Lila Downs was born with one foot in each of three cultures.
Her father was from Minnesota while her mother was Mexican, and Downs was brought up in both countries. In addition, her mom was very proud of her indigenous Mixtec heritage and dressed in traditional styles, which set her apart from the other mothers of Downs' Mexican schoolmates.
Now, after a career of making roots music accessible to new audiences on both sides of the Rio Grande, Downs has teamed with Nina Pastori of Spain and Soledad of Argentina for Raiz, which finds her again finding the harmonies amid three cultures.
"It was an exercise of a kind and a quite beautiful one," said Downs. "I think it worked out much more bigger than I imagined. I imagined it to be acoustic and it became much more electronic and kind of fun and exciting and danceable. It was beautiful to see that our rhythms can meld and that we really are one root."
There are no definite plans for the three to tour, but Downs, who is always thrilling to see live, will perform with her band at The Town Hall in New York City on April 19th. She will play a few of the Raiz songs and some from her upcoming album, which is due in November.
The project was brought to the singers by someone at Sony, but the women quickly warmed to the idea. After meeting each other, they went back to their home countries and listened to each other's songs, deciding which they'd like to sing. "We pretty much coincided on all the same songs, curiously," Downs said.
The next step was squaring the details: showing the proper respect for the finer points of each tradition while reshaping it in a non-traditional context.
"That part of it is very difficult when you are coming together and trying to be a democracy," Downs said. "Of course a democracy is not easy. So it's a wonderful experience that way because you realize why things get so complicated in the world -- and politics even more. But the poetry of our roots is what makes us come out of it....It's beautiful to think of origin and the reasons things became very different for our three countries."
She has begun work on a new solo album as well and, she said, may call it "Chocolate and Bullets." She will continue to explore the tangled relationship between the United States and Mexico, including the issue of immigration.
Downs' life and career has been about the bumping up of U.S. and Mexican cultures, including the overlooked and sometimes disdained Indian bloodline that courses through Mexico.
"I think our music has been kind of growing at the same time that in [Mexico] that awareness and importance of paying attention to this root," Downs said. "I think the whole nation has been in a sense in denial about its Indian root....[O]ur music has been one of the expressions that have been instrumental to the movement in a way of coming out of the closet with your Indian roots. "
After growing up in both countries, she went to college in the U.S. and, at one point, dyed her hair blonde and was a Deadhead. Always taken with Mexican music, she began performing as part of a group, and then made a couple of solo albums. Her 1999 album La Sandunga, made with her husband and musical collaborator Paul Cohen, got her critical and popular acclaim. With her powerful, versatile voice and rocked-up rootsy sound, she has received Grammys, appeared and sung in films and toured the world.
"I really love to be able to crossover through music and I don't mean that in the commercial sense," Downs said. "It opens the hearts of people and they learn something through song."
Nina Pastori, Lila Downs and Soledad singing together
Downs' big voice with minimal accompaniment
With her band on "Ojo de Culebra" and guest singer Lamari