11/11/2011 02:04 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

Music That Redefines "Mexican-American"

While music styles from the U.S. and Mexico have flirted, rubbed up and exchanged some, uh, seminal elements across their shared border, few artists have the unique perspective of Lila Downs, who was raised amid the heartlands of both countries.

The daughter of a Mexican singer from Oaxaca and a British-American father who was an arts professor in Minnesota, Downs gained an appreciation for music from both sides of the border, though she did go through a youthful rebellion against her indigenous Mexican heritage. In her teens, she was a Deadhead, but Downs eventually gravitated towards creating her own take on Mexican traditional music.

On each album, Downs has gone deeply into Mexican folk styles, with occasional tips of the sombrero to American music -- particularly on her wonderful bilingual 2008 album Shake Away. Most of her songs are, on first listen, rooted in the regional music of Mexico, but on repeated listens, the atypical -- and often, North American -- touches come into relief -- the electric guitar here, the jazzy sax there. Still, at its smoldering heart, her music has a sort of deeply felt, spiritual kitsch that makes the melting pot of some Mexican culture so fascinating.

Her principle instrument, however, is her powerful, expressive and incredibly versatile voice: stopping time with some long, sustained notes; hoarse and choking with emotion at other moments.

While many performers struggle to be contemporary, if not ahead of their time, Downs and company mine the past, finding a deep soulfulness that too often seems anathema to our American era. Her songs go for high drama, but it is all in good humor; Downs is nothing if not crowd-pleasing and jubilant in her delivery, like the traditional musicians who supply the balm that folk music has often been for hard-working folk.

On her latest, Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles), Downs goes multi-media, in a sense, commissioning several Mexican artists to create for each song a corresponding retalbo, a small painting on metal or wood that venerates Catholic saints using indigenous techniques. The works -- done by contemporary Mexican artists -- will be shown in the MUNAL museum in Mexico City and will appear on screens behind her as she tours the United States (beginning at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 15th).

Six of the songs are written by Downs and her husband/collaborator Paul Cohen, the rest written by venerable Mexican composers.

On the traditional song Xochipitzahua, Downs goes a bit Yma Sumac on us, pushing her voice into a usually unexplored high register. On Fallaste Corazon (Failed Heart), she goes for a more Caribbean pop sound with electronic keyboards and lightly strummed acoustic guitar. On Dios Nunca Muere (God Never Dies), she brings her accompaniment down to a simmer for a haunting waltz, showcasing her voice's versatility.

Two other Mexican artists based in the U.S. have also been creating their own hybrids. New York-based Pistolera's latest album, El Desierto y La Ciudad, takes the group's sound in a new direction. Where they had been spunky rockers imbuing their music with Mexican rhythms and the folksy huffs of an accordion, El Desierto is more elegiac. In fact, frontwoman Sandra Lilia Velazquez's voice is, at times, reminiscent of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos at his most beseeching.

Another overlooked New York-based Mexican-American performer is Rana Santacruz, who adds various colorings to his hybrid-traditional Mexican music, often sounding like he is channeling the Celtic punk of The Pogues. On his Chicavasco, Santacruz presents a lively, mostly acoustic accompaniment to his sweet voice.

These artists are a great entry point for gringos to learn about the deep, varied culture of a country so often dismissed by its self-regarding neighbors to the north.

Lila Downs


Rana Santacruz