Alt/ranchera singer Lila Downs, who brought down the house at the Wisconsin Union Theater's 2005 Madison World Music Festival, returns on April 11. Downs, with one foot in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and the other in Minneapolis - she's the daughter of a Mixteca club singer and a University of Minnesota film prof - is blessed with Oaxaqueña looks and quirky gringa sensibilities.
Downs has been thinking about snakes, she says on the phone from her Mexico City home. She's been reading about Quetzalcoatl, Mexico's multifaceted plumed serpent god, and the culebreros (snakebite shamans) of Catemaco, Veracruz, who harness the healing powers of venom.
Downs has her own snakelike affinities. She's shed the shticky Frida Kahlo outfits for a glammy new spin on Mexican folkloric dress. "As a woman, you always need to renovate," she says. "I got tired of seeing the same promo pictures. But mostly, my new look coincides with a personal tragedy. I reinvent myself with art. I've always been one who sheds her skin."
Salsa and jazz slither into Mexican beats with Downs' band: husband Paul Cohen on horns and keys, Paraguay's Celso Duarte on harps, Yayo Serka from Colombia on percussion and Mexican accordion player Rob Curto.
Searching out perfect traditional songs and inspirations for new ones, Downs looks to Mexican folklore. Her "Corrido de Tacha la Teibolera," song for a cantina table dancer, is an accordion-based ringer for those waltz-time narrative tunes by Los Tigres del Norte. She can sink her teeth into a gut-wrenching ranchera, charm a cumbia tropical, or inject rock guitar riffs and jazzy horn licks into a zapateo with jarocha harp. Sometimes she sings folkish ballads and hip-hop tinged spirituals, in English.
"In northern Mexico and the States a little English is okay," Downs says. "In England we do more songs in English. If it's a women's-rights festival we'll feature women's themes. We adapt our repertory when we travel. As musicians it's our job to entertain, but I always try to include a message."
An Obama fan, her message is change. This tour's partly a preview of her new CD, recorded this primary season and set for August release. "We'll be doing a lot of the new songs," Downs says. "I actually wrote one called 'Snake Eyes.' It's meant to release positive energy. It's in Spanglish. It's about moving your skin like a snake."