Lila Downs, Azul, Magos Herrera. Three Mexican singers with strong ties to the United States, each with her own ideas about what modern Mexico sounds like. Together they are the divinas, the divine ones. Not exactly divas, but not exactly not.
"I understand the term," says Herrera. "But mostly it's for marketing, something to call us. Do I think I'm a diva? No!" she laughs. But then she pauses, grows somber and continues, "At the same time, everyone has that divine spark, a connection to something divine."
Lila Downs is the most well-known of the trio. Her music was part of the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Selma Hayek's film Frida (that was her onstage with Caetano Veloso during the awards ceremony). From a mixed Mixtec Mexican-white American background, Downs sings traditional folk songs -- with a twist. The opening bars of "La Cucaracha," for example, become a flamenco opera in her hands. Then she launches into a more or less straight rendering for the first verse before she breaks into a rap for the second.
"She's really wonderful," says Azul, admiringly. Azul (her name is the Spanish word for blue) talks with a soft Mexican accent, hesitating while she searches for the right words in English. She tells me, "Lila's voice is one of the few that makes me stand still; when I listen to her I can't really move or anything. I have to stand still and just listen; she's that powerful."
Magos Herrera, who has shared the stage with Downs several times, adds, "She's wonderful, a great artist."
Does Herrera worry the Divinas concert might become the Lila Downs show? "It's hard to put all these vocalists together on one stage, all these egos and everything," she admits. "But for me, it's very clear that no one can express what you can express, it's unique in every artist, so there's no competition. Art is to be shared, so to me it's wonderful to be onstage with her."
Meant to coincide with the first National Sor Juana Festival in Houston, the Divinas concert is being presented by Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It's a project that Azul has worked on for years, she says. "Finally, this is coming true."
Like Herrera, Azul was attracted to American jazz as a young woman. "When I was 15, I started singing professionally. I was really in love with jazz music and the blues. Even through I could barely understand what I was saying, I was trying to sing the phonetics and to mimic all the beautiful women who inspired me, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, all these powerful voices."
While Herrera continues to focus on jazz, Azul's style is more of a fusion. "I'm a very big fan of music from [the United States], of jazz and blues, but also I love the acoustic, traditional music from around the world, especially gypsy music, African music and Brazilian music. It's been my passion to find the little connections that they have with Latin music, and to play with [those connections]," she says.
"What is it?" she laughs. "I would call it Latin roots fusion with a hint of everything else."
Asked what labels she uses to describe her music, Herrera is characteristically frank. "That's a terrible question! (Laughs) Honestly, I always have a terrible time trying to answer it. Actually, I wrote this tune called 'Definition.' It's trying to answer that very question. Obviously what I do is not straight-ahead jazz; I don't sing traditional jazz standards in English. Neither do I sing traditional folky world music.
"I think it's good to call it Latin jazz, somehow, because it takes the essence of improvisation, of sophisticated harmonies of jazz but also this other rhythmic approach to the music. So that's probably the best way to call it. We also have some pop-ish elements; that's why it's hard to name it just one thing. Really, it's a terrible question."
Herrera is much more eager to discuss the purpose of her music. "I hope people will be surprised at the concert. Sometimes we have the idea, outside of Mexico, that Mexico is some folky thing, and it is, but there's also this other side of the contemporary expression in the arts. Part of what I do is to incorporate Latin American sounds within the jazz vocabulary. There's a national and active jazz scene in Mexico that's happening and I'm part of it. That's what [you're] going to see [at this show], this part of Mexican music that is not very much exposed.
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"I do believe that at some level art has the function of entertaining. All of today's popular music, including jazz, has that function, but the arts are also a reflection of a country."
Azul agrees. "At the end of the day, music, singing, is really an instrument of the soul, of love, I think. Some people decide to use it just as an instrument for entertainment, which, I think, is different than the music we are talking about here. It's just singing, yes, but it's not just singing. You put so much energy into singing that those words, that melody, ends up being something else. I think that's what makes this music so compelling, that it's music made for the soul. Singing and playing music should be an act of love; it definitely is for me. So, there's no group, no race, no sex, or age that it's aimed at. It's for anyone that's willing to connect from soul to soul.
"When I'm performing I'm being the voice of the women, of my ancestors, of my Mexican people," says Azul. "Sometimes I feel like I'm not just me, but I'm generations and generations of women singing."
The Divinas concert is Saturday, March 25, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, 281-373-3386. Azul sings "Latin roots fusion with a hint of everything else."