In this landscape of easily accessible music from around the world influencing contemporary music, it has become increasingly difficult to classify an artist´s sound. Lila Downs is no exception. Born to parents from Mexico and the USA and having lived and studied in both countries, first at the Institute of Arts by Oaxaxa, and then at the University of Minnesota, Downs draws heavily on contemporary and traditional music from both sides of the border. Her albums include music ranging from rancheros to rap and North American folk to Latin American Cumbia. She is as bold with her statements about social equality and injustice as she is with her unabashed vocal stylings, addressing immigrant rights issues and political corruption over the years. She is not just a singer, but a performer who digs deep in her well and uses her heavily stocked bicultural arsenal of vocals and lyrics about love and lives lost, to entertain, educate and call her audience to task.
There are a few singers that have truly been stamped on my psyche and influence my musical stylings as much as Lila Downs. In English there is Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, in Spanish Mercedes Sosa and as a bilingual bi-cultural genre-bending and blending musician is Lila Downs. One song she used to cover, “Naila,” made its way into my repertoire some years ago. The way she moved from a deep contralto to high operatic voice in one phrase was the beginning of me experimenting in some of those same ways. I love how she can go from a ranchero to a rap and jazz all in one album. Knowing her sounds has certainly widened my own vocal palette.
In 1999 I was teaching at a place in Chicago called Association House. There I met truly one of the most interesting people in my life. His name was Joe Mullins and he was a 70 year old Americorp member planning to use his stipend to take a trip to Ireland and Spain to explore the connection between the the Spanish Gaita and the Irish bagpipes. He knew I was a budding singer and handed me a cassette tape with this beautiful woman in braids. Said he was a good friend of her fathers’ and that I should take a listen. It was Lila Downs and her album La Sandunga. I fell in love with her music immediately and kept that tape for many years.
I attended my first Lila Downs concert sometime in the early 2000s. I was already a big fan and owned two her albums (Border/La Linea and La Sandunga). I remember being deeply impressed by the lights and slides that were shown in the backdrop as she belted out such powerful vocals that one would have thought a microphone superfluous. I was inspired to say the least. It was high impact and high energy. Years later, I was excited by the chance to see Lila Downs perform again—check back here later this week for my review of Downs’ May 6th Chicago concert.