Those who see borders as stark reminders of insurmountable cultural differences will have to contend with the voice of Lila Downs. The daughter of a Scottish-American father and a musical Mixtec Indian-Mexican mother, she spent her youth moving between the musical traditions of both Mexico and the United States. Embracing a wide array of regional and international styles, she successfully used her back-and-forth, border-hopping youth to create a seamless musical celebration of Latin, Anglo, and Native American traditions and produce a multilingual political statement.
Downs's mix of musical styles is a reflection of her own background. Her father, a Scottish-American filmmaker and art professor at the University of Minnesota, was in Mexico working on a documentary when he met and fell in love with a Mixtec-speaking Indian woman who sang part-time in bars and cabarets. Anna Lila Downs Sánchez was born September 19, 1968, in Tlaxiaco, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. She began her childhood pursuing music in the Sierra Madre mountains in Oaxaca and later in Minnesota and California.
With the encouragement of her mother and father, Downs began singing as early as age five, and by age eight she was singing with mariachi bands. When her parents separated, Downs headed north to live with family in Los Angeles, where she began taking formal voice lessons at age 14. It was there that she finished high school and perfected her English. Moving back to Oaxaca, she continued taking lessons, with an eye toward singing opera. It was there that she began to open her eyes to the discrimination practiced against Native Mexicans and to confront her own Indian ancestry.
Downs again returned to the United States to study voice and anthropology at the University of Minnesota, but later dropped out of school. She traveled the United States as a nomadic, neo-hippie "Deadhead," following the musical group The Grateful Dead, rejecting her own musical ambitions to make and sell jewelry on the street. She later moved back to Oaxaca to rediscover her indigenous roots, and eventually returned to the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s. She graduated with degrees in anthropology and voice and a reborn interest in the music of Mexico and its peoples.
Moving back to Tlaxiaco, where she worked in her mother's auto parts store, Downs began delving into local forms of musical expression. She began touring with a tambora band called the Cadetes de Yodoyuxi. She also sang Zapotec Indian themes with a Guelatao, Oaxaca, band called La Trova Serrana. Soon she was singing in the Oaxaca club scene, where she began collaborating with Paul Cohen, an expatriate American jazz musician and circus clown. Cohen became her partner both personally and professionally, acting as composer, accompanist, and principal arranger of her songs. Together they delved further into Mexico's native folk traditions.
The result of this musical collaboration was a pan-American repertoire that mixed Mexican folk songs with jazz, cumbia, Indian rhythms and African-inspired percussion. The pair would go on to incorporate musical influences from throughout the Americas, collaborating with musicians from Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Peru, Argentina and Paraguay. Downs's mezzo-soprano voice produced songs in a mix of Spanish, English, Maya, Mixtec, Nahuatl and Zapotec, all with a three-octave range.
A reviewer for Rootsworld declared, "She covers the vocal waterfront, from the tense-throated nasal vibrato of Lydia Mendoza and Lucha Reyes to the nueva canción sensibility of Mercedes Sosa, with the chops of Linda Rondstadt, the sassiness and inventive range of Sarah Vaughan, and the sweetness of Tish Hinojosa."
Downs's first forays into recording her own albums were the self-released cassettes Ofrenda in 1994 and Azuláo: En vivo con Lila Downs in 1996. La Sandunga, released on Narada in 1997, represented her commercial debut and was her first musical project to spark interest outside Mexico. In addition to original compositions, the album contained Downs's version of rancheras, boleros, and Oaxacan folk music.
"Right now, I have the capacity to be a cultural thief," she told the Washington Post. "I absorb everything, like a sponge. I don't much like this part of my personality. I feel like a chameleon. And nobody likes a chameleon. I think it started out of a necessity from when I was very young."
The border between Mexico and the United States has been as important in Downs's music as it has been in her real life. Thanks to her American father, the geographical border has been open to her, but she is well aware that poverty forced some of her cousins and other indigenous people to remain in Mexico. Downs once had to translate an English-language letter from American authorities into Mixtec, explaining to a neighbor how her son had died trying to cross into the United States. "This experience of being what she calls an 'oracle of death' formed the basis for Border, an album dedicated to the immigrant experience," stated New Internationalist.
The album Border was released in 2000, and mixed styles such as traditional cumbia with elements of jazz, gospel, and hip-hop. Alongside traditional Indian references was a tribute to American folk icon Woody Guthrie that suggested that the state of Mexican immigrants was not unlike that of migrant workers in Oklahoma decades earlier: "California and Arizona, I make all your crops, And it's north up to Oregon to gather your hops, Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vines, To set on your table your light sparkling wine."
"Downs' more serious lyrics aren't particularly original to the social activist community," declared Sojourners. "But what they lack in novelty she makes up for in musical creativity." Besides pointing to the political relevance of the album, Business Mexico also expressed special praise for Downs's singing voice: "Her extremely versatile voice mixes deep baritone in "El Feo" with a great twist of Philip Glass-like minimalism in a few soprano notes. She can scream like Janis Joplin, whisper like Sarah Vaughan, interpret rancheros like Lucha Reyes and then pull off a classical opera."
For the Record …
Born Anna Lila Downs Sánchez on September 19, 1968, in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, Mexico; daughter of Allen Downs (an American art professor, painter, and filmmaker) and Anita Sánchez (a part-time singer); lives with partner Paul Cohen in New York City. Education: Graduated from University of Minnesota, degrees in anthropology and voice, c. 1992.
Recorded two self-released cassettes, Ofrenda, 1994, and Azuláo: En vivo con Lila Downs, 1996; commercial label debut on Narada with La Sandunga, 1997; followed by Tree of Life, 2000; and Border, 2001; appeared on various Mexican and world music complilations and on original score for the film Frida, 2002; released One Blood: Una Sangre, 2004.
Addresses: Booking—Maria Matias, Monterey Peninsula Artists, 509 Hartnell St., Monterey, CA 93940, fax: (831) 375-2623, e-mail: [email protected]. E-mail—[email protected]. Website—Lila Downs Official Website: http://www.liladowns.com.
This vocal virtuosity began to bring Downs greater international acclaim. In 2003 she performed with the legendary Brazilian artist Caetano Veloso at the Academy Awards ceremony. That same year she made a cameo appearance in and sang five songs for the film Frida, a reference not lost on those who have referred to Downs as the "singing Frida Kahlo" because of her resemblance to the late Mexican artist. Her work on the song "Bring it Blue" brought her an Oscar nomination, and she was also nominated that year for the BBC3 Award for World Music. In April of 2004 Downs made the cover of the world music magazine Global Rhythm.
La Sanduga, Narada, 1999.
Tree of Life, Narada, 2000
Border, Narada, 2001.
One Blood: Una Sangre, Narada, 2004.
Business Mexico, August 2001.
New Internationalist, May 2003.
Sojourners, May-June 2002.
Washington Post, April 24, 2004.
Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, http://www.cnca.gob.mx/cnca/nuevo/diarias/250898/liladown.html (March 25, 2004).
Independent Weekly, http://www.indyweek.com/durham/2002-03-20/music.html (March 20, 2004).
"Lila Downs," culturebase.net, http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?231 (July 2, 2004).
Lila Downs Official Website, http://www.liladowns.com (April 25, 2004).
Miami New Times, http://www.miaminewtimes.com/issues/2003-11-27/music2.html/1/index.html (November 27, 2003).
RootsWorld, http://www.rootsworld.com/reviews/downs.html (April 24, 2004).
—Brett Allan King
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