By Al Carlos Hernandez
Lila Downs is an enigmatic singer who has transcended international boarders with her unique vocal styling. She has gained critical acclaim and legions of fans from throughout the world. She sings from her heart. Her honestly is ethereal, her performances dramatic and viscerally challenging. Lila is a citizen of the world who brings a message of healing and wonderment.
Lila grew up with the culture of her father, a professor from the United States, but eventually turned her back on this to explore the traditions of her mother, a Mixteca Indian from Mexico. In doing so she has created a very individual strain of song that has indigenous Mexican roots and North American sonorities. Born in 1968, she spent her early years in Mexico. After her parents split up she was shuffled off to live with a relative in California.
She grew to love music, specifically classical and opera, and began studying both in college. Lila dropped out to become a “Deadhead” following the Grateful Dead around the country in a VW bus and earning money by making and selling jewelry – and not singing at all.
Though she was not particularly moved by the Dead’s music, she enjoyed the lifestyle for a short time. Soon she headed back to college in Minnesota where her father lived. When she finally graduated she had degrees in both anthropology and voice. Lila had a renewed enthusiasm for her Mexican heritage and singing.
Settling in her mother’s hometown of Oaxaca, she began vocalizing again and exploring her roots while realizing that she was still half Yankee. She met up with Philadelphia-based jazz pianist Paul Cohen and the pair began a professional and personal relationship. Their first fruit was the self-released (cassette only) Ofrenda in 1994. That was followed two years later by another cassette, the live Azuláo: En Vivo con Lida Downs, one of whose songs won “Best Original Latin Jazz Composition” in a Philadelphia poll.
Along with jazz she was slowly developing a more intense, folkloric style that began to rear its head on 1997’s La Sandunga (released in the United States on BMG in 1999). The title track and “La Llorana” offered a hearty passion showing her jazzier efforts. That vocal promise was fulfilled in 2000 with the release of Tree of Life, the lyrics of which were largely derived from the religious codices of the Mixteca and Zapotec people. The album was recorded in Oaxaca, where Downs and Cohen were sustained by a foundation grant, although their home base remained in Mexico City. Tree of Life was her first recording for the Narada label, where she would remain for eight years. The next year Downs issued Border (La Linea). In 2004 Una Sangre (One Blood) was released, followed by 2006’s La Cantina, whose song “La Cumbia del Mole” presented the singer with the opportunity to make her first music video. Downs and her band released her final album for the Narada imprint, Ojo de Culebra, in 2008,. She followed it up with Lila Downs y la Misteriosa en Paris – Live à FIP on World Village in 2010.
I (thanks to an introduction by A Train Entertainment CEO, Al Evers) had the pleasure of talking to Lila Downs right before her performances in Paris this week.
What are the best and worst parts of growing up the way you did? What was the moment when you knew you were going to make music your life’s work?
The spirituality of my Indian background is important to me. Being proud of being Mexican is also important, especially in these times. Being honest and searching for the truth is something I inherited from my American father. It took me a long time before I chose music. After I studied in college I did weaving. I learned about weaving Native American textiles from the south of Mexico. After that I came back to music. I had to let go of it for a while. I ignored it to really appreciate it.
Where does your music muse come from? What inspires you to write and perform? Is your musical thematic view of death therapeutic or cathartic?
Sometimes it comes from reading things that affect me in a deep way. I usually find that I’m good at converting these subjects into light and trying to make it into a song that is incredibly funny or very melancholic. I am inspired by people with beautiful strength who smile in spite of possible bitterness, but decide they don’t want to go down that route. I am inspired by amazing events where people can come together and move mountains in spite of their differences. My music is both therapeutic and cathartic, I think this is what is magnificent about the Mexican interpretation of death – it can be highly tragic, sad and melancholic, but it can also be festive, happy, with the people laughing at it. This is something I am grateful for having.
What is the ultimate goal of your career?
I hope that people can understand more about where we come from and why we are here. I will never get tired of fighting for that. Hopefully people will learn to care about each other more – respect each other and remember that we all had some parent or grandparent that worked the fields, swept the floor, or produced and cultivated lettuce or strawberries – any of our beautiful food which we so comfortably eat everyday.
Edited By Susan Aceves