SFJAZZ.org | A Portrait of Lila Downs

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A Portrait of
Lila Downs

September 8, 2023 | by Rusty Aceves

Lila Downs

We can’t wait for the return of the incredible Lila Downs for her Día de los Muertos performance, Dos Corazones, at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on October 15. This brief portrait, updated since its original publishing in 2019, gives some context to this performance by the visionary artist.

Mexican-American vocalist Lila Downs is a multiple GRAMMY winner and one of the most celebrated singers of her generation. A native of Oaxaca, she’s built a career bridging cultures and languages, both as a musician and social activist for humanitarian causes. Growing up as the daughter of a Mixtec singer and a renowned American photographer, Downs split her time between Oaxaca and Minnesota, blending a deep passion for the traditions of her homeland with an ingrained wanderlust. With guidance from her mother and inspiration from Mexican vocal greats Chavela Vargas and Lucha Villa balanced by the gamut of American music she heard in the States, Downs began singing rancheras at eight and explored the indigenous music of the Mixtec and Zapotec traditions of Oaxaca.

Following a pair of independent releases in Mexico, she made her major label debut with 1999’s jazz-informed La Sandunga, and her contributions to the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic Frida elevated her status to that of a major international star. Over the ensuing years, Downs has become recognized worldwide as a global ambassador for Mexico’s folkloric traditions and champion for the preservation of native Mexican culture, recording songs in indigenous Mayan, Nahuatl, Trique, and Purépecha languages. She won a GRAMMY for 2011’s Pecados y Milagros, and took home Latin GRAMMYs for 2004’s Una SangrePescados y Milagros, and for Raiz, her collaboration with Spanish flamenco singer Niña Pastori and Argentine vocalist Soledad.

Downs’ 2015 album, Balas y Chocolate (Bullets and Chocolate), was a kaleidoscopic mix of folkloric music and pop inspired by the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, winning a 2016 Latin GRAMMY and making “best of year” lists on iTunes, the UK Sunday Times, and Songlines magazine.

Her follow-up, 2017’s Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo (Salon, Tears and Desire) was a masterful declaration of female empowerment, mixing new and traditional compositions that celebrate the spirit of women who refuse to succumb to hopelessness and fear in the face of repression, violence, and injustice.

2019’s Al Chile fully embraced the infectious Mexican banda and cumbia traditions, celebrating the diversity of Mexican culture as well as the struggles at the U.S./Mexico border. The title has a double meaning, both a common expression meaning “directly” and a reference to the indispensible pepper that permeates Mexican culture and is part of what gives life there its distinct and spicy “flavor.”

Downes’ new Sony Music release, La Sánchez, is influenced by the music of northern Mexico and is a tribute to recognizing the maternal influence and the vicissitudes of personal and social relationships.

Lila Downes performs her multimedia show Dos Corazones at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on October 15, 2023. More information available here.

Originally posted August 13, 2019

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