Lila Downs at the Barbican, London, April 2006
Photographer: Damian Rafferty
My favorite vocalists of late all sing in romance languages. They are already legends, but if you haven’t heard them yet, get thee to iTunes and check them out. You don’t need to know Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese, although, if you do, it will no doubt enhance your thrall.
From Brazil, dig Rosa Passos (pronounced “Hosa” Passos), a soprano whose hip, creative phrasing enhances the cool “beach samba” style of Brazilian pop standards. When I first heard her, I realized I’m more accustomed to hearing this music performed in an alto range, and Rosa’s high, vibrato-less voice gives even 1960’s Jobim chestnuts a fresh youthfulness.
From Peru, Susana Baca gives voice to an African-American community in a country without Caribbean frontage. Rich with complex rhythms and responsive chorus, Susana’s music takes you right to the emotional and spiritual center of her mysterious and earthy world.
From Mexico and Minnesota, Lila Downs combines a degree in opera singing, a bloodline of the majestic women of the ithmus of Tehuantepec, and a cool New Jersey saxophonist boyfriend to create traditional Mexican music with soaring vocals, hip arrangements, and sometimes political rants.
From Mexico, Montreal, and lots of road time in between, Lhasa de Sela grew up traveling with singing parents on a school bus, and began gigging at age 13. In Montreal she partnered with Yves Desrosiers, a monster guitarist and brilliant producer, to create two emotionally urgent yet surreal CDs.
From Asti, near the French border of Italy, comes a dapper, older attorney turned singer/songwriter named Paolo Conte. With a gruff voice, fabulous jazz piano chops and eerily retro band arrangements, Conte creates the most gorgeous, profound and hilarious poetry imaginable. If you do not read Italian, be sure, when you purchase one of his CDs, to get one with English translations of the lyrics in the liner notes.
Note 14 years later: I still adore all of these recording artists, and I would like to add to this list Maria Bethania (vocalist from Brazil), and Badi Assad (guitarist/composer/percussionist/vocalist from Brazil).