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- Posted on Sep 16th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
"I guess it's worked out for us," says Lila Downs, happy to be an exception to that rule as her career has involved making journeys far away from her native Oaxaca, musically speaking.
"It's a question I also have: How non-Mexican can I get away with?" she says. "And it always surprises me how much more people are willing to accept rather than being purist. That really surprises me."
She's giving that acceptance a good test on her new fifth album, 'Shake Away,' a break from her last album, 2006's 'La Cantina,' which largely stayed in and around modernized Mexican ranchera styles. Songs written with co-producer (and husband) Paul Cohen borrow from New Orleans brass band second line (the tuba-driven opener 'Little Man' and 'Skeleton'), pan-Hispanic pulse ('Ojo de Culebra' with flamenco singer La Mari of the Spanish band Chambao) and even Eastern European Balkan/Klezmer (the theatrical 'Perro Negro' featuring Café Tacuba singer Ruben Albarran), not to mention a spirited roots homage with the great Mercedes Sosa (the veteran Argentine "Voice of the Voiceless Ones") on 'Tierra de Luz.' And she takes on outside songs with the Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac-via-Santana 'Black Magic Woman' (a bilingual duet with Raul Midon), the Blue Nile's 'I Would Never' and both English and Spanish versions of 'I Envy the Wind,' written by country-rocker Lucinda Williams (a Louisiana native, bringing it all full circle).
Of course, focusing just on Downs' Mexican roots is misleading. In addition to Oaxaca she spent much of her childhood in Minnesota, studied voice as a teenager in Los Angeles, followed the Grateful Dead around the U.S. in a VW bus in her youth and has lived in New York City for a while. So her experiences and viewpoint are rather broad.
"I guess I do consider myself being a roots world artist," she says as she prepares for a Sept. 21 Hollywood Bowl concert that puts her on a genre-stretching bill with Los Angeles multiculturalists Ozomatli, activist rapper Michael Franti & Spearhead and the Nortec Collective's Bostich + Fussible. "But at the same time I think you limit yourself when you think that way. So my thing is really about expanding my personal horizons as an individual, as a citizen of this universe, and people tune into that and feel it's honest, maybe?"
On one hand she takes an intellectual approach. "For me as an anthropologist it's always necessary to legitimate the way I do things, so maybe that's what carries me across."
But on the other hand, "Maybe it's just a musical thing."
The territories explored in this album are hardly random, though. Thematically there's a thread that came from Downs' own search for healing and meaning after a period of struggling with some personal issues. Throughout the album songs and sounds touch on magic and transformation, realization and revelation. She found plenty of that in her own cultural roots, of course.
"I think what set the tone was really trying to compose songs that have to do with native legend, North American native legends."
On a musical level, the keystone proved to be bassist Booker King was well versed in New Orleans second line, a rhythm that proved to mesh well with playing of drummer Yayo, a Chilean native who had been playing with a blues band in New York. 'Skeletons' and 'Little Man' were written to take full advantage of that, and then expanded into a musical adventures bringing together sounds with African roots that came through the Caribbean in the 19th century before dispersing to points all through the hemisphere.
"The horn sections are really a combination of those elements," she says. "We collaborated with Brian Lynch, who worked a lot with Eddie Palmieri as a trumpet player. He did the wind arrangements, and we mentioned to him we would like it to sound a little like mariachi sections, but the banda, Northern norteno style, keeping in mind this southern U.S. flavor."
But even 'Perro Negro' didn't seem a big cultural stretch to her. "We got to go to Hungary and in Budapest went to this amazing festival and saw [Balkan eclectic] Goran Bregovic," she says of an annual world music event held on Margit Island in the middle of the Danube between the Buda and Pest sides of the city. "It felt like my bones were relating, like something with Mexico and something really ancient about East Europe. So that was the idea. The story of the song is about transfiguration, about people converting to animals, which is very present today in Mexico's mythology. Native women in my home town of Oaxaca said to me there's a politician who converts into an animal and that's how he gets away with things!"
In that context, 'Black Magic Woman,' which started life as an English blues-rock exercise before being given Santana's Latin-rock twists, is an easy fit, even with the gender perspective switches as it goes between Downs and Midon. "Some people have asked, 'Why have a man sing it if you're trying to reclaim the notion of new feminism?'" she says. "I said that I didn't really think of it. Was more like what I feel about the way Raul sings. We used to se Raul sit in at Arthur's in New York City. I think it's the African-Latin connection that made sense with this to me."
And singing with Sosa, known for her fierce stances in the fights against military and cultural dictatorships, she says, "was a lessons for me -- I admire her so much."
The experience has only served to make her even hungrier for exploration.
"We have a proposal to do a musical," says the singer, who had an on-screen role in the movie 'Frida' about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. "It's really exiting -- 'Like Water for Chocolate.' The producer of 'Hairspray' is doing it. As a composer I never imagined to be in this position, living in New York and having a gig like that. And I also love the standards. I always come back to Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter. So hopefully in the future ..."
So where are you gonna file that?