March 31, 2006

Lila Downs merges Mexican folk music with a modern approach

By Francisco H. Ciriza

Mexican-American folk artist Lila Downs’ third album, ‘La Cantina (Entre Copa y Copa)’ marks another high-point in the small-framed, hearty-voiced singer’s musical career. The 15-song compact disc offers a delightfully exquisite marriage of Mexican folk traditions with modern elements, modern approach, and at times a twist on traditional perspective. In fact, Downs, utilizes a palpable degree of irony that essentially turns the entire piece of work into a snapshot of modern day Mexican culture, often from the Mexican-American perspective.

Downs who won much fame and respectability from her participation in the motion picture and soundtrack for Frida, continues to set herself well above the competition with elements of genuine and true art based in her Mexican heritage. When watching, listening to, and speaking with her, one is well aware of her passion and her love of her origins.

Her stature as on of the most internationally well-respected female artists was recently reinforced as she performed at the inaugural ceremony of first female President, Michelle Bachelet, on March 12th in Santiago, Chile. The event was called “Iberoamerica Canta” and took place at the Parque Alameda, in front of the National Palace of La Moneda. It was broadcasted internationally on the TVN Network.

Each of ‘La Cantina’s’ songs is a cover of a traditional Mexican piece most often done true to the original. While most follow along the lines of tales of struggles between men, women, the law, values and emotion, Downs and company also include a subtle, yet definitive effort to update some of the material with a modern take on both sounds and voice.

Throughout, visions of the stereotypical Mexican male lamenting his situation in a bar over tequila is the basis of most of this genre’s odes, but Downs, who recently took time to speak to La Prensa San Diego from her home in Oaxaca, turns the tables at times, using a female perspective.

Born out of Down’s own desire to spend time drinking in real life cantinas, ‘La Cantina’ breathes life into classic drinking songs in norteno, mariachi, and even banda styles.

“I tried to explore some different things. I think this album comes from a deep desire to interpret these songs and also wanting to go out to the bar and drink,” Downs said with a laugh. “I really wanted to interpret a long list of rancheras and when I got bored and depressed with what we were doing, I’d change the perspective”

While on many of the CD’s songs like “Cumbia del Mole” and “Agua de Rosas” Downs and the musical accompaniment stay strikingly close to traditional arrangements and style, however, on occasion, modern technology and approach are employed to perfection.

On “Tu Recuerdo y Yo,” Downs affects sobbing, a nod to the classic form, over a smart techno beat and stinging lead guitar. Down’s husband/guitarist, Paul Cohen, Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez and a host of players recruited from Mexico City’s symphony wear musical styles well lending a generous dose of credibility, but the variety of styles isn’t as noteworthy as is the attention to detail and ultra-proficient execution.

“[Producer] Michael Ramos from Austin came up with some wonderful ideas for things to do with the production and the musicians truly made the songs come to life. A banda put together in Mexico City; some from Juan Gabriel’s band and others from the Mexico City symphony orchestra.”

While Downs humility may influence her to downplay her role in the creativity and originality of “La Cantina” and although she may do so in interviews, it is her voice and spirit that carry her latest work to an impressive level of achievement. The sounds and sentiment captured by her and the many talented musicians is sure to rekindle the very same in listeners.

Lila Downs Narada Records release, La Cantina, is set for release on April 4th and will be touring in support beginning this spring.

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