'Downs succeeds in organising a complicated network of influences into her own...
Martin Longley 2004-08-05
Lila Downs widened her potential audience when she was featured in Salma Hayek's Frida flick, appearing on its soundtrack. She was introduced to WOMAD in 2002 and toured this June in a package with Yusa and Susana Baca.
Lila grew up in the Sierra Madre mountains, down in Mexico's Oaxaca state, then up in Minnesota, USA. She started singing Mariachi at the age of eight, going on to tour with two bands. She now lives in Coyoacan.
The album's opener, "Viborita", races off with pounding momentum, underpinned by a fleet bass drum kick. Ensemble vocals answer back, whilst tight saxophone lines intertwine with harp cascades. Downs is stirring up a potent stew, her Mexican folk stock infused with pinches of dub reggae, Senegalese mbalax and Indian classical sliding. A dense production style rallies all of these diverse elements into a cohesive whole, whether Downs is singing in English, Spanish or any one of four native Indian languages, including the Mixtec of her own background.
Whether delivering originals or giving readings of old Mexican songs,she is always keen to experiment, but never relinquishes the desire for commercial approachability. The delivery is powerful and deep-toned whichreflectsformal training in Mexico and the States and her range goes from ridiculously low right up to yappingly high, extending her great long quavers off into the far distance.
"Dignificada" slows right down into a reggae lope, reminiscent of Manu Chao's Latino dub outings. It develops into a rap towards the end. "La Cucaracha" has a similar feel, still reggae, with megaphone vocal snippets, a move into Ozomatli rapping territory and a flirtation with Middle Eastern strings. Downs starts yodelling and yelping on "Cielo Rojo", then coasts through what amounts to a steadily pulsing house-influenced "La Bamba". She sings sweet and high on "Tiringue Tsitsiki", harmonising with herself to minimal accompaniment. The title track is a deliberate attempt at radio appeal, and is a touch too bland, but "Malinche" follows immediately, heavy on the harp, loaded with snare drum rattles and a stereo-splay of small percussion busyness.
Describing this variegated crop, it's very hard to fix a divergent lineage (and why should we?). Downs succeeds in organising a complicated network of influences into her own distinctive fusion genre. It's not exactly akin to anything else on the current scene...