Lila Downs: The voice that links North and South

Gretchen Peters meets Lila Downs, whose passionate songs bring together the two biggest influences on her life ? Mexico and the USA
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Ask Lila Downs whether she feels more like a Mexican or an American, and she hesitates for a moment, frowning slightly. "Both," she says slowly. And then she pauses again, uncharacteristically lost for words.

It's a silly question – not one that could be answered in one sentence, one hour, or maybe even one day. For this 33-year-old singer-songwriter is not really from either place – and neither is her music.

Born to a North American father and a Mixtec Indian mother, whose people inhabit the foggy mountains of Mexico's southern Oaxaca state, Downs grew up with musical influences including Miles Davis and mariachi, and just about everything in between. In her mesmerising new album, La Linea (Border), she explores and celebrates that fact: in her life, as in her two neighbouring homelands, there is no place where US culture ends and Mexican culture begins.

For her lyrics, Downs borrows words from modern Mexican poets, ancient Indian myths and the American folk legend Woody Guthrie. She sings about massacres in Indian villages, women factory workers, illegal immigrants and the families they left behind. For her wardrobe, she combines Indian huipils (brightly woven tunics) with ample beads and silver rings, her hair pulled into two jet-black braids that hang almost to her knees. For her music, she blends jazz, cumbia and ranchera, with an ample toss of country blues, reggae and hip hop. With her stunning voice, she brings it all together.

In "Corazoncito Tirano" ("Little Tyrant Heart"), a ranchera classic reworked into country blues, Downs's voice swings low and sultry – something like a cross between kd lang and Mercedes Sosa. In "Smoke", a ballad about a 1997 Indian massacre in restive Chiapas state, she adopts a powerful political tone, her words reverberating with passionate anger.

And then she sings "Hanal Weech", a traditional Mayan cumbia about a woman who "smells like an armadillo". Or she belts out "Bracero Fracasado" (Failed Labourer), a ranchera classic about blundering across the US border. In these numbers, her voice ascends to a comic, high-pitched squeak – almost as if she's performing Mexico's norteña music, but on helium.

If that sounds eclectic, it is. If it sounds bad, it isn't.

Downs's incredible range has prompted Billboard magazine to describe her as "one of the most spellbinding voices to grace the world music scene". And her new album, which she has dedicated "to the spirits of those who died crossing the line", hits the music scene at a moment of newfound awareness of migrant issues in the US.

The recent census revealed that there are millions more illegal Mexicans living and working there than previously thought. Thousands more have died trying to enter, now at a rate of about one a day.

For Downs, La Linea also touches on the long personal journey she made to become a musician. Cultural blending may be the new chic, but for Downs it has been a way of life, and not always an easy one.

In the early 1960s, Downs' mother, Anita, escaped an abusive husband and her remote Indian village to make a new life in bustling Mexico City. Like many of Mexico's indigenous people, she spoke little Spanish. But Anita's striking beauty and equally striking voice soon won her a job singing in a bar, where one night appeared Allen Downs, a young art and cinematography student from Minnesota who had come south to film a documentary about the annual migration south of Canada's blue-winged teal.

The two fell in love. Downs dropped the duck project, and they later married. In 1968, Lila was born – into a world where she said she never seemed to fit. As a young girl growing up in Oaxaca, where indigenous peoples face often-violent harassment and discrimination, Downs says, "I always thought I was in the way, because I am Indian-looking." When her father later took her to the States, where education opportunities were better, she divided her time between Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Up north, where the majority of the original immigrants were Scandinavian, Downs says she was the "exotic little Indian girl" – always liked, but still different. Later, in Los Angeles, which was already brimming with Mexican immigrants, she felt looked down upon again. Then, when she returned to Oaxaca, Mexicans teased her about her "gringo" father.

Now, she says, "I don't feel as much like an outsider as a dark- skinned woman. Race has always been important to me." It's an issue she examines in the song "Sale Sobrando" ("Good for Nothin'"): "No vayas muy lejos y mirate al espejo, porque cuando miras no te va a gustar. Tu cara es morena y quieres ser guera y bien que te comes tu taco y memela." ("Don't go too far looking into the mirror, because you won't like what you see. Your face is dark, though you want to be white, but you know you really like your tacos and tortillas.")

For years, Downs admits, she suppressed her Indian heritage, adopting, as she puts it, "the terrible shame" with which many of Mexico's indigenous people live.

During this period, Downs says she became "disenchanted" with studying music at the University of Minnesota. So she dropped out to follow the Grateful Dead and live a hippie existence, until that, too, lost its appeal. Then, about eight years ago, it happened. Back visiting her mother in Oaxaca, she began to realise that many of the small pueblos in the Oaxacan highlands had become virtual ghost towns. All of the young people had headed north, searching for work across the Rio Grande.

One day, an Indian man came to her mother's auto-parts shop, asking Lila to translate some US government documents. His son had perished trying to cross the border, and he wanted to know how he died. Becoming an oracle of death suddenly gave Downs a new sense of responsibility – to tell the outside world about her people's rich heritage as well as their present peril. "I realised then", she says, "that something was happening there. And I knew it was my job to tell the story."

To see Downs perform live is to understand that statement more fully, for Downs doesn't just sing her songs; she becomes their subject. When she performs "La Niña" ("The Girl"), a doleful ballad about an assembly-line worker at one of the hundreds of maquiladora factories that dot the US-Mexican border, she exudes a physical sense of aching muscles, and an emotional sense of broken dreams.

Singing "La Martiniana", a jazzy remake of a Zapotec Indian waltz, she becomes a spirit mourned, begging her surviving girl not to weep over her grave: "No me llores no; porque si llores yo peno. En cambio si tú mi cantas, mi vida, yo siempre vivo, yo nunca muero." ("Don't cry for me, because if you cry, I'll haunt you. But if you sing to me, my life, I will always live and never die.") For Downs, death not only drew her back to making music; it informs her performance of it, too. "Singing means more than just singing to my mother's people," she says. "It's a metaphor for life, and the belief in life."

One of her most well-known performances was at the 1999 World Festival of Sacred Music in Los Angeles, a concert organised by the Dalai Lama to support multiculturalism. Downs was the only festival participant to receive a standing ovation from the audience, aside, of course, from the Tibetan holy man himself. "That was really something," she says now, laughing.

By all accounts, there will be many more such moments to come. La Linea is currently hitting music stores around the planet, thanks to a deal Downs signed with Narada, the world-music arm of Virgin Records, which distributes other global music labels such as Peter Gabriel's Real World and David Byrne's Luaka Bop. Downs has also just filmed a cameo performance in the upcoming Miramax production, starring Salma Hayek, that's based on the life of Frida Khalo, the iconic Mexican painter that some say Downs resembles.

In August, she begins a mini-tour that will take her back and forth across the 2,000-mile frontier that inspired her album. For Lila Downs, crossing and recrossing that line is what helped her to discover herself – as well as her musical mission.

"I love the border," says Downs. "I mean, there, I really feel at home."

'La Linea' is out on Narada