It’s that voice that gives pause, makes you take notice and ask who’s singing. Before you see the strikingly beautiful woman garbed in colorful native dress and jewelry. Before you learn the details of a child born into an unorthodox family or of a life fully lived.
Before you realize that whatever Lila Downs touches turns to art, it’s that voice that draws you to want to learn the rest. After eight albums in 15 years, her new anthology, The Very Best of El Alma de Lila Downs, captures that singing in all its piercing power and eclectic glory. Lila (pronounced LEE-la) has sung in Spanish, English, Portuguese and French, as well as the native tongues of Mixtec, Nahautl, Mayan and Zapotec, but even if one doesn’t fully understand what she’s saying, her open heart is universal. As evidenced by Edith Piaf or the fado singers of Portugal, musical communication can be emotionally superior to its verbal counterpart.
She swings twixt a faux basso profundo and a falsetto, from a vibratoless, clean tone to anguished note wringing and all points in between. Her vocal range is “four or five octaves, depending upon the day,” she laughs in a phone interview from New York City, one of her three residences (she also maintains pieds-à-terre in Mexico City and Oaxaca). Sometimes she adapts a comedic, chipmunk phrasing common to some Mexicana vocalists. “That’s a style of singing that developed in the ’40s. It’s an aesthetic people enjoy in the rural communities especially.”
Born in Oaxaca to a Mixtec-Indian mother who sang in cabarets and an American college-professor father, Downs spent her childhood traveling between Mexico and Minneapolis. As a little girl she’d imitate opera singers, began voice lessons at 15, and majored in both voice and anthropology at university. Given her peripatetic roots, it’s not surprising that she was a Deadhead during her youthful “dropout phase.” She sang a bit (“mainly my traditional Mexican songs”) but became passionate about the craft of weaving, which led to an obsession with her roots. “That’s what made me come back to music.
“Mixtec is my mother’s language. About 700,000 speak Mixtec as a first language, and many Mixtecs are working in California in the fields, in the restaurants,” Downs notes.
She has worked “to honor these languages that are alive and thriving. In Mexico, we’ve had a lot of issues with our pride, about being Indian. It’s been denied to us for hundreds of years.”
While singing in an indigenous folk group 16 years ago, she met her husband, saxophonist/artistic director, Jersey boy Paul Cohen, who was playing in a salsa band.
As songwriters and collaborators, Downs and Cohen created a maverick sound by weaving rancheras, cumbias, boleros, and other Mexican and Latin styles together with the energy of rock and the swing and chops of jazz. Currently touring as an octet, the band supports Downs’ big voice and socially charged, multilingual lyrics. She’s conscious of her place as an Indian, a Mexican, an American, a human being. Part of what makes Downs so startling to these yanqui ears is that voices have seemingly diminished in stature in American popular music. With the exception of the overwrought divas Carey and Houston, the teeny-pop stars are Cheez Whiz, the indie rockers are tweemo, and, by definition, rappers don’t sing. “Sometimes societies need bubblegum, sometimes they need something more profound,” Downs muses. “Maybe singing deeper is something people can’t deal with at times.” She laughs darkly and adds, “It reminds you of dying when it gets more intense.”
Betto Arcos, host of KPFK’s seminal world-music show The Global Village, first heard Downs in 1996 at a small club in Oaxaca and booked her for the World Festival of Sacred Music at the Hollywood Bowl in 1999. There, Downs and the Dalai Lama were the only participants to receive a standing ovation. Arcos notes her sense of integrity, recalling when she sang “Burn It Blue” (from Frida) at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2003: “She was approached by some Italian designer who wanted to design her clothes for free. She said, ‘Ahhhhh, I don’t think so,’ ” he laughs. “She wore the traditional huipil, an Indian dress from Oaxaca. That was a statement.”
Downs and Cohen chose the 18 tracks on the compilation. Their simple criteria? “The ones we liked the best.” The nostalgic “La Cama de Piedra,” the satirical “La Cucaracha” (a song about marijuana) and the standard “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” show an artist who is steeped in and embraces history, yet her disregard for musical purism (dig the Hendrix paraphrase in “La Cucaracha”) points to Downs’ desire for transformation and a vision that connects rather than alienates. “Every day I get up and think, ‘Okay, what can I do? What song can I write to make people like each other a little bit more?’ ” she explains. “I’ve seen it happen. Our audiences have been growing and are very plural and all ages. I love it.” .
Lila Downs: The Very Best of El Alma de Lila Downs (Capitol/EMI)
Lila Downs and Very Be Careful perform at Santa Monica Pier on Thursday, August 27, at 7 p.m.