Friday, April 27, 2007

Lila Downs, Mexican-American Diva.

As summer slowly begins to warm away the cold shadows here in the northeast, one’s thoughts may turn to good summer listening. Being that it's almost Cinco de Mayo, let’s choose Lila Down’s “La Cantina” (2006). This CD will get the car-stereo pumping while you make those windows-rolled-down summer road trips.

It was The “Frida” Soundtrack that first brought Mexican-American singer Lila Downs to my attention, followed by her subsequent stellar performance on The Oscars in 2003. Her voice soars through the film’s songs, “Burn it Blue”, and “The Floating Bed”. She also appears in the movie, as the breathless gypsy singer in the smoldering tango scene between Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd. Lila’s alluring sound caught my ear, big-time.

Lila Downs’ story is an interesting one; being the offspring of an American father and Native-Mexican mother of Mixteca heritage, she grew up bouncing between Mexico, Los Angeles, and Minnesota. Her dad was a college professor whose academic studies brought him to Oaxaca in the 1960s, where he met and married Lila’s mother. As a small child, la “chiquitita” Lila sang the popular mariachi and ranchera songs of southern Mexico. After her parents split up, Lila spent a good portion of her childhood in the US with her dad, eventually attending the University of Minnesota (how much farther from Oaxaca can a body get?). Naturally she became somewhat Americanized, developing a love of classical and jazz, as well as rock and roll. Hippie Lila dropped out of U of M and even became a Grateful Dead-Head for a time, following the band from show-to-show in a VW bus and making her way by selling jewelry.

As she grew in to a young woman, the Oaxacan blood in Lila began to stir, then to pulse, then to pound. For one thing, Lila looks strikingly Mexican. Her jet-black hair and sculpted Indian features remind one of Frida Kahlo herself. Other similarities are not entirely accidental, as Lila has often referred to Frida as an inspiration and muse. Her tightly braided mane and colorful Mexican frocks summon the iconic image of Frida, to be sure. In the ‘90s, Lila answered the call, moving back to Oaxaca. There, while singing in clubs, she met American ex-patriot and jazz saxophonist, Paul Cohen. Their artistic collaboration (and romantic partnership) has resulted in some of the most eclectic folk-rooted music being made today. As “All Music Guide” puts it, “She has created a very individual strain of song that has indigenous Mexican roots and North American sonorities.”

The first fruits of the Cohen-Downs collaboration were a couple of cassette-only releases which leaned more to the jazzy/world-music side of the fence. By the late 90’s a more deep and folkloric style began to emerge in the music. In ’97 came the first CD, “La Sandunga”, whose standout track is a heart-wrenching rendition of the Chavela Vargas tragic ballad, “La Llorona” (the pioneering and legendary ranchera queen Vargas is another great influence on Lila). By the time she released “Tree of Life” in 2000, the lyrics of which were derived from the religious codices of the Zapotec and Mixteca tribes, Lila had found her voice. The result is an exotic sound, richly infused with layers of Euro-Spanish, Latin, and native Mexican music. Lila delivers the songs like a torch-singer; like a Diva, using her voice’s incredible range of pitch and tone to express the emotions of each piece. Against a black-velvet backdrop of Spanish guitar and native percussion, she conveys a jazzy sense of world-weary sophistication on songs like “Xquenda” and “Luna”.
2001 saw the release of “Border (La Linea)”, followed by the Latin Grammy award-winning “Una Sangre (One Blood)” in 2004. Both of these LPs weave an increasingly colorful cultural tapestry, incorporating traditional songs and instruments. Lila explores styles like norteno/Tejano, ranchera, mariachi, and even reggae on these releases. The “Border” LP is especially compelling, telling the story, occasionally with English lyrics, of the immigrant crossing the border from Mexico for the dream of a better life in the USA.

Lila’s latest work, “La Cantina”, pays homage to canciones rancheras; traditional, tequila-soaked ballads of the Mexican cantina bar. Cantina culture is central to small town life in rural Mexico, having given rise to cantina singers and table dancers, and a wealth of popular, heartbroken songs.

An excerpt of's review of “La Cantina” says this: Downs' dark, smoky voice is the perfect vehicle for these (ranchera) songs, which juxtapose the deep emotion of fado and mariachi music with norteno and tejano influences (notable especially on those songs that feature the legendary Texas accordionist Flaco Jimenez). Everywhere you turn there are deeper complexities lurking beneath the already complicated surfaces of the songs: the quietly wailing clarinet that follows the distorted guitar solo on "Agua de Rosas"; the ska-funk inflections that are constantly hovering around the edges of "Tu Recuerdo y Yo"; the dubwise phase-shifting effects on "Cumbia del Mole" (a song that explains how to make one of the more popular Mexican sauces, and which is helpfully performed in both Spanish and English versions). Very highly recommended. ~ Rick Anderson

The LP’s opening track, “La Cumbia del Mole” has instantly become one of my favorite tunes of all time. While spending some formative years growing up in Texas, I fell in love with certain Tex-Mex styles, especially the cumbia, an infectious Afro-Latin dance rhythm with origins in Colombia. The Tex-Mex or Norteno version of cumbia, typically played by small border bands called “Conjuntos”, adds melody to the rhythm with accordion and an almost klezmer-like snake-charmer clarinet (picture a guy in a fez). Yes, that’s right, Mexican and Tex-Mex music has German, Bavarian, Polish and Czech influences. Weird but true. Listen to the trumpets in a good Mariachi band. If they were a little more sober, slightly less slurred, they could pass for those of the German beer hall. The classic “Arboles de la Barranca,” covered by Lila on La Cantina, is a great example of the strong Germanic influence in Mexican music, with its anthemic trumpets and oompah-pah brass. I have seen and danced to great Texas bands like Brave Combo, performing polkas and cumbias. My favorite Tex-Mex artist is the almighty king of accordion, Flaco Jimenez, who appears as a special guest on "La Cantina". I have had the great pleasure of enjoying Flaco and his Conjunto on several occasions. If you can remain seated during a good cumbia, well, either you need another shot of tequila, or you have had one-too-many, and have passed out. (I also love a good mole sauce -“mole” meaning “the grind” or “ground”- a notoriously hard thing to make, because it typically involves dozens of ingredients. Why do most Mexican restaurants in the U.S. NOT have mole on the menu? Simple; it’s too complex and time-consuming to make!)

Like a delicious mole, Lila’s voice is dark, chocolaty and full of rich, smoky spice. La Cantina’s second track, “El Corrido de Tacha” is an example of the Tejano/norteno style at its best. The song tells the story of a country girl, still a teenager, who catches the bus to Mexico City to become a table dancer and singer in the cantina. Flaco’s accordion does some deft dancing of its own on this track. Next up is the soulful “Agua de Rosas”, a journey of healing, showing Lila’s more delicate side. The instrumental breakdown features a very Santana-styled guitar solo over a Cubanesque minor-key mambo. “La Cama de Piedra” and “Penas del Alma” are examples of the slow, weeping waltzes which are as much sobbed as they are sung. Their message: “Entre copa y copa” (from one glass of mescal to the next) we drown our sorrows and count our miseries. On a brighter note, the delightful “El Relampago” (The Lightning Bolt) is a refreshing treatment of a Mariachi classic. The lyrical violins and famous “ly ly ly's” make this one of our favorite warm-weather, top-down tunes. “La Tequilera” is another Tex-Mex number about a cantina “regular”; the female tequila-lush. Accompanied again by Flaco’s irresistible accordion, Lila sings the song with hiccups, sighs and “oys”, as if soused herself! (Apparently Ms. Downs is no stranger to the joys of agave!) Throughout the album, Lila adds unexpected modern production treatments, yet remains extremely loyal to the source material. Wonderful!

"La Cantina" makes you want to quit the daily grind, buy a casita in somewhere south of the border, and live a tequila-splashed life full of fiesta, music and mucho mole!

NOTE: This LP should be listened to while enjoying ONLY top-shelf, 100% blue-agave Tequila. My recommendation (if you can find it) Corralejo Reposado! Salud!

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