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Healing Influences 

Lila Downs melds classic Mexican ballads with modern musical touches

Throughout her challenging career as a singer, songwriter and musician, Lila Downs has paid homage to the music and traditions of her rich Mexican heritage without ignoring what music has become in the 21st century. On her latest CD, La Cantina, she turns her attention to the venerable tradition of canciones rancheras, those emotionally laden ballads of heartache and longing, of pain and remorse, loss and redemption.

These are cry-in-your-cerveza Spanish-language songs as vivid and human as torchy jazz standards, country laments and Delta blues wails. Most of them are often performed in bars and pubs (thus the album's title), and many date back to the Mexican revolution, Downs said in a recent interview.

Downs and her New York City-based band--no strangers to Tucson, having played here several times in recent years--will return to town for a performance on Sunday night, March 4, at the UA Centennial Hall.

But she also has worked hard to imbue these classic tunes with a contemporary spirit, she said recently via telephone from Mexico City, one of the places she calls home.

"One of our real goals with this album was to take music made a long time ago and make it appealing for younger people to relate to in this climate and culture. At the same time, we try to respect the intimacy that those songs may have had."

Which explains how the laid-back rapping (not a guest MC--Downs just lowered her voice a register) showed up in "Tu Receurdo y Yo" and the effects replicating the sounds of DJ scratching and sampling found their way into "La Tequilera." And the slightly Afro-Cuban sound of "Agua de Rosas" boasts a 1950s nightclub charm.

Then there's the arresting "La Cumbia del Mole," an original written by Downs and husband-manager-musical director Paul Cohen, which praises the joys of a good mole (pronounced mo-lay, for you snowbirds) sauce with a heady mixture of Caribbean rhythm, rollicking accordion and Guilherme Monteiro's stinging electric-guitar solo. (Just for good measure, Downs includes an English-language version of the tune at album's close.)

That guitar doesn't have the jarring effect you'd expect, and Downs concurs. "I think, actually, most people who hear it think that it's really groovy."

Talk about groovy; she also corralled famous Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez to play on "El Corrido de Tacha 'La Teibolera'" (aka "The Table Dancer"), but at the same time, a slamming electronic backbeat bubbles just below the surface on the song's atmospheric break.

"We got really lucky with Flaco Jimenez--he really gave it a special sabor, you know, that real norteño flavor."

A cumbia here, some norteño there, a raucous polka. It all adds up to music that would be equally at home in Veracruz or in certain Tucson juke joints.

The daughter of a Scottish-American father and a Mixtec mother, Downs was born in 1968 in Minnesota but also grew up part of the time in the Sierra Madre mountains of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. She studied music in Los Angeles and received a double degree in voice and anthropology from the University of Minnesota.

She heard and sang these cantina songs as child, and she wonders if that wasn't entirely healthy for an 8-year-old.

"There are really some sad emotions contained among these songs, which is a challenge in itself. I used to listen to a lot of them when I was young, and sometimes sing them, and I guess the subject matter was not the most appropriate thing for a child to sing these songs," she said.

Downs and husband Cohen split their time among Oaxaca, New York City and Mexico City, she said. This reflects her interest in a wide variety of music and cultural influences.

Some of her past albums have incorporated influences from Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Nahuatl cultures native to Mexico and Mesoamerica. Because her band members also play jazz, classical, blues and gospel, elements of those musical styles also can be found among Downs' music.

"Nowadays, it's kind of like everybody's taken from everything, just even the way that you can make music with a your own style while borrowing from a lot of different styles that you might not think would fit together," Downs said.

"For cultural influences and music, it's not so much a time of conflict or contradiction but a way for there to be healing. That's what music is, really. It has this amazing healing power. We like to combine different elements so the listeners have many ways to enter the music."

One entry point for listeners is the mariachi influence. To add mariachi flavor, Downs and her seven-piece band will be joined at the show by the all-female Mariachi Femenil Flores Mexicanas. So, for a large part of the concert, the stage will be packed with more than 20 musicians.

On La Cantina, Downs also employed the playing and arranging talents of Austin, Texas-based multi-instrumentalist Michael Ramos, who, through his project Charanga Cakewalk, mixes and combines various Latin styles with modern club and lounge music.

Appropriately, Charanga Cakewalk will open the show for Downs this Sunday.

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