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Global Village

Lila Downs brings a multicultural, multifaceted show to the Rio Theatre

By Peter Koht

Lila Downs has spent her life and her career crossing boundaries and borders. She even called one of her records La Linea. Growing up with a Mexican mother and an American father in Minnesota and Mexico City, Downs spent a long time trying to decide which culture she felt most comfortable within. Eventually she chose neither and both.

To complicate matters, as she grew up, Downs began to realize that her cultural identity as a Mexican was thrown into dispute, given her Indian heritage. While talking about racism in contemporary Mexican society, Downs remarks, "We Mexicans have this thing of denying our past and denying ourselves. Most of us have dark hair and dark skin, but we live in this dream state where we look down on those things that make us who we are. We look down on what makes us beautiful."

After a torturous young adulthood that saw multiple attempts a higher education, a stint following the Dead and a flirtation with operatic singing, Downs eventually began to compose and sing original songs that addressed some of the most topical and hard-hitting issues in North American society. Combining ranchero, cumbia and son jarocho with elements of soul, jazz and even Middle Eastern music, Downs has created her own unique brand of fusion. It doesn't respect borders too much, but it does respect culture.

One geographical area that Downs identifies strongly with is her mother's homeland in Oaxaca. Despite being one of the poorest areas in all of Mexico, it has a resilient and adaptive culture that long precedes the establishment of the Mexican nation state. "Fortunately they have very strong native traditions of community responsibility," Downs says. "In the arts area, people are trying to make all of Mexico become aware of our autonomous ways without threatening the national culture."

Whether singing about the pain of making the passage to El Norte or confronting racism in "Sale Sobrando," Downs makes the political both personal and beautiful. In "Dignificado," she tells the little-known tale of activist Dina Ochoa, who was assassinated after challenging the practices of timber companies in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.

"We were aware of her case from the papers," Downs says."I had heard that she was an important human rights activist, but that she stepped away from her organization before she was killed. She had already been threatened and had had close calls. Unfortunately, the government didn't do all that much to protect her." Though Ochoa's tale is one of tragedy, most of Down's repertoire focuses oni the joys of life, the beauty of culture and the amazing strength of diversity.

Summing up her artistic vision, Downs says, "Music and the arts are able to make people aware of what is happening. It is a wonderful gift to have music to work these issues out--well, maybe not work them out, but at least you can express your monsters onstage."

Lila Downs performs Wednesday, July 13, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets: $24; 831.423.8209. More information is available at www.pulseproductions.net.

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From the July 6-13, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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