September 19, 2003

A voice with both wings and roots: Lila Downs

By Mariana Martinez

She comes on stage with an embroiled hupil —a typical mixteca blouse— against the black fabric the red and golden toned flowers come alive and frame her face, showing her hard features and big hearings, along with her jeweled hands. Lila Downs seems serene until her mouth lets her scratchy, peculiar, melancholic voice into the air.

Passionate, powerful and sweet, Lila’s voice and music take her audience along with her on a journey; through a little town’s plaza with the Tlahuitoltepec Kids Music School Band or through sensual, southern US jazz tones without forgetting México’s beloved bolero with a hint of hip hop and gospel.

Lila is a result of a peculiar love story. An American filmmaker and painter of Irish decent came to México to film a documentary about ducks, migrating to the Yucatán Peninsula, while on his trip he met Anita, a young mixteca woman who sang in México City. Together they had Lila, a girl who spent her childhood between Oaxaca and Minnesota.

Lila took singing classes in L.A. and then at Bellas Artes (renowned art school in México) while she helped her mother run an auto parts store in a town called Tlaxicaco (Oaxaca). Later she moved to Minnesota where she combined her social anthropology and singing majors. She dropped out of college to be a “dead head” and followed the Grateful Dead while selling jewelry. She later learned how to knit in a traditional mixteca technique and started singing in clubs both in Oaxaca and Filadelfia.

It was then that she started developing her style while working with other musicans. She embraced her indigenous roots and the music of her native mixteca language, while learning other native languages spoken in México such as zapoteco, maya and nahuatl, while blending them with modern sound and coming un with a style that reflects where she comes from.

Although she has been singing for a long time, Lila has released only three records: La sandunga, Yutu tata and her latest production, Border (La línea).

Her latest album, released under Virgin records label, it’s a series of songs inspired by border life, the immigrant workers struggle and racism the indigenous people suffer in both sides of the border. In this album Lila blends prehispanic musical instruments with traditional cumbia sounds, but showing her jazz, gospel and hip hop tendencies, creating a powerful mix dedicated to the spirits of those who daily die in our borders.

With the songs from the album, such as El Feo, Corazoncito tirano y Perhaps, Perhaps, Lila Downs, who was just nominated for the BBC award for World Music is coming to Tijuana for a concert September 26 at the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT).

The concert will start at eight and promises to be one of the best of the year, with ticket prices ranging from 25 to 30 dollars with 50% discount to students, teachers and people over 65.

For many, Lila represents what the XXI century is about; migration and blurry borderlines where a mixed race woman, fights her way trough stereotypes and prejudice and empowers herself while her voice grows both wings and roots.

For more information and a taste of her music visit

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