she traveled to the mountains of southwestern Oaxaca to study weaving with the Trique indigenous people.
It was there, Downs said, that she was exposed to the music of Argentine folk singer and activist Mercedes Sosa.
“When I heard her, my mouth dropped (open). My life changed,” Downs recalled. “I suddenly heard that there was a singer in Latin America that had this powerful instrument that made me want to ... go back to music.”
Downs later completed her vocal studies at the Institute of Science and Arts of Oaxaca.
Musically, “I got stuck on the ‘70s. That was definitely an influence in my life,” said Downs, who has a particular fondness for Bob Dylan. “My father and I would sit and we would analyze his songs from very early on. (That’s how) I knew that you could sing about things other than pretty songs.”
Dylan’s lyrical complexity and political leanings clearly had an impact on Downs, whose music marries her rich cultural heritage with her passion for social justice.
Over the years, she and her husband, saxophonist Paul Cohen, have produced 10 studio albums.
Downs has earned two Latin Grammy Awards, winning best folk album for 2004’s “Una Sangre (One Blood)” and 2011’s “Pecados and Milagros” (“Sins and Miracles”). The latter also won a Grammy Award for best regional Mexican music album and achieved double-platinum sales in Mexico.
Downs has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, the White House and Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City. Her songs, meanwhile, have appeared on the soundtracks of “The Counselor,” “Frida,” “Real Women Have Curves” and “Tortilla Soup.”
“Balas y Chocolate,” Downs’ follow-up to her 2014 album “Raíz,” is centered thematically on Día de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. The album, which was released digitally on March 24, pairs serious-minded lyrics about civil rights with lively cumbia, norteña, hiphop and pop music influences.
Although “Balas y Chocolate” has a happy sound, Downs said, it sprung from a dark situation.
Two years ago, doctors announced that her husband, who has a serious heart condition, “was on his way out,” she said. She worried how his death would impact their son, now four and a half.
Most of the songs really are my reaction to this critical situation,” said Downs, whose husband successfully survived that ordeal. “(I decided) I’m going to deal with them head-on because that’s my style.”
When writing songs, she seeks to capture “those beautiful, bitter and sweet things that happen in life,” she explained.
“This album is very much like that,” Downs said. “It’s about the bitterness of death, but the sweetness of being able to laugh with your (loved) ones.”
The title track “Balas y Chocolate” deals with the plight of migrant children from Central America. The same countries that are driving children northward in search of safety and opportunity are major exporters of the cacao beans used to make chocolate, Downs noted.
“La Patria Madrina,” Downs’ duet with Latin music superstar Juanes, calls for the people of Mexico — and the world — to fight for the preservation of their land and country in the face of economic, environmental and political exploitation.
“We’re all in this together,” Downs said. “We have to try to do something better for Mother Earth.”
“Hopefully music will provoke catharsis and make people happy and inspire them to act,” she added.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$22.90 to $56
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org