The Spirit of Place

Lila Downs’s Journey of the Soul

by Brett Leigh Dicks

When it comes to embracing diversity, there are few who do it as energetically or passionately as Lila Downs. In forging a sound where traditional American folk sensibilities blend seamlessly with the boisterous wanderings of Mexican ranchera music or the aching lament of slowly crooned jazz, Downs doesn’t just cross cultural borders — she eradicates them. This is not surprising for a singer/songwriter who is the daughter of a Scottish-American father and Mixtec Indian mother.

Raised on both sides of the border, Downs channels the multicultural collision that resides in her own musical heritage. And when watching her perform or listening to one of her earnest recordings, one is quickly imparted with Downs’s tremendous sense of identity and bearing. But this was not always the case. When college beckoned, it was voice and anthropology that captured Downs’s scholastic curiosity. But despite being a contender for the Metropolitan Opera, Downs decided to leave school to roam the trail of the Grateful Dead.

“It was very liberating to study voice,” explained Downs recently, “especially since I was an adolescent at the time and bound up with all that energy and confusion that came with that stage of life. Singing has always been my guiding center. But getting away from that formal structure and its serious nature was something I had to do. I needed to be free and I have found that composing my own songs can offer me that.”

When Downs returned to Mexico, she started singing in bars. Then after completing her studies, the burgeoning singer/songwriter once again criss-crossed the border — a stint in Philadelphia saw her exploring jazz while collaborative opportunities in New York broadened her musical palate even further. These days, it is Oaxaca that Downs once again calls home. Given such a nomadic existence, one wonders to what degree location asserts its presence within her music?

“A lot of it depends on how I am currently feeling about the other place at the time,” laughed Downs. “My life has very much been about being uprooted, so nostalgia tends to play a big part no matter where I am. My soul is always searching and I think that has an influence too. But I have to say that being back here in Oaxaca is very liberating. There is something about being close to the earth again that is not just good for the body but also for the mind.”

Liberation, it seems, is good for her music too. In brandishing a new recording, La Cantina, Lila Downs presents a collection of songs that draw upon the rich tradition of Mexico’s canción ranchera. Here, Downs transports the listener into the heart of a neighborhood cantina and explores the music that is intrinsically flavored by the everyday. There is perhaps no better expression for the fervor and conviction this traditional genre embraces than via Downs’s vibrant musical orchestration and impassioned vocals.

Through openly embracing diversity, Downs has been afforded the opportunity of performing in a remarkable range of situations. She recently played in front of Chile’s famed National Palace of La Moneda as part of the inauguration ceremony for the country’s first female President Michelle Bachelet. Last December, Downs commandeered the Disney Center in Los Angeles where she shared the evening with Arizona’s musical renegades, Calexico, which opened yet another musical tangent to explore.

“We have only recently started doing shows like that,” said Downs. “It’s an interesting situation because you only have a very short amount of time in which to get to know each other and to share your character, your loves, and your views. So it’s incredibly challenging and can test you not just as musician but also as a person as well. It’s one of those situations that you put yourself into that demands your complete respect.”

As she sets off on tour to share her eclectic musical overtones and brooding new album, respect will no doubt be flowing her way too. No matter whether she is tucked away in the corner of a Oaxacano bar or gracing the stage of an ornate theater in one of the world’s major cities, it’s impossible for Lila Downs to be anything other than herself. It might have taken her a little while to work out exactly who that might be, but there is now no mistaking her unique identity.

4•1•1 Lila Downs plays at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Tuesday, April 18, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535.

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