Fernando Aceves photo
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When Lila Downs pours herself into her music, she doesn’t think much about her mixed heritage.
After all, Downs is very much like her mother, a Mixtec Indian from Mexico, and spends much of her time in Oaxaca, where she was born. Though Downs went to school in Roseville, she has a deep connection with Mexico that comes through in her work.
That’s especially true of her latest recording, “Pecados y Milagros,” which just won her a Grammy for best regional Mexican album.
But during a recent visit to St. Paul, Downs was touched when someone told her how much she was like her Scottish-American father, longtime University of Minnesota art professor Allen Downs.
“That was a beautiful thing to hear because my heritage, the Mexican side, has been the side that people have adhered to, as well as myself,” Downs said recently from Mexico. “So it’s beautiful to hear that when they see my father in me.”
In a concert Sunday at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall, Downs will celebrate the life, art and career of her father, who died years before she launched her career. He taught for more than 20 years and started the university’s first international study program, Winter Quarter in Mexico, for art students. After the show, an exhibition on her father’s work will be held at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery.
For Downs, the show is another homecoming and a reminder that she can feel at home in Minnesota, where she has many friends and is adored by members of the state’s growing Mexican community.
“This last time that I was there I really understood why I am who I am,” she said. “I am very Minnesotan. Over the years, I’ve found all these you know characteristics in my personality that I always thought were characteristics from my Indian background here in Mexico. But I think it’s hard for me to tell which one they’re coming from because they are very similar in the sense that they’re very responsible, kind of concerned about the other and respectful, careful.”
To hear Downs sing, however, is to absorb the diversity of Mexico’s rich musical culture, from folk music to modern pop. She has long been inspired by the late Chavela Vargas, whose heart-wrenching renditions of ranchera songs by composers like Jose Alfredo Jimenez touched hearts from Latin America to Spain.
For a long time, Downs didn’t want to touch songs about loving, forgetting and dying over love because the emotion inherent in them was too painful. On her latest album, inspired by paintings that represented the miracles and sins of the Mexican people, she captures the joy and pain of everyday life, from moments of celebration, to hard times and heartache.
“I think the reason I kind of stray away from that and I think other people do as well is we can’t deal with this emotion of opening our souls so much that it hurts,” Downs said. “We have the blues in the U.S. which is similar and you can only deal with the blues in a certain moment or you want a glass of whiskey when you’re listening. The same happens with this music. I think that this album brought me back to Chavela.
“People were crying in the audiences in places that I was performing here in Mexico, places that I wasn’t able to visit before that have been having a very hard time recently.”
Mexican audiences responded with emotion to Downs’ performances in part because many people there are depressed about the violence that increasingly is taking place in much of the country.
“We’ve been touring quite a bit here and we’ve been going to some places that are very dangerous,” she said. “So it’s been scary for us as well. But at the same time, you know that what you’re doing is causing some kind of relief to people who are frustrated and don’t know what do with the situation.”
For Downs, the Grammy award validated her frequent efforts to tell the stories of ordinary people, work that she said “has blossomed into flowers.”
After years of focusing on folkloric sounds, she’s ready for a change of pace, a return to the feelings she explored when singing boleros.
“I’ve been kind of nostalgic for the other root of mine, which is the U.S. and the standards,” Downs said. “The jazz standards are so important to me so I’ve been working on that. Maybe because our album was so kind of rooted in this tradition of baring your soul through the music because you need to, you need cry somehow over what is happening to you.
“Now, I’m ready for bossa nova and Cole Porter to take over in my life.”