- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2003

The problem with roots music or world music, for that matter is that no one takes it seriously until it appears on the big screen. So when Lila Downs takes the stage at the 75th Academy Awards telecast on Sunday, it will be for her work on the film "Frida," not for all that has gone before.
Still, singing an Oscar-nominated song at the Academy Awards is nothing to be sneezed at.
"It was exciting for me to be part of the soundtrack in the first place," says Miss Downs. Julie Taymor's film biography of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo has been nominated for five Academy awards, including best musical score and best song, "Burn It Blue."
Regardless of whether the song wins, on Monday Miss Downs will appear at the Kennedy Center for a performance that's somewhat related to the movie: She will be here along with 90-year-old Chavela Vargas, a friend of Miss Kahlo and a renowned singer of rancheras, the country music of Mexico that is steeped in the drama of the lovelorn and punctuated with cries of "ay, ay, ay."
"As a world music singer, it's quite an honor to sing with Chavela Vargas," Miss Downs says.
Miss Downs, with her thick braids and peasant costumes, has been compared to Frida Kahlo herself, though her musical sensibility more closely approaches that of France's Edith Piaf.
But the range of music she sings is far broader. She has tinkered with the indigenous music of her native Mexico, reworked Woody Guthrie, and written some strongly worded lyrics about the hardships faced by those who live on the Mexican border. She has even been known to deliver a musical punch with a strong jazz bent, like her version of the old standard "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
Still, it's just as hard to put Miss Downs' music in a nutshell as it is to characterize Miss Downs herself. Rest assured, though, the two are very closely related.
"I love to sing in the different traditions of music I learned in my life," she says.
So when Miss Downs sings, say, Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty," she combines a little blues, a little hip hop, a little Latin rhythm, and adds her own fierce riff on the subject of roots, "When Did You Come To America,"
It's a subject that comes naturally to Lila (pronounced Leela) Downs, who found herself shuttling and struggling between the world of her mother, a Mixtec Indian, and that of her father, a Scottish American filmmaker from Minnesota.
Growing up, she says, she always felt out of place in both worlds: In Mexico, she was taunted either for having an indigenous mother or a gringo father, or both. In Minnesota, she was singled out for her dark skin and Mexican mother.
Through it all, she listened to all kinds of music; opera and rancheras from her mother, a singer in her own right; folk music and blues from her father.
"My mother used to like to listen to 'La Traviata' and 'La Boheme,'" she remembers. "I was so attracted to sounds that you can make as an opera singer. Even when I was very little, I was always trying to imitate them."
After the death of her father when she was just 16, Miss Downs studied opera and anthropology at the University of Minnesota.
But she didn't stay. She had just made the first cut of the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions when she dropped out to follow the Grateful Dead and yes, that means a groupie, a full-fledged, pull-out-all-the-stops Dead Head.
"I needed to lay back and enjoy life," she confesses. "The Grateful Dead are good at reminding you of that."
Eventually, she returned and pursued a double major in music and anthropology. She wrote her thesis on the Triqui, an indigenous people from Oaxaca known for their intricate weaving. Today, she writes songs about them.
Along with her husband, tenor saxophonist and onetime professional juggler Paul Cohen, she has set the ancient codices of the Mixtec and Zapotec to music. And she's working on a project about Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
What has emerged from all this is a sound that is intense and strongly layered, with a depth of color and range of tone that rivals some of the best singers of any genre. With a range of more than three octaves, it's easy to see why opera came so easy. If you don't speak Spanish, or Nahuatl, or any one of the pre-Columbian languages in which she sings, you may not understand what's happening, but it's crystal clear how things are going.
No wonder that she played a sort of one-woman Greek chorus for "Frida."
In addition to opera, the music of indigenous people and the popular rancheras and cumbias Colombia's traditional music of her childhood, Miss Downs is interested especially in the music of John Coltrane.
"He left us that entrance to this other world," she says. "You can find it in all kinds of music you just need to be looking for it."

Meanwhile, the Scottish roots group Old Blind Dogs performs for the Institute of Musical Traditions series at the Silver Spring Unitarian Church on Sunday. The group has been around for about 10 years, but some recent changes in the lineup have brought a new focus to their sound.
Listen for the blues harmonica between the traditional bagpipe choruses on "The Whistler," for example, or new member Fraser Fitfield's winsome licks on the tenor sax.
With a new album due out this April, OBD should be back to its high energy, highly enjoyable performances. Just remember, this is not your ordinary Scottish folk music.

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