Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Divinas

Lila Downs, Azul, Magos Herrera. Three Mexican singers with strong ties to the United States, each with her own ideas about what modern Mexico sounds like. Together they are the divinas, the divine ones. Not exactly divas, but not exactly not.

"I understand the term," says Herrera. "But mostly it's for marketing, something to call us. Do I think I'm a diva? No!" she laughs. But then she pauses, grows somber and continues, "At the same time, everyone has that divine spark, a connection to something divine."

Lila Downs is the most well-known of the trio. Her music was part of the Oscar-winning soundtrack for Selma Hayek's film Frida (that was her onstage with Caetano Veloso during the awards ceremony). From a mixed Mixtec Mexican-white American background, Downs sings traditional folk songs -- with a twist. The opening bars of "La Cucaracha," for example, become a flamenco opera in her hands. Then she launches into a more or less straight rendering for the first verse before she breaks into a rap for the second.

"She's really wonderful," says Azul, admiringly. Azul (her name is the Spanish word for blue) talks with a soft Mexican accent, hesitating while she searches for the right words in English. She tells me, "Lila's voice is one of the few that makes me stand still; when I listen to her I can't really move or anything. I have to stand still and just listen; she's that powerful."

Magos Herrera, who has shared the stage with Downs several times, adds, "She's wonderful, a great artist."

Does Herrera worry the Divinas concert might become the Lila Downs show? "It's hard to put all these vocalists together on one stage, all these egos and everything," she admits. "But for me, it's very clear that no one can express what you can express, it's unique in every artist, so there's no competition. Art is to be shared, so to me it's wonderful to be onstage with her."
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