One in song and spirit
Singer-songwriter Lila Downs spans both sides of the Mexican-American border in her songs and her past.
LILA DOWNS, the Mexican-American singer and songwriter, sings of both sides of the big river with two names the Rio Bravo in Mexico, the Rio Grande to the north. On stage, Lila is like a woman possessed, speaking in many tongues her mother's Mixtec, the florid Castillian of romantic ballads, and the oakie English of North American folksongs. Lila Downs crosses borders in her songs. In Minneapolis, U.S., she wins over her audience with a Zapotec ditty about a man who refuses to sleep with his lover because she smells like an armadillo. In Oaxaca city, Mexico, she wows her fans with a rendition of American jazz songs. And her personal history spans both countries. Lila's mother was a singer too, a Mixteca Indian girl from the southern state of Oaxaca who was determined to break out of the restrictions traditional village society put upon young women. Speaking only halting Spanish, she ventured up to Mexico City and found work in a cabaret where she met and fell in love with Lila's father Allen Downs, a painter, communist and University of Minnesota professor. Lila was born in 1967 and grew up in both Tlaxiaco in Oaxaca, singing at house fiestas in surrounding Mixtec villages, and in St. Paul Minnesota where she studied opera at the conservatory. "You can say I had the better part of both worlds but really, it was confusing." Lila confessed. When she was 16, her father died and her life spiralled downwards into the streets: "I smoked so much marijuana I became a vegetable..." She hit the road with the Grateful Dead, an American rock band with a cult following, and saw North America. "I didn't know who I was anymore." Eventually Lila enrolled in anthropology classes and returned home to her mother's house in Tlaxiaco where she studied the textiles of the nearby Triqui Indian communities. Lila's most recent album launched in July 2001, "La Linea" The Border, explores through different music styles the joys and sorrows experienced by Mexican migrants who cross the border for a better life only to experience exploitation. Lila seems to be on the verge of a commercial breakthrough La Linea sold 250,000 copies in its first three months on the market, and her New York performance in summer 2001 won notice from the New York Times. Although she hesitates to describe her art as "world music", Lila Downs fuses Oaxacan song forms like the "Sandunga" and the "Chilena", with cool jazz from the U.S.. Lila, a slender woman with a huge voice, is a shameless admirer of the great Mexican Ranchera singers like Lola Beltran and Jose Alfredo Jimenez "They are my gods!" "Ranchera and country and western are both redneck music and they attract the same kind of audiences people who like to cry and fight and throw bottles at each other," Lila laughs. As Mexicans spread out and settle in different parts of the U.S., the border is now everywhere and music styles have begun to blend. Country and western and Ranchera are combining and mutating into something new: Rock Latino. More and more now, Lila and Paul Cohen, her partner and music director, and their six-piece band are following the new route of Mexican migration including North Carolina and Florida. She recently held a concert in Ciudad Juarez, a border city of migrants churning out goods for American consumers a place where over 150 women workers have been murdered in recent years in an ever-widening spiral of violence. Lila sang to the Mixtec women "La Flor de Maiz" (Flower of Corn), and paid tribute to their long and painful journey from the barren mountains of Oaxaca to the border: "Spirit of the Earth, Spirit of the Sea, Spirit of the luck that keeps you always walking on..." Lila Downs walks with them.
Gemini News Service
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