Lila Downs: Voice to Our Most Treasured Cultural Memories

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by Ariana Garcia

If you have yet to treat yourself to the evocative sounds of Lila Downs’ music, you are missing out on a delectable mélange of Mexican folklore and modern world influences. Lila Downs is by no means a newcomer to the music scene. She has been recording and producing albums since the early 90’s and has garnered a following all over the globe. Despite her world-wide acclaim Lila remains true to her roots and portrays her cultural pride in her musical compositions.

Born in Oaxaca, Mexico to a Mixteca mother (cabaret singer Anita Sánchez) and American father (Professor Allen Downs) Lila lived in both Mexico and the US during different stages of her life. She received her bachelors for the University of Minnesota in anthropology and voice. In the early 90’s se met saxophonist Paul Cohen (now her husband) and they began recording.

The first time I heard Lila’s voice, was while watching one of my favorite films Frida (2006). She provided renditions of La Llorona as well as her song Burn It Blue, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best song. A few months later, thanks to the marvel of music suggestion engines, I listened to her version of Perhaps,Perhaps and was captivated not only by her full and sultry voice (what my mother calls “un vozarrón”), but her ability to represent the dual nature of our culture so well.

This spring, Lila prepares to release her latest album “Miracles and Sins/ Milagros y Pecados” based on the tradition of Mexican votive paintings (aka retablos). These pieces typically use tin as the medium and depict a certain miracle that has been granted to the artist. Keeping true to her fusion style, Lila confirmed the sound of this latest album will be similar to that of La Cantina (2006) in that several of the songs incorporate the traditional guitar setting. She also takes inspiration from Mexico’s traditions – having composed a song around the topic of Mezcal and another about the women who grind corn daily on their petates to make tortillas. Just the mention of these two staples brought back fond family memories and old traditions.

For the past two years, Lila and her husband have also been composing the music for the much anticipated Broadway musical Like Water for Chocolate. The musical will be based on Quiara Alegría Hudes’ adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s novel and leverages Ted Sperling’s and Jonathan Butterell’s  directing experience . This project showcases Lila’s power to capture the magic of Latin culture through music, as she incorporates various styles (everything from cumbia, to milongas, to bachata) within the show. Luckily her fans don’t have to wait until the musical‘s debut to catch a glimpse of these songs. She is currently on tour through Europe and Mexico and has delighted her audience by sharing some of her latest compositions. According to Lila, she enjoys the different form these pieces take and the reciprocity she receives when they are sung to a live audience.

More impressive still is that despite the fact that this album will be released soon, Lila is already thinking of her next musical project. When I asked if she had any other plans on the horizon, she responded she’d like to work on a more “standard” album and continued to express her desire to go back to her Jazz roots. She commented, “I originally come from a Jazz oriented scene and I’m always learning from that movement. I’d like to do something more along the lines of modern Jazz and collaborate with other Jazz musicians from around the world.”

Finally, I was ecstatic about having had the opportunity to chat with Lila and there was one advice oriented question I was dying to ask. As a Latina growing up and living in the US I found and still find there are times when I must negotiate my dual identity. Because I feel she manages her cultural roots so well, I asked whether she had any advice for other women who at times struggle to find the balance between their Latin and American roots.

Lila’s message was honest and to the point: “Be proud of who you are and believe in yourself despite the “R word” that is often ignored in our society – it’s a reality for everyone who comes to the US. Believe in the strengths of our stories and our culture and learn more about them. Being knowledgeable about them allows us to engage other around us and enriches our lives.”

Needless to say, I already admired her before we spoke and my admiration only grows after the fact. Her sweet disposition and down to earth nature made it an even greater pleasure to chat about her upcoming projects. Lila and her band will undoubtedly continue to produce world-wide hits. In the meantime, be sure to check out her new album Miracles and Sins/ Milagros y Pecados once it is released.

Ariana Garcia is currently a professional in the online advertising industry. She enjoys writing most about topics that touch on our Latin heritage. Her passions are languages, classic literature, and learning something new every day. She holds a BS in Communication from Saint Mary’s College of California and hopes to pursue an MBA in the near future.