Lila Downs' voice is like a cool pint of Guinness--full, rich and deliciously complex. And like a good stout, her songs are layered with sweets and bitters that linger long after your first gulp. Her music must be gulped, for it is soulful and honest in an industry that mass-produces the opposite, and from the moment she steps on stage, Downs becomes the melody.
"She doesn't have a perfect voice, but she sure can perform," said Tom Schnabel, a radio host in Los Angeles. "Her strength is in the way she can win a crowd. Maria Callas used to blow notes right and left, but she would also blow an audience away. Same with Lila. She has a hell of a lot of stage presence. She can emote and be very dramatic."
Even if you've never seen her stun an audience live, you can tell from the portrait on the cover of Downs' fourth and latest release, Una Sangre/One Blood, that her songs are full of mystery, depth, joy, pain, frustration and peace. Her eyes are smoldering and wary, her smile subdued and her pale skin beautifully stark against thick black braids and bright red lipstick. The face alone catches you, and tracks that range from ancient Mixtec, Zapotec and Nahuatl Indian ballads to trip-hop, jazz, dub-rap and covers of Latin anthems set to feathery Spanish guitar keep you listening and haunted.
Although Downs was just recently bumped to the "international superstar" track, she has been dreaming music most of her life. It was a destiny she defied and even despised at first due to her mother Anita's flight from the village of Oaxaca to the cabaret scene in Mexico City. Only 15 and newly freed of an abusive marriage, Anita's beauty and spunk helped her land a job singing in a nightclub where she met her future husband and Lila's father, a Scottish-American professor/cinematographer named Allen Downs. The two were a passionate pair, and their daughter bounced from remote Mexican landscapes to the bustle of Southern California for most of her young life.
It was during this time that Downs first tasted the sting of prejudice. The Mexicans in her mother's village ostracized her for her mixed Indian/Caucasian blood, and the despair she felt deepened immensely when her father died. She was only 16, and though she struggled through high school and a few years of college, she eventually dropped out, dyed her hair blonde, did a lot of drugs and followed the Grateful Dead around the country. She now calls the episode "inevitable" and credits some of her personal growth to its lessons.
"It was good because it was like shedding a skin and going through a growing process which we all go through one way or another," she said, "I rejected my mother and our ancestry, but she was such a strong woman--she physically held on to me and said: 'You're not going anywhere.'"
At the end of her disillusionment--at least with her own past--Downs returned to the University of Minnesota to finish degrees in voice and anthropology. When she returned to Mexico, she began writing and finally sharing her music and subsequently to discover herself and her heritage, though the pain of her oppressed people still burns.
Perhaps that is where she draws her power, that ability to look out at a stadium full of shadows and make them all feel as though she were looking only at them.
"I guess some people are born with a particular gift, and you have to look inside yourself and see what you can conduct through this gift. I try to make my music authentic, to feel it intensely and speak truly of what I'm feeling at that moment. People need and want that from a performer, and I need it too--to feel alive," she said. Her words and spirit weave with the fantastic sounds of a Brazilian guitarist, Cuban bassist, Chilean drummer, Mexican harpist and a guitarist/saxophonist/musical director/husband (Paul Cohen). Such diversity is the perfect metaphor for Downs' new album and unflinching philosophy of ending discrimination and bringing people together to recognize beauty in all its forms.
Despite her unmistakable star quality, Downs wasn't that well known until the release of Frida, last year's Oscar-winning film about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. If you saw the film you saw Downs steal a scene from Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd with her unearthly voice. Many have noted her amazing physical similarity to Kahlo, a comparison that springs from her passion as much as her striking features. But she is not enamored of celebrity. She lives for the small stages, eye contact and the knowledge that her music stands for something bigger.
"It's very rewarding to know that something you do in life can make a difference. There is that part about enjoying and coasting, but it's good to stop and ponder sometimes ... to remember why we're here and be thankful just for that."
Lila Downs, October 19, 8 p.m., $27, Egyptian Theater, 700 W. Main St. Tickets at box office, Record Exchange or 387-1273.