Lila Downs, Charanga Cakewalk, Rolas de Aztlán
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cd cover Lila Downs
La Cantina "Entre copy y copa"
Narada (www.narada.com)

Charanga Cakewalk
Chicano Zen
Triloka-Artemis Records (www.triloka.com)

Various Artists
Rolas de Aztlán: Songs of the Chicano Movement
Smithsonian Folkways (www.folkways.si.edu)

Culturally and artistically, Latin Grammy winner Lila Downs continues to develop as one of the most compelling singers to straddle the US-Mexico border. Her fifth release is an essay on the Mexican working-class ranchera ballad and other popular genres typically heard in Mexican cantinas, poignant songs of love, betrayal and retribution, with three Downs originals to open. "La cumbia del mole" is her homage to the women of her native Oaxaca, in southern Mexico (a highly stylized music video of the song, filmed in the Oaxaca market, can be seen on the artist's web site); an English-language version of the song appears later in the album. "El corrido de Tacha la teibolera," with Flaco Jiménez (accordion) and Max Baca (bajo sexto), gives a Tex-Mex feel to the tale of a young woman determined to overcome the ruins of abandonment by her family to a forced marriage. "Agua de rosas" is Downs' tale of a female shaman of Juchitán, Oaxaca, who prescribed a rosewater remedy to banish her sadness.

The balance of the album interprets some of Mexico's most popular songs, such as José Alfredo Jiménez's classic "Tu recuerdo y yo," and "La cama de piedra" (bed of stone), whose plaintive refrain wholly captures the ranchera spirit: "If it's a crime to love you, then let them sentence me to death." Shifting genres, "El relampago" is a son calentano from western Mexico's Michoacan "hot lands," combining a forceful chorus whose harmonizing vocals play upon a lively array of harp, vihuela and violin. But as with all the material, the arrangements are sonic hybrids, mixing harp and strings, marimba, percussion, hip-hop, DJ effects (by Charanga Cakewalk's Michael Ramos, Aneiro Taño and Downs' partner, Paul Cohen, clarinetist and musical director), Levantine modes, slashing electric guitar, Mexican brass band accents, and the artist's sultry spoken interjections. Downs' remarkable talent for mimicry, her operatic reach, her sense of drama, her passion for the music and its land of origin are all manifested here.

Based in Austin, Texas, keyboardist, melodica player and accordionist Michael Ramos (Bodeans, Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp, Rembrandts, Paul Simon) recruits Downs on the first two tracks of Charanga Cakewalk's Chicano Zen, a continuation of his DJ-mixing exploration of Latin electronica. But Downs' presence is more atmospheric than substantive. Ramos' outer-spatial experimentation with Latin genres is the real story. An accomplished instrumentalist, he's not just noodling the dials, but creating found instrumental sounds whose provenance leaves the listener pondering, "Is it real, or is it what?"

In a recitation of his cross-cultural formation, and a preview of the overall package, amidst a swirl of Mexican American and pan-Latin pop culture references, the title track weaves Downs' breathy vocals in a sonic tapestry that juxtaposes blood, family, tradition, polkas, rancheras, timbales, Little Joe Hernández, Vicente Fernándes and Cantinflas. Another stylistic grab bag is "La mimosa," where Austin's Davíd Garza adds vocal texture to Ramos' genre blender. By contrast, "No soy feliz" (with guests Rubén Ramos and Patty Griffin) is pure '60s Chicano nostalgia, and "El cine" (cinema) crafts a kind of Mikos Theodorakis theme, while "Vida magica" (the magic life) drifts into an electronic miasmia with some obscure philosophizing ("Time marks my life, in the history of suffering, everything has to die, so that life can go on… I'm here, I'm a witness") in the solo voice of Martha González of Quetzal (she also solos on "La corriente"). On a more upbeat note, Ramos turns in a wonderful corrido on accordion with "Gloria" (named for his mother, with Max Baca on bajo sexto). The album closes, however, with a muted political statement. "El ballad de José Campos Torres" is another accordion excursion, an instrumental tribute to the young Mexican male of the title who was lynched in 1976 by the Houston police. Chicano Zen or not, life is concrete, and on the imaginary border between North and South, some things haven't changed much in the past three decades.

Witness to that observation comes via Rolas de Aztlán: Songs of the Chicano Movement, a historical compilation of 19 singular tracks, among them a group of LA schoolchildren singing the familiar birthday greeting "De colores" to the accompaniment of the young Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (also heard on "El Tilingo Lingo"). Al Reyes' "Vietnam Veterano" includes stark narration by a returned vet, while "Corrido de César Chavez" (by Los Perros del Pueblo Nuevo) invokes the spirit of one of the movement's most enduring political figures. Daniel Valdez and El Teatro Campesino contribute several stirring numbers, among them "América de los Indios" (indigenous America), "El picket sign," Trio Casindio's "LULAC Cadillac," "Chicano Park Samba" by Los Alacranes Mojados (the wetback scorpions), and a live session from a 1966 United Farmworkers meeting during the California grape strike, with assembled members led by Teatro co-founder Agustín Lira on "Yo no le tengo miedo a nada" (I'm not scared of anything). Lira also swings on "¡Quihubo Raza! (What's happening, bloods!), a review of Aztlán history from indigenous times to the U.S. annexation of the northern third of Mexican national territory (present-day Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California) in 1848; from the revolutionary heroes Cuauhtémoc, Morelos, Zapata and Villa to the armed '60s uprising in Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. Rolas de Aztlán is an essential historical document. - Michael Stone

Artists web sites:
Lila Downs - www.liladowns.com.mx
Charanga Cakewalk - www.charangacakewalk.com

CDs available from cdRoots and cdroots.com

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