Wanderer Between Worlds and Times
Lila Downs, born in 1968 in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca/Mexico, to a US American and an Mixteco Indian, straddles the boundaries between worlds, musical traditions and languages. Her repertoire is an artful blend of jazz, Afro-percussion and Indian rhythms, fusing her own compositions with Mexican folksongs. She sings in English, Spanish and in the Mixteco, Zapoteco, Maya and Náhatl languages. Her extremely versatile voice, with a three-octave range, and her provocative, political texts have made her a superstar in Mexico.
Lila Downs’ first musical inspiration came from her mother, a Mixteco Indian who sang with a passion and occasionally performed in cabarets and small bars. At the age of eight Lila Downs was already appearing with Mariachi musicians, and several years later she began to study opera singing: first in the USA, then in Mexico, later back in her father’s homeland. Today Lila Downs continues to move in both musical worlds.
Lila Downs’ musical repertoire takes a cross-section of the vast American continent: a virtuoso remix of blues and boleros, jazz traditionals and opera, gospel and hip-hop, Corridos and Cumbias, pre-Hispanic instruments and ancient Indian myths and melodies. She works with a pan-American group of musicians from Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay, Cuba, Canada and the USA, who play not only the usual jazz and rock instruments, but also indigenous instruments made of wood and clay.
The stylistic and linguistic diversity of Lila Downs’ songs is echoed by her many-facetted three-octave mezzo-soprano, which displays the different sides of her musical socialization. "Picture Edith Piaf singing in Spanish, and you’ll have an idea of Lila Downs´ soulful sound." the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1998. Over and over again, critics avoid musical classifications by comparing her with character singers such as Billie Holiday, Chavela Vargas and Lucha Reyes. But Lila Downs also commands the light and humorous end of the spectrum – her excursions into punk even call to mind Nina Hagen.
Lila Downs is often referred to as the “singing Frida Kahlo”. In fact, she does bear a superficial resemblance to Mexico’s most famous woman: her striking face is framed by long black braids, while her clothing recalls colourful Indian garb and her neck and fingers are adorned with silver and precious stones. Thus she makes tradition socially acceptable, even raising it to the level of avant-garde, just as her music fuses tradition and modernity.
Along with her personal and musical partner Paul Cohen, since 1993 Lila Downs has been taking a closer look at Mexico’s diverse musical traditions, learning Mixteco and other Indian languages, which she uses in her songs along with Spanish and English. Lila Downs sings her own compositions as well as traditional Indian pieces, sometimes in new arrangements. Lila Downs claims (tongue in cheek) that according to a tradition of the Mixtecos, the “Cloud People”, her umbilical cord was buried beneath an agave in Oaxaca to ensure that she will return again and again.
The most important question for Lila Downs is how to maintain or revive indigenous cultures in the present. It is her hope that the songs she sings put her audience in touch with Mexico’s ancient, barely-known Indian concepts and traditions and help them discover their universal dimension.
Lila Downs’ most recent CD,“Border. La Línea” (2002),is dedicated to the Mexican emigrants who died crossing the border to the United States: a collection of moving songs inspired by life on the border, the misery of the guest workers and the Indígenas cursed by deprivation and racism.
Lila Downs describes life in the border region, where her mother still lives today: “The Sierra Mixteca is one of the regions of Mexico which is being bled to death by the North. Year after year young men and women set off into the unknown, climbing fences, crossing the desert to harvest strawberries and clean houses for the gringos for a handful of dollars. Their fellow countrymen are left behind in the highlands, the Mixtecos, the rain people, the second great Indio culture of Oaxaca next to the Zapotecos. Not cheerful, but sad and shame-filled, mistrustful and melancholy. ... We are constantly battling our inner sorrow. As if in defiance, there are many colours and festivals, aimed against the certainty that death is lurking everywhere.” (from: NZZ, July 4 2002)
Anna Lila Downs Sánchez was born on September 19, 1968 in Tlaxiaco, in the South Mexican state of Oaxaca, to Allen Downs and Anita Sánchez. Her Mexican-Indian mother, Anita Sánchez, comes from San Miguel El Grande (Oaxaca), in the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. The Mixteco woman met Lila’s father, Allen Downs, a US Scottish-American, when he was working on a documentary film in Mexico City. Downs was more than a filmmaker, he was a painter and professor of art at the University of Minneapolis and – as his daughter affectionately puts it – a “wonderful, crazy, radical communist”. He arranged for Lila to spend several years in Southern California, where she graduated from high school and learned how to speak perfect English.
Then she returns to Oaxaca, where her mother still lives. There she feels torn between the two cultures, aware of the white Mexicans’ scornful looks at the Indígenas. She feels ashamed of her Indian origins and dyes her pitch-black hair blonde.
Two years later, after her father’s sudden death, she returns to the USA to study music and anthropology. Faced with another crisis of identity and meaning, Lila Downs drops out of the university. As a “deadhead”, a fan of the hippie band The Grateful Dead, she rejects singing as a vain, superficial pastime. Two years later, in the early nineties, she returns to finish her degree after all.
However, this does not put an end to her sense of being in search of something, and to her recurring aversion to music. Only when Lila Downs returns to Mexico does she begin to discover music as a healing force and as the key to her Mexican-Indian background. Ultimately, it is a painful experience which leads her to devote herself to singing and begin creating her own compositions: neighbours and acquaintances ask Lila to translate the death certificates of relatives – young men who died in the attempt to flee to the USA and find work – from the English. She gives musical expression to the sorrow and despair she confronts. The piece "Ofrenda" on Downs´ debut album is an homage to her dead countrymen. On her third album, "Border. La Línea", the issue of the border is the leitmotif running through all the pieces.
At one of her appearances in Oaxaca she meets Paul "Pablo" Cohen: a jazz saxophonist, pianist and clarinettist who also works as a circus clown. At that time the native New Yorker is playing in Mexico in a local salsa band. It is the beginning of an intense personal and musical love story which has lasted to this day. Cohen becomes Lila’s working partner and mentor, accompanist and composer as well as the main arranger of her pieces.
The appearance of her debut album "La Sandunga" in 1997 sparked increasing interest outside Lila’s homeland. Since then she has appeared at a number of European festivals.
Her current CD “Border. La Línea“ is dedicated to the Mexican migrants – above all the illegal immigrants – who died in the attempt to cross the border from Mexico to the USA.
Lila and Paul live in Coyoacán – the colonial town, now part of Mexico City, where Lila’s role model Frida Kahlo lived out her life.
La Cantina - Entre Copa y Copa
Film / TV,
Border. La Línea
Yutu Tata. Arbol De La Vida / Tree Of Life
Hit Records/Filantropía, Educación y Cultura, A.C.
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
The Mexico-festival in Berlin
(15 September 02 - 01 December 02)