LILA DOWNS as part of Planet IndigenUS at Harbourfront Centre's CIBC Stage (235 Queens Quay West), Friday (August 13), 9:30 pm. Free. 416-973-4000.
To most mainstream North American audiences, multilingual diva Lila Downs is probably best known as the mysterious and intensely dramatic singer lurking in the shadows while Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd dance a titillating sapphic tango in 2002 biopic Frida. Downs's appearance in the film may have seemed like a no-brainer bid for indigenous Mexican cred, but considering the elements the singer shares with the real Frida Kahlo - Downs grew up partly in Kahlo's home state of Oaxaca, has similarly mixed-race parentage, and her music addresses many of the same political and aesthetic concerns - the casting choice was ingenious.
Born to a Scottish-American documentary filmmaker-slash-painter and a Mixtec Indian woman who used to belt mariachi tunes in seedy Mexican bars, Downs grew up between Minnesota and Oaxaca, balancing the traditional native culture of her mother with the blond Wonder Bread world of the American Midwest.
In the same way that Kahlo fused the folk art traditions of indigenous Oaxacan groups with themes of women's rights, Downs brings her cross-cultural experience, an awareness of class inequities and social justice and a phenomenal feminist critique to her genre-melding tunes.
The 36-year-old singer, who completed a multidisciplinary thesis on the narrative symbolism in the woven art of Triqui women, credits her mother with her political consciousness.
"My mother was a very poor, marginalized person from an Indian community," Downs explains. "When she moved to the city, she lived the same story we see all over the world. It's the reason many East Asian women enter prostitution, the reason women on the borders of the First and Third Worlds take low-paying jobs but find their freedom through those jobs. Especially when I'm in Mexico, in Oaxaca, that culture claims me as its own."
Downs began writing songs while working in her mom's Oaxacan auto parts shop in the early 90s, after people in her community began approaching her to translate the death certificates of relatives who'd died crossing the border into the States. She wanted to tell those stories in a way that would be accessible to her "paisanos," she says, while simultaneously reaching people on a national or even global level.
Since then, she's released four albums, with lyrics in English, Spanish, Mayan and native Mexican dialects, including her most recent, One Blood/Una Sangre (EMI).
On One Blood, Downs updates traditional Mexican cumbia, son and ranchera songs with dubby percussion lines, blissed-out funk, folk and hiphop. While the arrangements are tight, it's the opera-trained singer's voice that really astounds you. She's chameleon-like in her ability to shift styles, and the sheer passion in just one of her extended ululations makes you realize the bullshit treacle that passes for emotion in most pop music these days.
You can hear it in her spin on the traditional folk tune La Cucaracha. Raised on a steady diet of Warner Brothers, I somehow always thought the song was just a bouncily gruesome Latin American caricature anthem they played when Speedy Gonzales scurried into a frame. It's actually about giving Mexican soldiers marijuana so they'll fight against the people in the revolution.
Downs's version is an ominous ballad that gets at La Cucaracha's political roots and takes on more depth in the current militaristic climate.
"Of course, I was trying to remind people this kind of war is not new. Traditionally, there are hundreds of verses of La Cucaracha that have been improvised, depending on the politicians of our time. Back in the old days, the verses were about Zapata and Caranza and Mavero, and today they're about the people of our time.
"I'm trying to take the song into a more serious context, the way it was originally done. It was always a satire of politicians and power-greedy people. I feel like we, even in Mexico, make fun of the persona that is la cucaracha, the cockroach - it cannot run, it cannot dance any more, because it has no more marijuana to smoke. It's a profound metaphor for humanity. When we deplete all our resources, we'll need more marijuana to smoke because we'll be so paralyzed."
She laughs wearily.
"I want to look at the ways we can make a tragic subject funny. Through humour, we can really obtain results in politics. I think it's up to artists. Think about the great satirists, like Daumier in France, and Charlie Chaplin - they're the ones who made the great strides."