The Musical Life of Paul Cohen ’75
Juggling many different roles—saxophone player, composer, producer, arranger—in Lila Down's musical project comes easy for someone who used to be in the circus.
Paul Cohen ’75 has spent more than 25 years making music with his wife, singer Lila Downs, but before he could become a saxophone player, composer, producer, and arranger, he had to go join the circus.
After graduating from Haverford with majors in psychology and fine arts, Cohen moved to New York City to work on drawing and sculpture. One day, he became entranced by a juggler in Washington Square Park, and it led him back to the juggling he’d learned while in college—and straight to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
"It was even harder to get into than Haverford!” says Cohen, who hit the road as a juggler with traveling circuses in the United States and Europe, before landing with a French troupe that required everyone—even the jugglers—to play an instrument. “I’d been listening to a lot of jazz, so I picked up the sax and learned to play,” he says.
“I liked the circus life,” says Cohen, who is now 66. “It got me around the world, and I started coming to Oaxaca, Mexico, and played in some local bands—and that’s when I met Lila.”
The juggling saxophonist hit it off with the bilingual singer and started working up versions of American jazz standards and Oaxacan folk songs, along with composing original tunes and lyrics. One of the first things they wrote together was the title track of Downs’ 1994 debut album, Ofrenda. The song, whose name refers to the temporary altars set up during Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), is built from Downs’ bicultural upbringing—her mother is from Mexico and her father from the United States—and was inspired by her experience helping a man translate the death certificate of his son, who had drowned while trying to cross the river between Mexico and the United States.
The couple’s music quickly found an audience. “Word got out that we were doing something interesting,” says Cohen. “We got invited to play at a theater in Mexico City, then at bigger festivals.”
Downs, who sings in English and Spanish, as well as Indigenous languages such as Zapotec and Mixtec, won a Grammy Award in 2013 for the album Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles). But the music Cohen and Downs make under her name all comes from collaboration. “She usually comes up with the idea and melody, and I’ll harmonize it and come up with arrangements,” he says. “Originally, I was switching between tenor sax and piano, but now I spend most of my time on keyboards, clarinet, and tenor sax.” Over the course of 14 albums, Downs’ lyrics continued to expand in style and approach, incorporating influences ranging from Missy Elliott to Bob Dylan, alongside jazz, pop, traditional Mexican music, and songs about social justice. Their stage show has grown to feature a nine-piece band, with a concert schedule spanning North and South America, and beyond.
With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing touring to a halt, Cohen and Downs are trying to see the upside of no longer having to be on the road so much, which has allowed them to slow down and spend time at their Oaxaca home with their 10-year-old son. “Artists sometimes have a tendency to say yes to any invitation,” he says. “We don’t take sabbaticals—this has been a virus-given sabbatical.”
During their pandemic break, Cohen has been reading, playing music, writing new songs with Downs, and even doing some juggling. The duo has several ideas and projects in the works, ranging from a Latin-jazz record to a collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “There’s a lot of music waiting to be done, we just have to figure out what’s next,” says Cohen. “I ask Lila what’s next, and I follow her lead. We see which drumbeat comes up, and we get moving.”