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Downs rekindles ranchera

Buika/Lila Downs, November 7, 2010

The Georgia Straight

by Tony Montague

Mexican-American chanteuse Lila Downs draws deep from the well of tradition. And no artist has inspired her music more than ranchera legend Chavela Vargas. The nonagenarian is best known to Canadians as the elderly woman with the hauntingly strong face performing the old ballad “La Llorona” in the 2002 biopic Frida, about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo-with whom Vargas allegedly had an affair. Over the past decade Downs has become a good friend of the notoriously cranky Vargas, even performing with her at a festival in Madrid a few years ago. She’s also recorded a string of songs made famous by Vargas. They include La Cantina’s “Paloma Negra”, one of the most emotion-drenched songs of the macho romantic style, which dates from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20.

Vargas, who came out as a lesbian at the age of 82, is a master of ranchera’s subtleties and adds an element of sexual ambiguity. She’s an iconic figure for Downs, who performed as a tango singer in Frida’s gay-couple dance scene, and for bisexual Spanish diva Concha Buika. Last year, Majorca-born Buika – whose strong and agile voice blends blues, soul, jazz, ranchera, and above all flamenco – paired up with Cuban piano giant Chucho Valdes to record a starkly beautiful homage to Vargas, El Ultimo Trago. Now Downs and Buika  have gotten together to present three concerts – in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Vancouver – as a tribute to rachera’s increasingly frail queen.

At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts this Sunday (November 7), Downs and Buika – each performing a solo set – will sing songs form their own repertoire and several Vargas classics. “Her voice has been an essential part of my life,” says Downs, calling from New York City, where she lives. “My mother says I was singing songs by Chavela from the time I was seve. Ranchera was my first influence musically. It’s such an important and honest manner of delivering Mexican songs.

“And as a woman, Chavela represents someone who fought to stay true to her secuality and her unusal personality,” Downs continues. “She lived at a time where she was able to share her thoughts and her life with people like José Alfredo Jiménez, one of the greatest poets of ranchera. It’s a wonder the’s been as great as she has, considering the crazy life and experience she had with alcohol.”

Varga’s commanding voice and charismatic presence made her a star of Mexican music from the late ‘40s to the late ‘70s, when her drinking problem ended her career. Or so it seemed. Vargas bounced back from her addiction, and in the past 20 years she’s enjoyed a new, if fragile, lease on life. Though she’s got few other close friends, Vargas has taken a shine to both Downs and Buika. “At one point I asked her why she liked me – something that surprised me, because she’s famous for being a difficult person to get close to,” says Downs, whose mother comes from the Mixtec tribe, and who wears traditional embroidered huipils (blouses), festoons of necklaces, and braided hair. “She said, ‘You know, Lila, when I was lost in drink I went to Tepoztlán [a town in the Mexican state of Morelos]. I lost myself. And there was this Indian family that picked me up, didn’t ask me any questions, and clothed and fed me, and I’ve always been grateful for that.’ So I think there’s a deep sense of Chavela identifying with the Indian heritage we have in Mexico. That’s how I interpreted it – that she respects this side of who I am as well.”

Ranchera used to be regarded as a man’s genre of music, with roots in the heroic era of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. But Downs argues that the machismo doesn’t make it a uniquely male preserve. “There are just as many female singers who embody this kind of song, I think, in the sense that Chavela would represent both male and female energies. That’s what’s different about her and someone like Lucha Reyes, who also embodied hat interpretation of the songs in a woman’s incarnation. The beauty of this music is that a woman becomes kind of a man as she sings – so it’s a play with the sexuality and the power that it gives you to sing these songs.”

Thu Nov 4, 2010