Lila Downs To Play Santa Cruz

By Andrew Gilhooley / For The Salinas Californian

Mexican-American singer Lila Downs visits the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz this Wednesday.  Downs may be most familiar for her contributions to the 2002 movie “Frida,” documenting the life of artist Frida Kahlo.  However, she has four CDs to her credit and will be returning to the studio in August to record a fifth. 

Downs’ music is as colorful and vibrant as her stage costumes, with original compositions sitting side-by-side with traditional songs from Mexico.  Her most recent album, “Tree of Life” (2004) contains songs based on “stories that go back to before the Spanish came, [that] talk about our history and pre-Hispanic past.”  Downs feels a very strong connection to this past – her mother is Mixtec Indian, from the southern Oaxaca region of Mexico.  Her father is American, and for much of her childhood she moved frequently between the US and Mexico.  As a result, she struggled with issues of cultural identity.  “Every time I changed [countries], I had to be a chameleon and become someone different,” she said.

Downs always had a love of music.  Her mother had earned a living singing in Mexico City, and the young Downs grew up learning to sing Mariachi songs.  She harbored ambitions to be an opera singer, and attended college to study music and anthropology.  After two years of college, she became disillusioned and dropped out, spending her time following the Grateful Dead around on tour.  “I didn’t have any money, I made jewelry,” she recalled.  “I didn’t get close to the music, but it was easy to be part of, and it was very positive.”  After two years as a Deadhead, Downs decided to return to college and eventually graduated in voice and anthropology from the University of Minnesota. 

Downs returned to Oaxaca, where she met expatriot saxophonist Paul Cohen.  The two began performing and writing songs together.   Her music career would take its most dramatic turn, however, as a result of her work as an anthropologist.

In the early 1990s, Downs was asked to translate a number of documents pertaining to the deaths of people who had attempted to cross the border between Mexico and the United States.  She was so moved by some of the stories that she was inspired to re-tell them in the form of songs.  Some of these songs ended up on her first CD, “La Sundunga,” released in 1999.

A string of world music festival appearances brought Downs’ music to a wider audience, and her next three albums would all see international releases.  Downs and her band have toured extensively in the U.S., Europe, Mexico and South America.  Through her music, Downs has been able to attain a strong sense of her identity both as a Mexican and as an American.  “For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable with who I was,” she said, “but finally I’m happy with myself, and all the parts of myself.  I think I discovered I was more Mixteco than I thought, but also more Western influenced.  And I have the ability to express that in my singing.”

First published in The Salinas Californian, July 12, 2005

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