The United States of Lila Downs
Singer-songwriter Lila Downs creates music that reflects her Mexican-American heritage.
About Lila Downs
Lila Downs is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter and actress. She performs her own compositions and the works of others in multiple genres, as well as tapping into Mexican traditional and popular music. She also incorporates indigenous Mexican influences and has recorded songs in many indigenous languages such as Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, Nahuatl and Purépecha. Born and raised in Oaxaca, she primarily studied at the Institute of Arts by Oaxaca and briefly attended the University of Minnesota, before withdrawing to focus on her musical career. She soon began performing in the traditional music scene of Oaxaca City.
Downs began performing in school, demonstrating her vocal ability with traditional music, Latin and American influences, and with her own original twist on dancing. Downs, a native Spanish speaker, also speaks fluent Mixtec and English. Downs through her activism has gone to great lengths to preserve the Mixtec language as well as many other Indigenous Mexican languages.
Connect with Lila Downs
Lila Downs’ father wanted her to hear the world. He wanted her to know it.
Lila Downs: I remember, every night, he would have his two Scotch on the rocks. I would make him some eggs, and he would sit down in the living room. He would listen to Miles Davis, maybe Bach sometimes. He would ask me if I read the article in The New Yorker, and we would discuss.
An only child, Downs grew up enriched by the Oaxaca of her Mixtec mother and the Minnesota of her Scottish-American father, and traveling between the two. She was only 16 when her father died. The loss brought hard, essential lessons about identity and female opportunity.
Downs: The white man in the family was gone. And suddenly, in Mexico, especially, I noticed that people kind of would stop addressing me, simply because the man in the family was gone.
Downs: It's a very serious lesson to learn at that early age. And I think that's why singing songs about women is important to me, because I find that there are a lot of young women who do not have the same opportunities that young men have. And so, I truly believe in creating songs about these amazing people who, in spite of all of this, you know, rise to the occasion and continue being role models for our society.
In 2002, Downs was nominated for an Oscar for “Burn It Blue,” a signature song from the movie Frida. And though classically-trained, Lila Downs makes music firmly rooted in the Oaxaca culture that she works so hard to preserve.
Downs: I know that the “Cumbia del Mole” for example, the people in Oaxaca now say that they don't know who wrote it. And I think that's the ultimate compliment to a composition—that they kind of don't know where it came from. But it's their song, and that is the coolest thing.
AJC: So you've created a real folk song?
Downs: So that's a real folk song, yeah.
Downs has also sung about the political tempests of the present day. She's been an outspoken advocate for those who have gone missing: kidnapped students, disappearing journalists. She has sung out against corruption and, at times, her songs have put her in harm’s way. Through it all she accepts who she is—a women with a dangerous side.
Downs is married to her longtime musical collaborator Paul Cohen. Together, they have an adopted son named Benito, who lives with and between his parents’ two cultures—a multicultural dynamic that echoes the past.
Downs: We just went to Argentina, for example, on tour. And Benito was on vacation, so we brought him with us. And when we left—when we came back on the plane—he cried and cried, and it reminded me of attachment, and letting go, and how that was a big part of my life. And whoever grows up bi-cultural, or tri-cultural, or in different communities, this is inevitable. And it creates this nature of knowing how to let go, which, I think, is a very healthy thing to have in your life. In general, we become attached to so many things and places and people and I thinks it's a virtue to have that. So I see him go through that and…
AJC: And you've been through that.
Downs: And I've been through that, yeah.
In 2015, Downs headlined a spectacular Day of the Dead concert in Mexico, producing a lavish show of multiple traditional costume changes and high theatrics. This national celebration has deep personal resonance for Downs, who remembers those who have gone before her with the colors, traditions, and native dishes that have been passed down through generations.
Downs: It's a profound relationship that you have with your “dead ones,” as we say it.
AJC: Is the joy more unbridled? Is the joy purer in the pre-Christian celebration of the Day of the Dead, do you think? 'Cause the show you produced certainly was very low on any kind of unhappiness.
Downs: I think it is. I think it's always about the balance. If you're going to be a little bit sad, then you must be a little… You must be happy. And if you're going to remember the dead, then you must drink, and eat, and have a party. It's always about that balance.