Originally created 05/24/04

Lila Downs crosses borders musical, cultural and spiritual

MEXICO CITY -- In the movie "Frida," Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky tells Frida Kahlo that her paintings "express what everyone feels: that they are alone, and suffering."

A half-century after the death of the artist famed for her anguished self-portraits and graphic depictions of pain and isolation, a young Mexican singer who physically resembles Kahlo - and appeared in a recent movie about her - is sending out a different message: none of us is alone, and all of us are one.

Lila Downs, the daughter of a Mexican-Indian mother and Scottish-American father who has lived and studied on both sides of the border, uses multiple languages and diverse musical styles to cross cultural barriers and embrace universal themes of humanity.

Her fourth and latest album, "Una Sangre" (One Blood), due for release this summer, continues that tradition, underscoring the message that all humans share the same origin, and should celebrate their differences - not fight over them.

The disc combines the strains of jazz, blues and Latin American rhythm on past recordings with additional African, Brazilian, Cuban and Arabic themes, the latter a statement against the war in Iraq. "One Blood" also speaks out against colonialism and racism, honors strong women around the world and pays tribute to classic Mexican music.

"It is a goal for me ... to treat music as a universal expression that at times has no name," Downs, 36, said during an interview with The Associated Press at her home in Mexico City.

The singer admires musicians including John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who she says have "crossed ideological, political, all types of barriers, because the substance of their musical message is very spiritual."

"I aspire to arrive at that moment."

For Downs fans from all over the world, she has.

"Lila, you are not a human being, you are an angel! Your voice and songs have such magical influence on me that I think every time I listen ... I'm taken to another world," Christina Thessaloniki of Greece writes in one of dozens of e-mails registered on Downs' Web site, www.LilaDowns.com.

"The power and passion of your music makes me see the most beautiful and graceful things in this world," adds Deniz Yilmaz, of Munich, Germany.

Jim Holbrook of Albuquerque, N.M., says Downs' music "heals and brings people together in a wonderful way."

Downs has been lauded in both the United States and Mexico for being a cultural ambassador of sorts. Her 2001 album "Border," offering songs in both Spanish and English, honors the millions of Mexican migrants who have moved north or died trying to, a project that has instilled pride in Mexican-American listeners while helping Anglos understand the true richness of Mexican culture.

The singer's capacity to bring people together arose from her own struggle to reconcile the two seemingly disparate halves of herself. Her father was an American university professor, biologist and painter from Minnesota. Her mother is a Mixtec-Indian singer from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

The two were married, but often lived separately. Downs spent her childhood and adolescence shuttling between the two countries and cultures. Her father's sudden death when she was 16 brought her closer to her mother, whom she says she barely knew.

"Suddenly, I was living with an indigenous woman my friends from school made fun of," she said. "For her it was a big blow as well, but I think we drew strength from each other. She is a very special, independent woman. ... She helped me a great deal to come out ahead, and I owe her a lot."

Downs pays tribute to her Indian roots both in her music and her appearance. She wears multicolored huipiles, traditional embroidered Oaxacan Indian blouses. Her long black hair is often worn in braids, and her neck and hands are covered in beads and traditional stones. On each of her CDs, she mingles English and Spanish-language lyrics with the Mayan, Nahuatl, Mixtec and Zapotec Indian languages. In "One Blood," she sings one song in Purepecha, an Indian dialect from central Michoacan state, and another in Trique, a language from one of the 16 ethnic groups that live in Oaxaca.

Downs' current group spans the continents and the hemisphere, with four members hailing from Paraguay-Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Chile, respectively. The fifth, her husband and the band's musical director, Paul Cohen, is from New Jersey.

Cohen plays piano and tenor saxophone, while the others are on drums, acoustic bass, guitar, harp and violin. Often mixed into the arrangements are the sounds of traditional instruments such as the African marimbol, a wooden box with a sound hole and metal strips that are plucked to produce different tones, and the jarana, a Mexican stringed instrument resembling a small guitar.

Downs' voice traverses the musical spectrum, delivering with equal ease Caribbean salsa tunes and English-language songs once rendered by Doris Day, Billie Holiday and Woody Guthrie. Her range dips from the smoky depths of bass and blues to the skin-tingling altitude of mezzo-sopranic opera.

The singer has always had a base of fans who either have listened to her in the small clubs of Oaxaca or on tour at U.S. universities and international music festivals.

But her following mushroomed dramatically after she appeared in the movie and sang on the soundtrack of "Frida," the 2002 film about Kahlo's life starring Mexican actress Salma Hayek.

Downs, who lives part-time in Coyoacan, the colorful, colonial-style neighborhood in southern Mexico City that Kahlo called home, says the fan mail on her Web site has doubled since the movie, and her music is now being distributed in Mexico.

"It's partly because of 'Frida' and it's partly because of a lot of hard work" said Downs, her speaking voice at once husky and lilting, her large eyes shining like polished black stones.

Despite an expanding profile that saw her sing at the 2003 Oscars and has propelled her into a dizzying schedule of photo shoots, concert tours and documentary filmings, Downs says she will stay in touch with the more personal, intimate side of her music, showing up to play her guitar for causes she believes in and performing in small venues.

"You can't enjoy yourself all the time when you're doing these big concerts where people are so far away from you ... and you can't hold hands with somebody in the front," she said. "That's a big part of our music, still. We want to keep it that way."


Trending this week:


© 2017. All Rights Reserved.    | Contact Us