Lila Downs claims her heritage through music

Lila Downs has a voice that can overwhelm an audience with varied emotions, from the exuberance of a mezcal-soaked fiesta to the lament of a woman scorned.


Lila Downs

Photo: Ricardo Trabulsi

But as MPR’s David Cazares reports, Downs’ music also delivers serious messages. Her work has touched on the plight of farm workers, people crossing the border, and the drug cartels that plague Mexico.

Downs, 44, has a unique perspective on Mexico, in large part because she has long lived in two worlds. Born in Mexico to Mixtec indigenous singer Anita Sanchez and Allen Downs, a Scottish-American art professor and cinematographer, she went to school in Roseville.

“My father taught at the U of M,” Downs said. “So from the moment I was born, I was taken to and fro, and that was just the way my life was … one year in Oaxaca, one year in Minnesota and like that.”

It wasn’t until well after her father’s death that she began to deeply explore her Mexican roots, while in college at the University of Minnesota, where she studied voice and anthropology.

She began singing several years later, winning acclaim for sensitive and versatile recordings that showcased her tremendous range and ability to master different genres, from rancheras to boleros.

Her recordings have been a mix of traditional Mexican music, indigenous styles and a fusion of other elements, from folk music, to rock, reggae, African root and jazz. Her compositions give her an opportunity to share the struggles of ordinary people.

Lila Downs performs tonight at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. You can find more on her music here.

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