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Drawing life from folk roots

June 13, 2004|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

Lila Downs

"One Blood/Una Sangre" (Narada)


Leave it to a bicultural, multilingual Mexican American, raised in Oaxaca and Minnesota, to create one of the most original and progressive works of Mexican music, rooted in folklore but oriented to the future. At a time when Mexico's rich native styles are being shamefully shunned as old-fashioned or irrelevant, Downs offers a fresh and modern document that joyfully reveals the rich well of inspiration.

In her fourth album (in stores Tuesday), Downs moves far beyond her devotion to indigenous traditions, achieving a stunning breadth of styles. By borrowing instruments and musicians from various countries, Downs blasts through musical borders as she does through octaves with her husky, opera-trained voice. Like Mexico itself, her music now blossoms with a vibrant fusion of the ancient and the modern, seamlessly weaving elements of jazz and rap into a fabric of folkloric melodies and verses, like one of the colorful Indian tunics (huipil) she wears on stage.

Much of the album's excitement arises from her band's radical revision of Mexican standards, revealing new meanings in songs normally treated as trite stereotypes. The suite-like arrangement of "La Bamba," a son that alludes to the U.S. invasion of Veracruz in 1914, invokes Mexico's African roots with layers of percussion and overlays of an Afro-pop guitar. And Downs' eerie, hallucinogenic rendition of "La Cucaracha," a folk song from the Mexican Revolution, adds modern verses to skewer the corruption of the Communist Party and the sacrifice of young soldiers in war, an obvious reference to Iraq.

The new lyrics were written by Downs and American saxophonist Paul Cohen, her longtime co-producer and co-arranger. Other band members include Celso Duarte (Mexico/Paraguay) on harp, violin and jarana; Yayo Serka (Chile) on drums, bombo and Peruvian cajon; Yunior Terry (Cuba) on bass and Guilherme Monteiro (Brazil) on guitar.

The band, augmented by three guest musicians, maximizes the sense of musical discovery by using startling tempo changes, unexpected instrumentation and electronic effects. Embedded in the arrangements we hear the distant warbling of suffering spirits, a hypnotic Catholic prayer, an electronic wah-wah enhancing portents of doom.

Downs, meanwhile, slips naturally from Spanish to English and indigenous languages, such as Purepecha from Michoacan. Her liberating themes of human rights and unity among peoples run through the album, capped by "Una Sangre" with its bold Native American overtones.

In the dramatic "Brown Paper People," Downs infuses the English lyrics with surrealism to underscore the scourge of colonial power: "See a continent hidden / see a paradise crazy / See the gods who were strangers in liquid gold cities / See the brown paper people / See the footprint and the money / See the funny bird snake man / See the gold in his garden."

At every turn, Downs demonstrates how much richness remains to be mined from the grass-roots music of our vast continent. And she shows us that Mexico can lead the way in creating an adventurous Pan-American pop music, if only its artists valued the prime material in their own backyard.

Blades helps salute salsa's golden era

Spanish Harlem Orchestra

"Across 110th Street" (Libertad)


For the follow-up to their well-received 2002 debut CD, these New York salsa veterans invite singer Ruben Blades to join the nostalgia for salsa's golden era of the '70s. The move reunites the acclaimed Panamanian vocalist with SHO's pianist and director Oscar Hernandez, an alumnus of Seis del Solar, Blades' brilliant '80s sextet. Returning to his salsa roots, Blades adds his imaginative and inimitable improvisations (soneos) on four of 13 tracks and contributes one original number, a bawdy barrio narrative about a hapless stutterer and a coldhearted prostitute. As for the band's versions of salsa standards, new arrangements may not always satisfy fans familiar with the originals. But younger listeners will get a true taste of the swing, excitement and strong songwriting that marked the era.

Brothers' tries at satire ring hollow

Cafe Quijano

"!Que Grande Es Esto del Amor!" (WEA)


More mediocre Spanish rock from a trio of brothers with arty pretensions and a knack for running a hook into the ground. Posing as bohemians but wearing matching suits, the Quijanos attempt social commentary and satirical character sketches, all of which ring hollow. The title cut, a lurid, irredeemable tale about a menage a trois, includes the observation that "love is to share," offered without a hint of irony. The group is a pale imitation of Joaquin Sabina, without the wit and piercing perceptiveness of Spain's pioneering pop poet. Sabina does a guest spot on one track, but rather than adding credibility, his appearance serves to prove that genius is not contagious.

An important link to legendary More

Tropicana All Stars

"Recuerda a Benny More"

(Regu Productions)


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