It takes the rare vocal talents of a singer like Lila Downs to silence a Madrid crowd—and convince them to put out their cigarettes without complaining. But since the smoke might hinder Downs' performance, the air clears immediately. Fans stand silent and alert, the lights dim, the bongos begin to pound, and Downs' deep voice slowly fills the room. With her black hair pulled back into two braids wrapped in red ribbons, fat beaded necklaces engulfing her neck, and a golden yellow woven tunic atop her black velvet T-shirt, she is the spitting image of Mexico's famous self-portraitist Frida Kalho.
Downs was born and raised in Mexico; this half Mixteca/half Gringa sings in Spanish, English, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, and Nahuatl. Her music is a reflection of her multicultural childhood in Mexico and her studies in anthropology in Minnesota, with its combination of Mexican folklore, boleros, borderland rancheras, opera, and American jazz and blues.
A mix of instruments from cello, piano, trumpet, and electric guitar to percussion tools like guiros, djembés, and even turtle shells accompanies Downs, transporting listeners to workdays in the vineyards of California or to grandmothers telling spiritual legends in Oaxaca.
Border is an attempt to capture the concerns of all those who cross the lines of cultures and nations to reach economic and social freedom. In her acknowledgements Downs thanks "all the spirits who walk the line: the migrant workers, Cesar Chavez, Woody Guthrie, and the Mixteca and Michoacan people."
"Little Tyrant Heart" is a country ballad sung in Spanish for a distant lover while the tropical beat of "La Niña" uplifts the discouraging plight of poor working women. Downs' medley of Woody Guthrie tunes "Pastures of Plenty" and "This Land is Your Land" is sung in both traditional gospel and folk styles updated with a touch of reggae and chanting. They are recomposed and recorded with her cross-cultural style to remind us that immigrants face the same discriminating realities today as they did four decades ago.
Downs' more serious lyrics aren't particularly original to the social activist community. But what they lack in novelty she makes up for in musical creativity. On Border, the combination of culture, harmony, and rhythm gives new life to the words and the struggle of people working and waiting in the world's margins.
Julienne Gage, a former Sojourners intern, works as a journalist in Spain.