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New-World Diva

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

It's fitting that Lila (pronounced "LEE-la") Downs called her 2001 album La Linea. While the title translates literally as "the line," it also means "the border," and no one musician in this hemisphere does as much to erase national frontiers as she does. Like Los Super Seven's Canto from the same year, La Linea offers up a Pan-American sound, a multilingual New World symphony of strings, horns and percussion.

Perhaps only someone with a background as unusual as Downs's could pull off such an album. Her documentary filmmaker/ professor father met her Mixtec Indian mother, a singer, in Mexico City while he was working on a film about the migration of the blue-winged teal (turns out humans aren't the only creatures crossing the border for a better life). Downs spent her childhood moving back and forth between Oaxaca and Minnesota. In 1984, when she was 16, her father passed away and she moved back to St. Paul, where she lived with relatives and attended college at the University of Minnesota.

She had inherited her mother's musical talent, and when she entered school, she majored in voice and took up opera. But Downs bridled at the latent cultural imperialism of the university. The only music worth their study was from Europe, her professors claimed. Downs resented the Eurocentrism, but she didn't have the confidence to believe in herself yet. All she knew was she wanted out.

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

"What happened to me -- and I think it happens to a lot of us -- is you get tired of having rigid control in your life in the educative system," she says, in a husky voice accented faintly toward the "yah sure, you betcha" of Minnesota. "In the music, I knew there had to be something else out there besides learning French, German and Italian songs. I wanted to explore something else -- I didn't know what it was. When you're young, you often don't know what it is you're looking for. Dropping out kinda helped me discover who I was and what it was that I was looking for."

At first, she became a neo-hippie. She spent the late '80s truckin' in the wake of the Dead. Like her mother, who didn't teach her daughter the Mixtecan language she used with her family, Downs rejected her heritage. She died her black hair blond and spoke English. She sold jewelry in the street to make ends meet. She says she was a little angry then and a lot lost.

"I was really unhappy," she remembers. "I didn't quite know why I was here, and I thought that somehow questions like that have answers. Then you realize that they don't, that in the end, life is about the act of living. I learned a bit of that, and as years go by, you start to really enjoy life more."

She also smoked a lot of pot -- "so much that I became a vegetable," she said in another interview. "The drug thing is cool if you survive it," she says with a laugh now.

After two years on the fringe, she re-entered society with a new resolve. "What I enjoyed about the Deadheads was that they were a very marginal group of people," she says. "My parents were first-generation up from poverty -- my mother was very poor, my father as well. They worked very hard to get an education, and then they really wanted that for me. It's complicated, because I think that's what we're suffering from -- I think you become dead in the head. And then you gotta go back in time and reach back for that thing your parents had, but you don't know how to do it."

Eventually, Downs went back to school, albeit with music on the back burner. "I realized that I could work out my major on my own terms -- interdisciplinary or something like that. It was women's studies, literature and philosophy, and I did my own study of weaving" among the Triqui Indians in Oaxaca. "That took me in the direction of the women's world, particularly Indian women in Mexico."

She hadn't entirely left her hippie past behind. She was attending Rainbow Gatherings in Mexico, an experience she likens to time travel. "You go back in time when you go to those Rainbow Gatherings," she says. "There would be this whole area where everybody would be naked -- you just really experience how it would be to experience ourselves as cultural animals. And so that contributed to my philosophy about textiles and weaving and that brought me back to music. I thought this is art -- life is art."

And comparisons to a certain artist are inescapable for Downs. Not only does she look eerily like Frida Kahlo (if she entered the iFest's Frida look-alike competition, she would easily win), but her background is also strikingly similar to the painter's. Both Kahlo and Downs had Oaxacan mothers and fathers of European background, and both were fascinated by Oaxacan textiles. Kahlo was a communist; so was Downs's father. Downs courts the comparison -- her publicity shots resemble Kahlo self-portraits -- but, hell, why not? It's her birthright.

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."

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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