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Blurring Borders

ae LilaDownsLila Downs to perform a multicultural show of ‘sins and miracles’ at The Mello

Singer-songwriter Lila Downs’ work has always been about blurring borderlines—international, cultural, racial, and musical. The daughter of a Mixtec Indian singer and Scottish-American professor, she grew up listening to her mother rendering Lola Beltrán’s heartfelt rancheras and her father crooning Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

From her early multicultural influences, Downs began to create music that was a cutting-edge synthesis of traditional Mexican ballads with American jazz, folk, blues and rock, infused with indigenous sounds. She lives a cross-border life, residing and performing in both Mexico and the United States. And the songs she sings often tell the story of people whose lives straddle cultural and international boundaries, giving voice to the uprooted and disenfranchised, as well as honoring the stories they carry from their homeland.

Now, with her latest musical project, Downs has taken border blurring one step further by crossing into a new artistic medium. In her newly released CD, Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles), Downs combines a collection of songs with the visual art of Mexican votive paintings.

Downs’ U.S. tour in support of the album will take her to Watsonville on Wednesday, Feb. 22, where she will perform live in concert at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts.

“Visual art is what inspired this album,” says Downs, speaking over the phone from her home in Oaxaca, in the southern region of Mexico. She became captivated with votive art when she came across a book of contemporary votives by renowned traditional painter Alfredo Vilchis. Votives, known in Mexico as ex votos or retablos, are folk paintings often created on sheets of tin. Each votive is dedicated to a particular saint, telling the personal narrative of a miracle or sin and then giving gracias, or thanks, to the saint for this experience that enriched the life of the narrator.

“I found it fascinating,” recounts Downs. “I thought it was exactly dealing with issues that we are having to deal with right now in Mexico—issues of morality and being revolutionary. I think on the one hand we want to have a better society, but at the same time we still idealize having that pistol in our hand, just as the great revolutionaries did. I found that the religious art really made it possible for me to come up with different songs that I wrote from a very important emotional [perspective] that was transformational for me.”

Inspired by these images, she set out writing new songs with Paul Cohen, her husband, producer, and musical collaborator. They also reworked classic songs from famed Mexican songwriters, including Marco Antonio Solís, Tomás Mendez and Cuco Sánchez. In collaboration with special guests Celso Piña, Colombian vocal legend Totó La Momposina, and Argentina’s Illya Kuryaki and The Valderramas, Downs recorded these songs in New York and Mexico City. Then, she commissioned artists—including Vilchis—to create a votive painting that depicts the story in each of the songs.

The collection of new songs, paired with the paintings, are currently part of a collaborative exhibit at Mexico City’s fine art museum, Museo Nacional de Arte. Images of the artwork are included with the booklet that comes with the CD, and it will also be incorporated into the backdrop of the stage as part of the tour, as well as multimedia video footage that will be projected during the concert.

ae LilaDowns2The album opens with the song “Mezcalito” (Little Drop of Mezcal), which tells the drunken lament of a borracho. This song is depicted by a votive painting showing a man who has fallen down and hit his head, subsequently giving thanks to the Saint of Remedies who cures him of his vices.

The closing song on the album is “Misa Oaxaqueña” (Oaxacan Mass), which incorporates verses taken from a ninth century songbook of Oaxacan rites. In the votive inspired from this spiritual song, the artist gives thanks for the miracle of Downs’ and Cohen’s baby boy, Benito Xilonen, whose Mayan name translates in English to “tender corn.”

It’s perhaps a testimony to the brilliance of Downs’ career that the beauty of this album lies in the way that it honors a strong core of tradition, while at the same time remaining fresh and innovative. When asked about her genre-defying musical approach, Downs replies, “It’s hard for the artist to analyze these things. They just feel right.”

She adds, “There are some jazz elements in some of the songs that we had tried in previous years and for some reason it didn’t work out, or it didn’t feel right at the time. It’s kind of nice to feel that somehow music has been progressing in a way that you can now play with certain genres and mix them up and it will work and it’s OK with people—and with yourself.”

Downs says that this album in particular is very emotionally based for her. Many of the traditional rancheras give voice to deep emotions such as lost love or lost pride. For example, the song “Fallaste Corazon,” (Failed Heart) includes the lyrics “Maldito corazon/ Me alegro que ahora sufras,” which Downs translates in English to “Damn you heart/ I’m so happy that you’re suffering now.”

“It’s part of the Mexican character to feel bad about yourself. Especially now, when we’re already feeling bad about ourselves, these songs make you feel worse,” she laughs. “And there’s something in the catharsis of that.”

Downs says that though much of her songwriting has focused on issues of racial or cultural discrimination that Latinos face in North America, she also likes to illuminate the gifts that cross-cultural interactions can bring to people.

“I love to think about how important the Native American vision is in Latin American culture, and how important it is to translate that to North Americans,” she explains. “I think North Americans often see Mexicans as foreign people who don’t have a culture. But if they only knew that a lot of us are half Native American, we come from a very complex and interesting background—and we are very spiritual—then maybe they will open their hearts to understanding us a little better.”

With this in mind, she says she is excited to perform in Watsonville—the smallest town on her tour schedule, and also a town with a large population of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, a significant proportion of whom are farm workers.

“It’s such an honor [to perform in Watsonville] because Watsonville is one of the places that's in my subconscious constantly,” she says, recounting memories she has of traveling through the fields of the Pajaro Valley.

“I think it’s about connecting with our roots—all of us,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if your ancestry is French or German or whatever it is, it’s about not forgetting how important [farm workers are] to the development of humanity.”


Lila Downs performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the Mello Center for the Performing Arts, 250 East Beach Street at Lincoln in Watsonville. Tickets are $24-50. For tickets, visit Streetlight Records in Santa Cruz, Second Street Cafe in Watsonville, Rollick’s Specialty Cafe and Internet Home in Salinas, or online.

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