Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Lila Downs is among the most globally popular singers of Latin music. One reason is that despite long established roots in Mexico and the United States, her cultural vision is anthropological. Hers is informed by ancient and earthy cultures both from her native Oaxaca — boleros, rancheras, and mariachis — and U.S. with its jazz, blues, and soul standards. Her own songwriting topics reflect themes of political and social justice, immigration, transformation, and environmentalism, all rooted in the human condition. Possessed of a big, throaty alto, her performances are dramatic contrasts in cultures as they seek connections between them and highlight the necessity of difference among them, whether she's singing jazz ballads, bouncy norteños, or blues. She has performed everywhere from the White House and Carnegie Hall to Mexico City's Auditorio Nacional, Bueños Aires' Teatro Gran Rex, and Harlem’s Apollo Theater. She is capable of delivering jazz ballads, mournful rancheras, and bouncy norteño dance music, show tunes, and blues with passion and pathos as well as humor and warmth. 2000's Tree of Life offered lyrics derived from the religious codices of the Mixteca and Zapotec people. The album was recorded in Oaxaca. In 2002, the singer appeared in the film Frida and contributed to its soundtrack with the song "Burn It Blue" that was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Song. It expanded her fan base globally, allowing her to take more chances, as she did on 2004's Una Sangre (One Blood), where she succeeded in organizing a complicated network of global influences into a distinctive whole rooted in Mexican music. 2011's Pecados y Milagros was another global hit and won both a Grammy and Latin Grammy; it peaked in the top spot on the Latin Albums chart. 2015's Balas y Chocolate featured collaborations with Juan Gabriel and Juanes, and fueled a world tour that took her across Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Two years later, she celebrated themes of female empowerment, activism, and militancy on Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo.
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 from 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-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. Two years later she dropped Al Chile, an anthropological and sociological celebration of the chili pepper and its role in Latin culture. The set was produced by Camilo Lara (Mexican Institute of Sound) and mixed by Mario Caldato, Jr. (Beastie Boys). Its first single was a cover of the Peruvian cumbia classic "Carinito" originally written by Ángel Aníbal Rosado. It was recorded with the La Sonora Tropicana orchestra and La Banda Misteriosa de Oaxaca. ~ Chris Nickson