It's not everyday a real life sirena comes to Raleigh. Lila Downs, the Mexican-American singer with a confrontational gaze and a voice to match, takes on mythological roles in many of her songs, from seductress, to murdering mother, to dispossessed child of the land. Her latest album, Border/La Linea, could pass for an updated soundtrack to the blacklisted film, Salt of the Earth, a 1954 labor drama filmed with actual Mexican mine workers in autobiographical roles.
Downs, herself the daughter of a Mixtec singer and a Euro-American academic, grew up in Oaxaca and Minnesota, both societies that viewed her as "exotic." As a result, she has had to learn to live on both sides of an invisible border, one which divides her European and Mexican ancestry, her mother's and her father's languages, traditions, and cultures. There is a certain irony to the fact that Downs' father came to Mexico to study migration--the migration patterns of the blue-winged teal. "It's a nice parallel in nature," she says, referring to the theme of human migration that preoccupies Border, during a recent e-mail interview with the Indy.
Now living in Mexico City, Downs has released her second solo album on Narada World to critical acclaim, actively tours Europe and the United States, and will appear soon in a major Hollywood movie about the life of Communist painter Frida Kahlo.
But it's the enchantment of her voice--with its subtle range of colors--that strikes you immediately, at times as deep as the proverbial ocean (in the love lyrics requisite of ranchera music), at other times otherworldly with a floating, Philip Glass minimalism. Her storytelling is wry, demanding and soul-searching. And Border does tell a story--that of illegal border crossings, of girls stitching jeans in the maquiladoras, of women left behind as men go across the border in search of work, of the struggle of the disenfranchised indigenous peoples of Chiapas.
The album is a breathtakingly powerful document, climaxing in a medley of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty" and "This Land is Your Land," supplemented with Downs' own lyrics that rattle us out of our comfort zone: "Say you're American, but what does it mean?/You are the particle the dust in the scheme/Now that you have all the things that you want/Did you ever look around to see who you forgot?"
In the political climate following Sept. 11, Downs sees the danger that Hispanic workers and the difficulties they face could be forgotten yet again. "Obviously the border issue has slipped from public consciousness, as if the migrants were to blame, as well as other more recent immigrants," she says.
It took the death of her father when she was a teenager to make Downs come to terms with her own mixed ancestry. "After my father died when I was 16, I realized I was ashamed of my mother and my Indian heritage. Slowly I began to accept myself."
Though she once dyed her hair blonde to fit in among the Nordic Minnesotans, she now wears black braids and native textiles called huilpas in the style of Oaxacan women. Besides English and Spanish, Downs also sings in the tongues of Mexico's pre-Hispanic cultures, including Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan and Nahuatl. Her Narada Records debut, Tree of Life, was based on the Mixtec Codices, ancient mythological pictograms that Downs was able to study through the aid of a Oaxacan government grant.
Downs began singing at age 5 with the encouragement of her parents. By 15, she started formal voice lessons, and she decided to sing professionally after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in voice and anthropology (that was about a decade ago). Downs currently performs with her partner, keyboardist and saxman Paul Cohen (whom she met while working in her mother's auto parts store in Oaxaca) and a band of international musicians, including fabulous Paraguayan harpist Celso Duarte and Argentinean percussionist Carlos Rivarola on the cajón, djembe and turtle shells. Downs, as frontwoman, also plays guitar and percussion.
Because of her bi-cultural upbringing, she grew up listening to a wide variety of music, including jazz, folk and Mexican ranchera, and for a time studied opera. She even spent two years following The Grateful Dead around. Her experiences and vocal training left her feeling that just "singing pretty songs" could be a superficial exercise.
"I love to sing, but I did not understand about the feelings you must convey as a singer. It has to do with the spirit and about maturing in life," she says.
An example of Downs' spirit comes across in her remake of Cuban composer Osvaldo Farres' popular 1947 tune, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." The song, which first appeared on the soundtrack for Tortilla Soup, is included as a bonus track on Border. The original bolero was made famous by Nat King Cole, and then appropriated in an English version by white lounge singers in the '60s. Downs' fiercely sensual rendition reclaims the classic, stripping the song of its sugar coating.
In her performances, Downs inhabits the characters she sings about, like "La Llorona," the crying woman who represents Death, Mother and Seductress rolled into one: "It is about the strength of a woman and her spirit. It is scary sometimes to be invoking death every time I sing 'The Crying Woman,' but it is an important connection to the past and the future. It gives meaning to my life."
Despite Downs' own startling resemblance to Frida Kahlo, she was chosen instead to play a singer who corresponded with the artist in the upcoming film based on Kahlo's life, which stars Mexican actress Salma Hayek as the famed Mexican painter. "Making the movie was very time consuming, and I really don't know about continuing in film," Downs says of the experience.
The resemblance to Kahlo is both coincidental and cultivated. Downs' publicity shots, much like Kahlo's self-portraits, seem deliberate in the details--the carefully chosen attributes, direct gaze, and her choice of traditional garb, which, like Kahlo, she wears with an idiosyncratic beauty. "In part it is deliberate," Downs admits, "but I also share many things with her: my Oaxacan mother, my European father and the love for Oaxacan textiles."
Downs is concerned that so much attention--positive as well as negative--has been paid to her looks throughout her upbringing. Yet she sees herself as a role model for girls contending with similar prejudices and internalized racism. "Role models are very important, and I have received many e-mails from people who need to identify with what I am doing," she says.
"I do hope that people see the beauty that is within, because there is so much more to life."