Una Sangre (One Blood), Lila Downs' fourth album for the Narada label, is her most restless. Downs is best known to American audiences for her appearance in the film Frida (about the legendary Mexican painter Frida Kahlo) and her major contribution to the film's soundtrack. She has long been in the trenches knitting the indigenous music of her native lands -- Mexico and the United States -- into a sonic fabric where traditional Mexican folk songs, richly textured pop, and American blues and jazz music mix with Spanish and English lyrics that also contain Mexico's Mayan, Zapotec, Nahuatl, and Mixtec Indian dialects. Downs' previous recordings have always been deeply satisfying; they combine a musicologist's world with the fiery heart of an activist poet. Una Sangre is the next step. Here, over the course of 13 songs, she takes a wondrously heady mix and deepens it with other musical elements that come from further afield, and she goes off the deep end into something new and wondrous. She uses Middle Eastern modalities and melodies, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian rhythms, hip-hop cadences, and reggae and even gospel influences, and extrapolates into this mix a dazzling lyrical array, adding Purepecha, an Indian dialect from the central Michoacan region, and Trique, an actual language from one of the 16 divergent ethnic groups who coexist in Oaxaca! Her husband, saxophonist and musical director Paul Cohen (from New Jersey) has woven a tight-knit group of multi-instrumentalists who come from the U.S., Paraguay/Mexico (Celso Duarte), Cuba (Junior Terry Cabrera), Chile (Yayo), and Brazil (Guilherme Monteiro), with guest appearances by Mexican and American guitarists Ernesto Anaya and Marvin Sewell, as well as the renowned Japanese percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. Downs' confidence is remarkable. Her readings of age-old folk songs like "La Bamba" and "La Cucaracha" remove the racist novelty and caricature character they have been saddled with outside Mexico, and restate them with their original ferocity and dignity as communal songs. On the title cut, her band employs dread reggae and she a dry, smoky jazz vocal that is nothing less than sultry and stretches the melody to the point of fissure. "Mother Jones" uses Delta-style blues gospel as a way of slipping into the murk of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, while "Cielo Rojo" can only be called a Spanish desert blues, with three very different guitars carrying on above the subtle rhythms and Downs' mournful voice coming from the throaty dust and reaching a steamy falsetto that contains all the sorrow in the world. There are no respites from excellence and no false starts on Una Sangre; it is a most daring set performed with passion, focus, and vision. It offers the listener not only considerable pleasure, but the possibility for a new musical paradigm as well.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek