Although the New York Times reviewer makes it clear that the music on this album goes a long way beyond being merely highly and professionally accomplished, he ventures nothing on how this is achieved, what it means and what the implications could be. He does no more than make vague reference to “deep Mexican folklore” or “divine interventions” and leaves us in the dark with respect to how shallowness in music is transcended. This is disappointing, especially when one considers that a truly interpreted ranchera must be one of the most powerful musical statements in existence and consequently deserves considerably more attention.
Lila Downs is one of very few performing artists who have not only brought such fullness of meaning to often interpreted songs, but have also made them so spellbinding, in many cases for the first time, that it is as if these artists have lived the experience behind the song to the bone. Or if not lived, have the capacity to do so. Odetta, for example, towards the end of her life turned the often indifferent “House of the Rising Sun” into an expression of tragic regret so deep that it can only be followed by silence. Lila Downs lifted “Black Magic Woman” out of its self-conscious smoothness and made it an enthralling indictment of archetypal proportion against those who have shadow-projected on and persecuted women and mystery throughout history. It was as if the song had at last found its reason for existence.
This sense of apotheosis suggests that these interpretations, infused as they are with so much meaning, may well owe their otherworldliness to the artist’s life-long and fearless loyalty to his or her creative spirit, or perhaps to direct experience, or even to experience acquired over many life times. Or more possibly, to all of these.
There are few interpretations of songs which could be said to be imbued with otherworldliness; however, some songs begin, unfold and end like those rare, fleeting dreams which unmask and reveal the true essence of a feeling in its purity. The feeling unmasked in the version of Cucurrucucu Paloma, on the new album, is one of immense solace which is offered without sentimentality to the subject’s plight and predicament. Evidently, consuelo is a lot more than a mere passive observer, at least it is in this dreamlike version, the irrepressible colours of which could easily and strangely find a distant although sombre echo in the haunting version of “She moves through the fair” by Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention.
There appear to be different types of rancheras: some glorify drunken self-pity, vengeance, possessiveness, jealousy and envy and are destructive; others are concerned with facing obstacles to the realization of inner freedom and love. Lila Downs is able to communicate the profundity of this latter type of ranchera by making them so evocative and by giving them such ever-present familiarity that the presence of archetypal experience is very evident in musical harmony as well as in meaning. ( Archetypal experience is understood to be processes lived consciously by the individual in accordance with models, such as myths, folk tales or biblical stories, which have become present in his or her psyche from the deep unconscious. Apparently, these models come not so much from a long time ago but are thought to come from outside time, hence “Once upon a time…”). The expression of this process in song is powerful, and a truly interpreted ranchera is closer to experience lived rather than experience observed: while many singer-songwriters have sung with considerable poetic insight about experience, a ranchera with greater poetic simplicity aspires to become it. It is not surprising that some Mexican folksongs have a power which is close to that of certain movements in Beethoven quartets or in Vivaldi concerti.
There is a moment in the version of La Llorona from the album La Linea where form and content find a harrowing union: “Ayer maravilla fui, llorona, hoy ni sombra soy.” In this beautifully expressed utterance, as also in the deep richness of Cruz de Olvido, the difference between longing and despair seems to fade and one is left wondering about the ways in which the seeds of ascent are present even in the most abject downfall.
To end on a rather different note, it is impossible not to listen to the very moving Misa Oaxaqueña without thinking of the ghosts of so many indigenous people slaughtered by the Europeans and their descendents in North and South America. Few seem to care that this slaughter constituted the largest example of genocide in the history of the world or that those who survived have had their lands taken and their spirit withered. What is particularly pressing at the present moment is that petrol companies, with the Ecuadorian Government’s approval, are about to steal the lands and destroy the lives of six remaining indigenous tribes in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
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