Stand up for the Mexican wave

Astrid Hadad and Lila Downs, two of Mexico's finest singers, are ready to wow British audiences
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The Independent Culture

The veteran cabaret artist Astrid Hadad is bringing her cutting, satirical show, La Cuchilla ("the knife"), back to London after a seven-year absence. Hadad's act, a confection of colourful kitsch infused with a liberal dose of satire, is something of a national institution in Mexico, where her deliciously scornful ranchero numbers - updated versions of popular old Mexican songs - mock establishment figures. While a knowledge of Mexican history and politics will help you get the jokes sooner, Hadad's endearing style means no one is left out in the cold. She has been practising her "Spanglish", and there's a universality to her songs, and she unashamedly makes use of stereotypes: the drunk, the whore and the bandito.

The veteran cabaret artist Astrid Hadad is bringing her cutting, satirical show, La Cuchilla ("the knife"), back to London after a seven-year absence. Hadad's act, a confection of colourful kitsch infused with a liberal dose of satire, is something of a national institution in Mexico, where her deliciously scornful ranchero numbers - updated versions of popular old Mexican songs - mock establishment figures. While a knowledge of Mexican history and politics will help you get the jokes sooner, Hadad's endearing style means no one is left out in the cold. She has been practising her "Spanglish", and there's a universality to her songs, and she unashamedly makes use of stereotypes: the drunk, the whore and the bandito.

She was born into a deeply conservative family from the Yucatan peninsular as the middle child of 11. On her father's side, the family is of Lebanese descent, and, she says, "the women were expected to know their place and their duties. In some ways we share many similarities, the Mexicans and the Middle Eastern peoples. But I left because it was a very restricting life." Hadad escaped to Veracruz, where she studied music and drama.

In London she will be supported by her dandy-ish backing group, Los Tarzanes, though it is always Hadad's outlandish costumes or "wearable sets" that steal the show. "I design them all myself and a friend makes them up for me. We've only ever had a problem with one of them when I almost electrocuted myself trying to make the eyes on my dress light up and squirt tears into the audience at the same time. Audiences are promised an "aesthetic orgasm": "I come to give pleasure," Hadad says.

By contrast, the singer-songwriter Lila Downs has a loyal fan-base in the UK after three albums, yet is still best known here for her Oscar-winning contribution to the soundtrack of 2002's Frida Kahlo biopic. Her new material reflects a recent collaboration with musicians from Brazil, Chile and Cuba, as well with Celso Duarte, a Mexican-Paraguayan harpist.

Downs is the daughter of a Mexican, Mixtec mother and a Scottish-American father, and grew up mostly in the US. She studied anthropology, dropping out to be a "Deadhead" ("I followed the Grateful Dead around for a while"), before returning to her mother's home in Mexico, determined to embrace indigenous culture.

She incorporates her experiences as a woman from both sides of la linea (the Mexico and USA border) into highly evocative lyrics. Matched with her vocal range they makes for haunting listening. No one else has taken up the issues of Mexico's native peoples, singing in their own languages, Nahuatl and Zapotec, as well as in English and Spanish, in so arresting a manner.

Astrid Hadad, Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 (08700 500511) 15-19 June; Lila Downs (with Susana Baca and Yusa), Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (08703 800400) tonight, touring till 26 June ( www.comono.co.uk)

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