Crossing Invisible Borderlines

by Josef Woodard

SONG OF THE WEEK DEPT.: For a taste of what makes Mixtec/Minnesotan singer Lila Downs so tantalizing, proceed to track 12, the traditional Mexican tune “Arboles de La Barranca,” on her super cool new CD, La Cantina. Downs sings its looping melody with her usual boldness and warmth, while Aneiro Taño’s deliciously whacked arrangements spin out crazy chromatic lines and echoes of Nino Rota and psychedelic circus music. It’s a bit mind-blowing, actually. Next, back up to track 11, “La Noche de Mi Mal,” written in 1953 by famed Mexican songwriter José Alfredo Jimenez. Here, the mood is slow and steamy, and Downs’s impassioned voice digs into pathos, just shy of melodrama, pining for lost love and “the black night of my demise.”

These are but two stops on the delightfully confusing map of Downs’s freely, dogmatically border-crossing musical life, which has placed her in recent years in a lofty position within so-called “world music.” The daughter of a Scottish-American cinematographer and a singing Oaxacan mother, and with a rover’s tendency which has taken her all over North America and beyond, Downs — playing Campbell Hall on Tuesday — has become a new kind of multicultural ambassador. She nabbed a Latin Grammy, not to mention an expanding fandom, with 2004’s border-hopping album Una Sangre: One Blood, and appeared, musically and onscreen, in the biopic Frida.

With her fine, saucy new CD, the 38-year-old Downs mostly gives her eclecticism a holiday, instead inserting herself deep in the traditional world of the ranchera and singing her heart and lungs out. Ironically (or not), the sounds on La Cantina will be more familiar to local listeners and radio dial-surfers, who have either run across or come to love and hang out on Spanish language station KSPE (94.5 fm) — the finest station in Santa Barbara, or at least the station most likely to satisfy fans of tuba, accordion, harmonized trumpets, and indigenous exoticism.

HOMETOWN LEGEND GOES LOCAL: There are many reasons to warm up to Sangam (ECM), the new album by Santa Barbara-based saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Apart from the impressionistic power of the music itself, in a special trio of Lloyd, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and impressive young drummer Eric Harland, there is the locally significant fact that this is the first major album to have been recorded live in our much-loved Lobero Theatre. That color angle validates affection felt for the venue, while also affirming the notion that this theater may be one of the finest jazz houses in the nation.

Recorded live at the Lobero on March 24, 2004, by SoundDesign studio’s Dom Camardella, the album captures the first step of what has become an intriguing side project in Lloyd’s musical world, alongside his quartet. Originally formed as a tribute to the late great drummer Billy Higgins, who played with Lloyd in his final years, the trio went on to play around the world (this scribe was wowed and lulled by performances in Berlin and Montreal), but has yet to capture the American ear or gigs much. But that’s a familiar story with Lloyd during his ECM years, starting with 1989’s Fish out of Water. Lloyd was a huge sensation in the ’60s (his best-selling album Forest Flower celebrates its 40th anniversary this year), before jumping off the merry-go-round of public life for a long hermitage in Big Sur and Santa Barbara.

Lloyd will make a rare non-musical public appearance, signing CDs at Border’s, Saturday at 6 p.m. Or maybe horn will be in tow, and he can offer a sample of the sublime stuff heard just around the corner in the Lobero (and will be again, with a concert date there to be announced).

KUDOS DEPT.: Congrats go out to the Dos Pueblos Jazz Choir and Combo, led by Ike Jenkins, which won most outstanding high school vocal group and other awards at the North Texas Jazz Festival. Check ’em out on Channel 17, May 16 at 7 p.m. (Got e? Email

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