Singer Lila Downs grew up with the culture of her father, a professor from the United States, but eventually turned her back on it to explore the tradition of her mother, a Mixteca Indian from Mexico.
In doing so, she has created a very individual strain of song that has indigenous Mexican roots and North American sonorities. Born in 1968, she spent her early years in Mexico, but after her parents split up, she was shuffled off to live with a relative in California. She grew to love music, specifically classical and opera, and began studying those in college. After two years, however, she experienced a crisis, questioning why she was singing and dropping out to become a Deadhead, following the Grateful Dead around the country in a VW bus, earning money by making and selling jewelry, and not singing at all.
Although not particularly moved by the Dead's music, she enjoyed the lifestyle for a short time before heading back to college in Minnesota, where her father lived. When she finally graduated, it was with a double degree in anthropology and voice, and a renewed enthusiasm for both her Mexican heritage and singing. Settling in her mother's hometown of Oaxaca, she began vocalizing again and exploring her roots, while realizing that she was still half Yankee. She met up with Philadelphia-based jazz pianist Paul Cohen, and the pair began a professional and personal relationship whose first fruit was the self-released, cassette-only Ofrenda in 1994. That was followed two years later by another cassette, the live Azuláo: En Vivo con Lida Downs -- one of its songs won Best Original Latin Jazz Composition in a Philadelphia poll.
Along with jazz, Downs was slowly developing a more intense, folkloric style that began to rear its head on 1997's La Sandunga (released in the U.S. on BMG in 1999), whose title track and "La Llorana" offered a hearty passion not to be heard on her jazzier efforts. That vocal promise was fulfilled in 2000 with the release of Tree of Life, the lyrics of which were largely derived from the religious codices of the Mixteca and Zapotec people. The album was recorded in Oaxaca, where Downs and Cohen were sustained by a foundation grant, although their home base remained Mexico City. Tree of Life was also her first recording for the Narada label, where she would remain for eight years. The next year, Downs issued Border (La Linea). In 2004 Una Sangre (One Blood) was released, followed by 2006's La Cantina, whose song "La Cumbia del Mole" presented the singer with the opportunity to make her first-ever music video.
Downs and her band released her final album for the Narada imprint, Ojo de Culebra, in 2008, and followed it up with En Paris: Live à FIP on World Village in 2010.
Her seventh studio album, Pecados y Milagros, arrived a year later and won both Grammy and Latin Grammy awards. Canciones Pa' Todo el Año was released in 2012. The same year she performed at the 75th Annual Academy Awards. Downs' next release was Raiz, a 2014 collaborative album with Argentinian singer Niña Pastori and Spanish flamenco vocalist Soledad Pastorutti. The album received two Latin Grammy nominations for Album of the Year and Best Folk Album.
In late March of 2015, Downs issued "La Patria Modina," a duet with Juanes, as a pre-release single. Its video showcased the impact of the drug war and environmental devastation caused by the policies of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the rampant consumerism that created a widening rift among the economic classes in her native land. She followed it a week later with the release of Balas y Chocolate, a collection of originals and covers that articulated and extrapolated on these themes in folk ballads and party songs, and also juxtaposed modern Mexico with its history. Upon release it was certified gold, was featured on several publications' year's-end lists, and won a Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album.
After touring the globe, Downs, who had been writing while touring, began crafting a record that used banda to launch into ranchera, bolero, blues, and soul. She wrote six new songs, including "Peligrosa," a manifesto and anthem for those she sainted as "dangerous women." She also reinterpreted seven classics; some were traditional songs and others were by legendary composers including Augustin Lara, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, and Alvaro Carillo. The recording sessions yielded duets with friends Mon Laferte, Carla Morrison, Diego el Cigala, and Andres Calamaro. The finished album, Salon Lágrimas y Deseo, was issued in the spring of 2017; it also won a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal album. ~ Chris Nickson