Daughter of Mixtec cabaret singer Anita Sánchez and Allen Downs, a Scottish/English-American art professor, Lila Downs unites cultures and boundaries with her extraordinary voice.
Born in the mountains of Oaxaca, Downs grew up in the Sierra Madre mountains of southern Mexico and later studied music and anthropology at the University of Minnesota and at the University of the Arts in Oaxaca. But it was only through music that Downs reconciled her heritage. "It took a long time to decide that I wanted to sing," she says. "Something needed to motivate me."
That motivation was the songs and stories of the Oaxacan people. Her Mixtec mother spurred Downs to sing these songs with sentimiento - a deep, almost empathic emotion which has left audiences of all cultures and countries spellbound.
Downs recalls the first time she was struck with this particular brand of sentimiento. "While I was in Oaxaca, I was asked to translate from English to Mixtec death certificates of young boys who had left for the United States searching for work. Their relatives wanted to know how they had died. It was so powerful, being this translator of their deaths. I had to sing about it, to honor them if I could."
Since then, composing has become a powerful artistic and cultural outlet for Downs. She researches the ancient codices of the Mixtex and Zapotec people and sets them to music. Down bridges the past and present with stirring songs drawn from the folklore and history of a culture steeped in passion, heartache, tradition, and pride.
On stage. Downs - with her thick braids and soulful, ink-black eyes - transforms herself, becoming the character of the song. "You have to find the spirit to the songs, otherwise it doesn't matter how pretty you sing. I can't quite explain what it is, but I think it has something to do with getting to know yourself and feeling right about what you're doing."
Composing became a powerful artistic and cultural outlet for Downs and in 1997, she released her extraordinary debut album, La Sandunga. Featuring interpretations of Oaxacan traditional songs, boleros, and rancheras, as well as her own compositions, this first expression of her very original vision evoked a rich past while ushering a vibrant new contemporary voice onto the world stage.
Downs CD Tree of Life, released in 2001, was inspired by the mythological account in the 16th century Codex Vindobonesis telling of the first Mixtec people being born from trees. Singing in both Mixtec and Spanish, Downs artfully showcases the traditional cumbia and ranchera styles alongside eclectic mixes inspired by border life.
The idea of life on the border provided the central theme to her follow-up album, La Línea - Border. Dedicated to the Mexican migrants, the collection of songs exposed the plight of migrant workers as well as the hardships and racism endured by indigenous peoples. Accompanied by pre-Colombian and Mexican folk instruments, Downs infused jazz, gospel, and hip-hop influences into traditional cumbias for a powerful musical, cultural, and political statement.
Una Sangre - One Blood (2004) represented a culmination of her music and mission, delving deep into her Oaxacan heritage with songs sung not only in Spanish and English but in such rarer Mexican languages as Nahuatl, Trique, Zapotec, Mixtec and Purepecha, with a vibrancy celebrating the Mexican diaspora, connecting the modern with tradition. Winning a Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album, Una Sangre - One Blood was lauded by press worldwide and catapulted Downs among the finest interpreters of folkloric music.
La Cantina (Entre Copa y Copa) released in 2006 was a departure from her
previous songs and records. Lila focused intently on the rich and familiar
repertoire of Mexico’s beloved ranchera songs. Rancheras are ballads usually
tackling heartbreak, loneliness, love and longing – songs typically sung in
local cantinas throughout Mexico. Rounding out the sounds on the record is the
legendary Tejano musician Flaco Jiménez on accordion. “Our new album brings
out smiles and complicity from every person
Ojo de culebra - Shake Away was recorded in New York and Mexico City, accompanied by her longtime band, La Misteriosa, multi-cultural multi-instrumentalists who include Paul Cohen, her collaborator, producer and husband. The songs on Ojo de culebra - Shake Away range from the pointed "Minimum Wage" to the mystical "Silent Thunder" to a cover of Lucinda Williams' "I Envy the Wind" in English and Spanish ("Yo Envidio El Viento") versions. Downs explains, "In the U.S, we've gone through a lot of fear. The idea was to heal, to 'shake away' the anger and hate. We also went through a lot of political trouble in my birthplace of Oaxaca, and sometimes we distance ourselves from the pain. We cannot forget or hide, but we must be positive. Since I was young, it’s important for me to bring different people together, race-wise and religion-wise."
Lila invited the legendary Argentinean singer Mercedes Sosa (now deceased) on a duet of Lila's song "Tierra de Luz" (Land of Light) about nostalgia for the motherland. Downs cut "Perro Negro" ("Black Dog"), inspired by the tale of the transfigurational naugalisimo dog. The lyrics reference corrupt leaders in Latin America, and, Downs notes, "Some of our musicians are from Venezuela and Columbia; we share the same situations in our countries." She's joined on the song by longtime amigo Ruben Albarran from renowned Mexican rock band Café Tacuba: "I wanted somebody who has fire in their heart and can speak truth," says Downs. "In our own countries, we're afraid to talk about it. I hope my music encourages discussion about Justice. That's what I'm trying to work on with Shake Away--getting out these demons that are biting away at my soul. People like Ruben add that 'machete' effect."
Downs took the well-known Fleetwood Mac piece "Black Magic Woman" and, switching between Spanish and English with the help of acclaimed singer/guitarist Raul Midón, imbued and elevated the song with jazzy tribal mystery. ("The song reminds me of Hilary and Obama, now!" she says with a laugh.)
As on previous albums, Downs also tapped into the native Mesoamerican music of the Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya and Nahuatl cultures, notably on Ojo de culebra - Shake Away songs "Taco de Palabras," and the traditional tune from Mexico's Veracruz state, "Las Pollos." Blues-based songs like "Little Man" and "Skeleton" benefit from a "border flavor" influenced by brass-based Mexican banda music. And for the first time, Downs musically explores her paternal lineage with "I Would Never," written by Paul Buchannan of Scottish band the Blue Nile, a song dedicated "to the workers." The title track, in Spanish, "Shake Away (Ojos De Culebra)," (Eyes of the Snake) reaches back into the symbols in Olmec culture. "It's a metaphorical event, losing your skin. But I went to a place with Shamans who inject the venom in their body to become immune, a practice traced back to Pre-Columbian times," Downs explains. "Mexico also has an important African community--in the history of music in Latin America we owe so much to our African roots, yet people in the U.S. might not know how important that is."
In 2010, World Village released Lila Downs y La Misteriosa en Paris, her first live recording, recorded in May, 2009, at Radio France Studio 105. The album delivers the exuberant energy of Lila and eight international musicians performing together, weaving traditional instruments including accordion, harp, clarinet and trombone with driving bass and drums, electric guitar, and infectious Latin percussion. The songs on Lila Downs y La Misteriosa: En Paris span six albums, from 1997’s La Sandunga to 2008’s Shake Away.
In 2011 she signed a recording contract with Sony Music México.Discography:
Azuláo: En Vivo con Lida Downs (1996)
La Sandunga (Narada, 1997)
Arbol de la Vida- Tree of Life - Yutu Tata (Narada, 2001)
La Línea - Border (Narada, 2001)
Una Sangre - One Blood (Narada, 2004)
La Cantina (Narada, 2006)
Ojo de culebra - Shake Away (Blue Note/Manhattan Records, 2008)
Lila Downs y La Misteriosa en Paris (World Village, 2010)
Pecados y Milagros - Sins and Miracles (2011)
Official Web Site: http://www.liladowns.com