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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