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The haunting story, lush photography and perfect soundtrack to the motion picture Frida should have gone far to introduce Mexican diva Lila Downs to English-speaking audiences. She twice performs on screen, once in the bar scene, once besides the heroine who, in her four-posted bed towards the end of her life and also the movie, has been transported into the art gallery hosting her first-ever formal exhibition on Mexican soil. Lila Downs also performs the celebratory closing credit song "Burning Bed" with Brazilian super star Caetano Veloso.
Lila's two older albums on Narada prior to Sandunga -- which received an enthusiastic Blue Moon award -- are conceptually distinct and very different from one another. Tree of Life isn't unlike Carlos Guedes' far older instrumental release in which he returns to the roots of the Venezuelan folk harp to perform living indigenous music of the mountain peoples. Lila dedicates Tree to "my mother's people the cloud people", the Zapotec, Aztec and Nahuátl Indians. She selects traditional songs accompanied by mostly traditional instruments such as turtle shells, clay drums, tarahumara drum, cajon, ocarina, jarana and harp though bass, guitar and harmonica provide the requisite glue to hold these numbers together. Tree in many ways is what Yma Sumac's Inca music -- she of the 4-octave pipes -- attempted but failed to be because it was diluted by romanticized Hollywood notions à la Rudolph Valentino's tango.
Other faint parallels to Tree of Life are to be found in some of Strunz & Farah's guitar work which uses stylistic motifs from the Americas but naturally lacks the central powerful vocals of stunningly adaptive Downs who is equally at home with Mexican torch songs, happy Rancheros, sophisticated modern ballads and, as here, deceptively simple folk songs. Lila's exceptionally well-trained voice easily assumes multiple personalities with very distinct timbres and vibratos that often do not suggest coming from the same throat. That said, of the two albums here, Arbol de la Vida | Yutu Tata will enjoy a more limited audience simply because its subject matter will escape listeners who aren't inherently sympathetic to ethnic music, who aren't curious about so-called more primitive cultures and their unique modes of musical expressions.
La Linea | Border is the musically more mainstream album of the two though the generic term 'mainstream' and the eclectic magic of Lila Downs have little if anything in common. As the title suggests, the thematic focus of La Linea is the complex reality of Mexican immigrants in the US. Its emotional, legal and cultural challenges exist on the underlying colonial hypocrisy that has no issues with benefitting from cheap backbreaking labor but looks the other way when those very workers demand recognition, integration and stability. With political activist lyrics of uncensored bluntness, listeners not delving into the liner note translations will cut the potency of Border by half. Considering the vibrant depth of this music, that does far less damage than one might think. Still, it's fair to say that it would be avoiding the raison d'être of this work.
Because Linea covers the reality of Mexicans in the Unites States, the musical styles here mix Mexican elements with twangy Blues guitar, adapt growling Funk or Reggae bass lines to host a folk harp or honky-tonk piano, contrast saxophone with Mexican fiddle and wailing e-guitar and then pepper the stew with lyrics like "When did you come to America the free? Who are your ancestors, what is your creed? Who is the father and the son and the 'we'? Where is the spirit that sought liberty..." Thus Arbol's time capsule which captures a specific isolated culture explodes with Linea into further dimensions, colors and conflicting tensions. If you only bought one, you should pick Linea and have Lila Downs read you the riot act from her perspective. Regardless of your political views on the subject, the power of music is bound to make you more sympathetic on a pure feeling dimension - and perhaps that's exactly what the artist intended?