Lila Downs celebrates a new outlook
ON FIRMER GROUND: Lila Downs is back on track with a new album, “Shake Away.”
(Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles Times)
Times Staff Writer

Lila Downs is an artist who always seemed to have her act together. The Mexican American singer has a stunning voice, a confident multicultural vision grounded in her Mixtec Indian roots and a successful 15-year career in world music circles. What she doesn’t have is a child.

Downs faced her inability to conceive as she approached her 40th birthday this month, and the productive artist suddenly felt barren. Depressed and drinking, the together performer fell apart. “What . . . am I doing in this life if I can’t have children?” she asked herself. “That’s the whole point of living as a woman.”

The deteriorating political situation back home in her beloved Oaxaca, wracked by a violent teachers strike two years ago, only made matters worse. As a champion of the culture, she felt powerless and angry, and she started taking it out on her band. Once, in the middle of a concert in the Canary Islands, she walked off the stage, thinking, “You guys work it out yourselves. See how far you get without me.”

“The devil came out in me,” recalled Downs, who performs Sept. 21 at the Hollywood Bowl with Ozomatli and others as part of KCRW’s world music series. “I was engendering the anger in my band, and suddenly everybody started fighting. Oooh, yeah, it’s very interesting, because the seed of evil, I can see how it infects things.”

Today, you can also see that Downs has won her fight with the devil. She laughs frequently, even while discussing her recent personal problems. She dresses in a sexier way, sporting a short skirt Wednesday morning to help announce the Latin Grammy nominations at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. And she’s even started plucking eyebrows that she used to keep thick, à la Frida Kahlo, without realizing the look made her feel manly, even a tad fearsome.

“It’s liberating to suddenly pluck your eyebrows and be more feminine,” says the artist.

But the biggest transformation is in her music. Her stunning new album, “Shake Away,” marks a pinnacle in her attempts to find a natural fusion of disparate strains of music, different sides of herself. The title tells you where she’s at. She took that evil and shook it off.

Her previous album makes more sense now too. “La Cantina” (2006) was a collection of Mexican rancheras, drinking songs for the desperately broken-hearted. It was her release for all that pain, though she didn’t talk about it much at the time. Even now, when she sings a snippet from the Cuco Sanchez classic “La Cama de Piedra” (Bed of Stone) in her trademark deep voice, she can summon profound sadness.

“From the cantina to the cure.” That’s a line she’s using to describe what’s happened to her between albums. The cure refers, at least in part, to the healing she underwent with a curandera from Oaxaca, Doña Queta. The famed folk healer and midwife prescribed a regimen of herbal teas and massage to awaken her femininity.

“I really did feel better physically after Queta gave me those teas,” says Downs during an interview at a West Hollywood hotel. “She has the wisdom you can’t find in Western medicine. She knows the connection between the physical, the emotional and the spiritual, and that’s something you will not find in the scientific world.”

With her long braids, colorfully woven clothing and strong sense of mysticism, Downs’ artistic persona always has been immersed in the indigenous culture of Oaxaca. Her early albums in the mid- to late ‘90s were essentially showcases for the folkloric music of the region southeast of Mexico City, less popular here than the norteño, banda and mariachi music from other parts of Mexico.

Her importance, however, lies with her ability to transform that folk tradition into a modern, living genre -- what she calls re-conceiving the music. She now uses it as part of a Pan-American palette of sounds that includes blues, jazz and rock, reflecting the half of her lineage inherited from her Scottish American father.

Multicultural fusions are not a matter of taking something from column A and something from column B, which can sound self-consciously eclectic. With the new album, Downs and her husband and longtime collaborator, Paul Cohen, finally have hit on a natural formula. But like the instinctive recipes of great cooks, they can’t quite tell you how it’s done.

“Musically, it’s kind of hard to explain things anymore because it flows so much,” she says.

The evolution was helped by the couple’s move a few years ago from Mexico City to New York, where Downs and Cohen live in an apartment in Chinatown. The city’s multinational mélange has energized her band, La Milagrosa, which includes a drummer from Chile, a guitarist from Venezuela, a bassist from St. Louis and percussionists from Colombia and Cuba.

“New York City is the place where musicians are willing to risk more,” says Downs, who co-writes all the music with her husband-arranger. “You can find a musician from Morocco or Paris or Colombia, and they’re willing to put in their bid for 200 bucks a session and see what happens when coming together with different artists from different cultures.”

The album’s open, expansive feel is enhanced by Downs’ duets with well-chosen guest singers, including Mari from Spain’s flamenco/chill band Chambao, Rubén Albarrán of Mexico’s Café Tacuba and New Mexico-born Raul Midón on a tribal reworking of Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.”

After 15 years, Downs remains one of the most interesting and compelling artists from Mexico. She tours constantly throughout the world and even performed at the Oscars in 2003, singing a duet with Brazil’s Caetano Veloso on “Burn It Blue,” a nominated song from the movie “Frida,” to which she contributed other music. Through it all, Cohen has been by her side, sharing dreams for a better world.

“I’ve become a much more peaceful person, thanks to him,” she says, laughing again.

Keeping the cultural torch ablaze hasn’t been easy. Even Mexicans don’t think it’s hip to do Mexican music these days.

“Swimming against the current can be hard work because you have to deal with this notion that what we’re doing is somehow backward,” she says. “I come from a culture that is very negative and very ashamed in many ways. The Mixtec people I meet in New York, they’re afraid to say they’re Mexican. And I try to tell them, ‘No, keep your heads high. We have to show that we too are worth something here.’ ”

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