Lila Downs -- The Voice of a Borderless World

One of the highlights of my visit to Mexico City – besides taking part in the growing dialogue about Mexicans in the US and their vital relationship to Mexicans in Mexico – was a special invitation to attend Lila Downs’ concert at the National Auditorium.

Secretary of State Raquel Sosa and UC Irvine professor Mariana Botey accompanied me. Because of Ms. Sosa’s connections to Mexico City’s Mayor’s office, I was able to get a skybox seat – something I have never done before.

The place was packed, and very enthusiastically behind the Oaxacan/American singer who has transformed Mexican song, including indigenous and Afro-Mestizo numbers, into a style all her own.

I first became aware of Lila’s work around the time I moved back to LA from Chicago in the summer of 2000. When I helped open Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural in December of 2001, Lila’s CDs were the main music we featured in our sound system. I was even able to interview her for the Progressive Magazine and our very own Chicano Internet magazine, Xispas.

But until the Mexico City concert, I had never seen her perform live before.

I was immensely moved at the scale and scope of her vision, at her talent and enormous stage presence. She included in her show a Mariachi, Son Jarocho musicians, a Cumbia band, a Mexican brass band, and more. The music flowed between indigenous Mixteco songs, to tropical big city numbers, to rancheras, to Mexican coastal music influenced by African slaves during the colonial period.

She also performed my favorite from her CDs from when we played them in those early years of Tia Chucha’s – "Arenita Azul."

Her voice is extraordinarily robust and invigorating. She doesn’t just sing, she moves, the dances, she smiles. At some point, I actually came to tears – listening to music my mother used to play at home when I was a youngster. The Mariachi group even played a beautiful rendition of “Mexico Lindo,” the Miguel Aceves Mejia classic that I loved so much growing up.

Something within me always sings of Mexico. When I’m here, among these relatives on “the other side,” I’m reminded of the complexity and vitality of the people, the culture, and the history. It’s still mine, even with a whole life spent in the United States – I just end up carrying it all. It’s in my bones, in my skin, in my heart.

Lila Downs, a Mexican/American in her own right, truly does this for me like no one else. A borderless soul, she also taps into the deep veins of this profoundly layered land.


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