JULY 12, 2012

North Of The Border: Dispatches From The Montreal International Jazz Festival

Part 5: Lila Downs

Last week Nat Geo Music sent correspondent Ron Deutsch to cover the 33rd edition of the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. This week he's filing his dispatches from the festival - a series of interviews with some of the international artists who graced the event's many stages. Today he checks in with Mexican-American singer/songwriter Lila Downs.


Growing up between two countries and of half-Mexican/half-American parentage, Lila Downs has found herself in a unique position to observe both nations standing on, and on either side of the border. Her music, as well, drives across a myriad of cultures - one road rock, another cumbia, left at jazz, right on nueva canción.

"Lila has kind of a chameleonic personality - she picks up everything and can go a million directions," said her husband/saxophonist/band arranger/partner Paul Cohen, as the couple relaxed the afternoon before their show at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal.

Downs sees herself and her music trying to navigate between not just between two countries, but two worlds - the traditional and the modern. She also sees this to be the struggle of her beloved Mexico. "It's the struggle of the rural world and urbanism. And that's always been a thing in our music. It's a struggle between trying keep both the urban and the traditional alive in the concerts. It's a challenge."

On her latest release Pecados y Milagros (Sins & Miracles), Downs made her challenge Ranchera music, trying to fuse the modern into it. Rancheras, literally "songs of the ranches," were originally rural country songs, but by the mid-20th century became popular throughout Mexico. Both the music and the lyrics deal with "the profane," Downs said - songs of unrequited love and the sorrows of lost love. They were often featured numbers in melodramatic Mexican films of the time. These are songs, Downs added, "where you can really spill your guts." But also, she said, they have a redemptive quality. Sins and miracles. Sorrow and hope.

"I think Rancheras are in my blood," Downs continued. "I remember there was a person at this theater I was working in, in Mexico City a long time ago, and I would sing all my songs and then I would sing a Ranchera, and she'd be like 'Why do you even bother singing all that other stuff!' I think I was born to sing them."

The Ranchera perfectly fits into the theme of the new album in which she has poured her heart into the plight of the current situation in Mexico, with hope that the songs will bring some kind of emotional release to the people.

"I don't think I've ever felt as useful before," she said of these new songs. "For example, we've performed in some of the cities that have been really affected by the violence [and] I actually saw people crying and sobbing and I thought, 'Okay, I'm doing my job here.'"

But the songs - and the sins and miracles - can also to be taken in another context, she explained. "People write to us - we have a little thing on Facebook where we ask them, 'Will you tell us your sins this week?' We got a lot of interesting things." Then, she added, wide-eyed, "Some things I kind of don't really want to know about."

"There are people who come up and tell me their stories, not only on Facebook, but I've served my position as priest here and there," she continued. "The fun thing is that most of the sins are about the carnal pleasure area, shall we say." But seriously, she noted, "I was a little bit afraid of dealing with the theme, [which] is really dealing with the cartel and this underground queen that died and then is singing from her death. So I'm really glad that people have somehow taken it into this other direction. The lighter side of sin."

In the song La Reina del Inframundo (Queen of the Underworld), Downs sings: "Six feet underground, it's for a certain kind of weed, for which the bosses up north are making us kill each other off, and now I'm the queen of the underworld, and my crown is a tombstone."

"I actually wrote that song in English originally," she said, "but we've been singing it in Spanish." In touring with these new songs, she said that this song in particular, really surprised her in "how cynical I can also be."

Another song on the album, Fallaste Corazón (Failed Heart), has taken on new meaning as she tours with it, Downs said. "I used to sing [it] when I was younger, but I never really understood the lyric. It says: 'And you thought you were the king of the world. You who were never able to forgive. You damn, damn heart. I am so happy you are suffering now.'

"I wasn't sure whether the singer is singing to the loved one or to herself. And to me [now], it's sometimes singing to my heart - my damn, damn heart - and humbling myself because of the song. And sometimes it's singing to my nation - 'You damn stupid! You thought you were the king and you're not the king.'"

The theme of the album further developed for Downs through a different form of art - painting.

"I found a book which my manager sent me - a book of this modern retablo painter, Alfredo Vilchis," Downs said.

Retablos, a Mexican form of votive art, are small oil paintings which offer thanks to a particular saint for providing, what the person who displays it in their home, might consider to be a miracle.

"And amongst all these Retablos there were a few that were really shocking," she continued. "One of them was about a guy who'd had a sex change operation and he was thanking the santo (saint) because his family were finally beginning to accept him. There was another one about the Twin Towers - these people were thanking [the saints] because they didn't go to work that day. There was this one [of a man] under a bed thanking the Virgin because the husband didn't catch him when he was cheating with the wife. So I thought this was amazing that Mexicans have this conversation with God and the saints - but it's all depending on the convenience of what they need at the time."

This led her to think about songs which could be like musical Retablos. She made contact with Vilchis, and as she wrote the songs she commissioned he and other Retablo artists to translate the songs into paintings. The paintings were then sent to Downs who put them up around the studio while they recorded. "So it was all very much based on the visuals," she said. These paintings then became part of an exhibition Downs collaborated on curating at the MUNAL, Mexico City's Museo Nacional de Arte in the fall of last year.

Downs, a long time jazz fan - she thanks her American father for - was looking forward to her performance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal which had the crowd at Club Soda mesmerized that evening.

"The Rancheras are in 4/4 time most of the time, but a lot of them are waltzes," which makes them difficult to fuse with more modern genres, she believes. "So our concert tomorrow is going to be fun here in the context of a jazz festival, because the Ranchera I feel has finally found itself in a kind of jazz niche - you'll hear it on the album certainly."

As she continues her travels, is there a jazz album in her future?

"I hope that the next album I can invite Bill Frisell, who I just saw right now, and we can invite some of the other jazz cats, and we can do some Boleros, maybe some standards, maybe some modern standards. I hope the next album will be a jazz album.... We'll see what happens."

And her hope for Mexico?

"I think it's going to take a miracle to help Mexico. It's really very scary, scary. But I guess it's because we're so crazy and it's such a crazy place. Crazy good and crazy bad," she concedes.

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