Lila Downs: Queen of the mix

Lila Downs tells Michael Church how a search for identity brought success
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The Independent Culture

We all know something of Mexican music, thanks to the Tex-Mex sound and the snazzy style of the "mariachi" bands powering Hollywood romances in the Fifties. But those are just fringe attractions for the huge variety of musics in this strife-torn, seductive land. As Eduardo Llerenas observes in his liner note to the Rough Guide to Mexican Music, there can't be many parts of the world where one in six adults is a professional musician, but such is the case in many Mexican villages, where every communal event has its music. And if Mexico City is one thing, Mexico's Indian tribes are quite another, with each practising its own style on its own special instrument: guitar, violin, or harp. And those styles blend with styles imported from neighbouring countries - Cuba, Colombia, and Dominica - to create, not Tex-Mex, but a wonderfully variegated thing we should perhaps dub Mex-Mix.

The unlikely queen of Mex-Mix has just concluded a triumphant UK tour in tandem with Cuba's Yusa and Peru's Susana Baca: unlikely, because Lila Downs's own mix is half-Scottish, with even her first name being a Latinised version of her grandmother's Highland name Leela. But delivering her songs in a whisper which modulates to a clarion call, and beating her side-drum as though to urge her band into battle, this diminutive dynamo is Mexico's mystical spirit incarnate. The videos she likes to flash up as a backdrop add the essential political focus: endless rows of wage-slaves toiling in Californian plantations, intercut with gnarled close-ups of their scarified fingers.

Seen from a distance on stage, her features seem delicately pretty. But in close-up - and as she's the singer in the film Frida, you may well have seen her thus - these features have a bold and dark-browed beauty. Perfect casting? Not really: "In my part of Mexico the men migrate to work elsewhere, so the women are left, and they become stronger. There are many Fridas walking the streets of Oaxaca. I'm not unusual."

But her origins are indeed unusual. Her academic father, who was visiting the Yucatan Peninsulato study the blue-winged teal's migration patterns, became bewitched by an Indian singer in a Mexico City club; he divorced his wife, and married her. Lila grew up bilingual and bicultural, dividing her time between Oaxaca and Minnesota.

"There was always music in our house," she says. She started singing rancheras for visitors when she was seven, and taught herself to play the guitar. "But my mother also loved opera, and I used to imitate the voices. My father used to read The New Yorker, and I read it too, and one day when I was nine I decided I would like to be an opera singer in New York." Her father put her into voice-training programmes, but when she was 16 he died.

"And I became very confused - about my identity, and my sexuality." Your sexuality? "My mother was strong, like the man, and my father was the woman, very gentle, quite effeminate. And when he died I didn't want to be with my mother. I'd been denying so much about my Indian self, and suddenly I had to deal with it. A lot of what I am doing now is compensating for what my mother did to him. My father loved abstract art and experimental movies, and my mother loved Romantic oil paintings of the Mexican countryside. She didn't let him develop himself."

But watching the way you command your band on stage, it's clear who wears the trousers! "OK, I may be strong, but I look for musicians who are strong as well. Much of what we do in our programme is Paul Cohen's idea, his vision of what music should do for people." Cohen - Downs's partner and "soul mate" - is the saxophonist-keyboardist-juggler whose mercurial presence seems to pervade every corner of the stage. So she makes her point.

Her songs come from the villages whose culture she studied after dropping out of opera, but her voice is something else. Where did this uniquely versatile instrument come from? "John Coltrane, who conveys so much with his tone - that's what I'm striving for." Did the opera training help? "Well, right now I'm ill with a cold. That's where the opera training helps. If I vocalise for two hours, I can make the voice come back."

Then she brings out a thought you hear opera singers express. "I have this special relationship with my voice. Though I've never considered myself to be a spiritual person - and though I agreed with my father, who was a communist atheist - it's a spiritual feeling I have, which began when I studied anthropology. I began to have something approaching awe for this thing that came out of my body, which had to do with something bigger than me. Awe for this gift."

'Una Sangre' is out now on Narada

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