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New-World Diva

Mexican-American singer Lila Downs learns to stop asking questions and start living

Downs spent the early '90s in Oaxaca, singing jazz standards in a bar by night and working in her mother's auto parts store by day. Which brings us, more or less, up to La Linea. Downs's sumptuous and supple alto wraps itself around ranchera ballads, blues and boleros; she even hops up a few octaves to deliver Mayan cumbias in a voice that sounds like a child's. The songs are about maquiladora workers sweating on the TV factory lines, illegal migrants lost in deserts with bloody bare feet, and lovers both star-crossed and starry-eyed.

The album's centerpiece is a surprise: a Woody Guthrie medley of "Pastures of Plenty" and "This Land Is Your Land" coupled with an original called "Land." (Shades of Los Super Seven again -- that band cut Guthrie's "Deportee" with Joe Ely singing lead.) "His kind of songs ring with something loud in the soul today," says Downs. "The story of immigrants and our history -- when there are problems and conflicts, we tend to look back in time and ask ourselves, 'Why are we doing these things?' We wanted to touch a very sensitive vein in people's hearts in the U.S. I grew up listening to those songs, and I remember having very warm feelings about the words, so I tried to put it in a context that made it more meaningful to me -- Latinize it, do a rap in the middle in it."

With its English lyrics, the song is much better received in Europe and America than it is in Mexico. "The way people see you is dependent on what you end up doing in music or art or anything, and sometimes people may place me more as a singer who should do more traditional music."

Downs sings Frida Kahlo's art to life.
Downs sings Frida Kahlo's art to life.

Oaxacans are especially keen to keep her traditional. "We do all kinds of music -- in Oaxaca, I will play all my music, but I know that people really prefer the traditional songs, and I'm okay with that. As long as it's an affirmation of something that's very meaningful to me about the Indian groups, then I'm happy."

Elsewhere in Mexico, she has trouble getting gigs -- particularly in Juárez, where the local authorities would just as soon forget that someone or some group has been butchering maquiladora workers for the last few years. "It's difficult for us to get gigs in that area because of the content of my songs and the women's issues in that city because of all those deaths," she says.

Not that she hasn't tried to get her message across. "I do like to look for trouble, but I'm getting better," she laughs. "They don't like trouble in some places. I'm getting more peaceful within myself, and music has helped me get that way."

Outside of El Paso, Downs hasn't played Texas, though she did visit San Antonio on a press junket once. "It's its own thing, man. It's like going back in time in Mexico -- even Mexico City doesn't feel like that anymore," she says. The bluesy and country-feeling jazz tune "Corazoncito Tirano" of La Linea, though, will make you think she's a native of South Texas; it sounds like Norah Jones if she were from Del Rio and not Dallas. "What we wanted to do is bring together the influences that we have, and we've always performed jazz standards with brushed drums. We wanted that feeling where you walk in these bars in Texas and there's just this certain feeling that you get about the music with the ballads, but we wanted to do it in Spanish, kind of do a ranchera. I think it really conveys that border feeling."

Downs says that her love of trouble and its close cousin drama is nicely complemented by her husband and collaborator Paul Cohen, who plays sax, keyboards and clarinet in her band. "Paul used to be a circus clown, and he has a very strong influence on our music," she says. "He's always into making people happy and smiling and getting up and dancing and clapping, and I'm really on the melancholy and dramatic side, singing these cantina rancheras and really sad blues."

All of which makes La Linea a sprawling roller coaster of an album. "It's a little difficult for us because sometimes people say it's better if you keep one concept on your CDs," she says. " 'Just do ballads one album and all the happy music on another,' but we just had to do what we do…"

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