Lila Downs’ music is otherworldly, and not just in the metaphorical sense.
It’s true she can transport listeners to an aural world of lush, layered sound. But Downs’ music — particularly her mesmerizing vocals — also takes listeners to a literal world, one inhabited by outsiders: Indians living in “Spanish” Mexico, Mexicans of all backgrounds who “cross over” into the United States, even persons of mixed ethnic and cultural heritage — such as Downs herself.
Downs, the child of a Mixtec Indian mother and an artist/biologist father from the United States, understands the complexities of crossing borders — geographic and otherwise. She has lived in California, Michigan and Oaxaca, Mexico, where her mother was born. No doubt, Downs’ own experiences influenced her most recent CD, Border, released on the Narada label.
“The focus of the CD is on migration,” Downs explains. “It includes songs that speak in political ways about the issue, and as well songs that address the longings and desires of people that are separated by migration and start new lives.”
Local world-music fans will no doubt hear several songs from the new disc when Downs brings her interesting blend of ballads, Mixtec folk songs and Latin-influenced sounds to Asheville for the first time.
She’ll likely perform the CD’s first song, “Mi Corazon Me Recuerda” (My Heart Reminds Me). On it, Downs sings, “My heart reminds me that I must cry for the time that has passed, the time passing now … I am the time that is passing.” Grief for what is gone is a common theme on Border.
Other songs on the CD tackle the complicated concept of what it means to be an American. Track 7, a medley that includes Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and the classic “This Land is Your Land,” would make Guthrie proud. The medley concludes with a brief song written by Downs and bandmate Paul Cohen, titled, simply, “Land.” In it, Downs asks, “When did you come to America the free?/Who are your ancestors, what is your creed?/Who is the father, and the son, and the ‘we’?/Where is the spirit that sought liberty?”
In “Transit,” Downs mourns lost places and lost loves. “I cry for my beloved homeland/because I am so far away/with a saddened soul/I also cry for her/the one who is lost/and I, lost for her.” However, overemphasizing the lyrics — regardless how compelling — is probably a mistake where Downs’ music is concerned: She falls into the intriguing category of performers whose voices qualify as instruments. A classically trained singer, she can send her pipes into the rafters on one song, then follow it with a hip-hop-influenced piece where she’s almost rapping.
Downs sings primarily in Spanish, though she occasionally does a song in her mother’s Mixtec language (and sometimes sings in English). Backing her on the current tour are Celso Duarte on Veracruzan harp, guitar and violin; Paul Cohen on piano, saxophone and clarinet; Patricia Pinon on cajon (a South American percussion instrument); Carlos Garcia on Latin percussion; and “Lu” on bass. According to Downs, her new CD is more of an electric venture than Tree of Life, her 2000 release.
“Musically, we have incorporated more … electric guitar and more emphasis on percussion,” says Downs. Another strong emphasis on Border is the bass line, a powerful undercurrent in several songs. “Smoke,” which recounts a massacre, features an especially strong bass line that helps gird the harrowing story.
As powerful as the bass and percussion work may be, however, Downs’ voice is the lasting presence.
“She’s probably one of the most passionate singers out there in the world-music scene today,” says show promoter Mark Fields, who owns downtown Asheville’s A Faraway Place. “Her songs come so close to the heart and to her personal experiences, and she performs them with such feeling that it definitely comes through to the audience.”
Those experiences involved a life lived alternately in Mexico, California and Minnesota. Along the way, Downs earned dual degrees in voice and anthropology from the University of Minnesota, though she took a break halfway through to follow the Grateful Dead for two years. While she has said she had no money to actually attend Dead concerts during this time and existed on the periphery with other trust-fund-lacking Deadheads, she insists she still enjoys their music, and that she “especially miss[es] the sense of community that surrounded their performances.” Maybe that’s part of the reason Downs puts so much of herself in her own performances, viewing them as more opportunities to sing than financial coups.
“We hope that the public will enter the music and come away moved,” she says.