Acclaimed singer Lila Downs grew up in Minnesota and Mexico, giving her a cultural identity that once made her a stranger in both places. Today, that mixed background infuses and animates the University of Minnesota alumna's electrifying music.
By Joel Hoekstra
Photographs by Elena Pardo, unless noted
It’s a crisp October afternoon, and Lila Downs (B.A. ’93) is perched atop a tall chair in the lobby of the Regis Center for Art on the University of Minnesota’s West Bank, watching fallen leaves whirl around the plaza outside. She’s reminiscing about life on campus in the 1980s. The raven-haired chanteuse wears a black lace jacket over a dark Henley, and a black skirt over charcoal-colored leggings. Her fingernails are painted cornflower blue. Her fingers, wrists, and ears are adorned with silver rings, jeweled bangles, and gold hoops. As evidence of her lasting affection for her counterculture past, Downs points to a vibrantly colored woven bracelet. From her neck hangs a triangle pendant with an all-seeing eye.
Her voice barely rises above a whisper. "Normally, this day is sacred," says the 44-year-old singer-songwriter, who is in the middle of a multi-week tour of Mexico and the United States to promote her new album, Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles). What she means is this: Downs, slated to appear at the Ordway Center in St. Paul that evening, typically eschews interviews and interactions that might sap her of energy on days when performances are scheduled.
"I need to prepare mentally, especially when I go to places that I’m emotionally attached to," Downs says. Revisiting cities and communities where she has strong associations or vivid memories can ratchet up the electricity of a show, making it difficult to maintain composure and control. "That’s probably going to happen tonight," she observes.
Minnesota is rife with memories for Downs. The daughter of the late Allen Downs, an art professor who taught at the University of Minnesota from 1950 to 1977, and his second wife, Anita Sánchez, she grew up living part-time in suburban Rose-ville, Minnesota, returning every other year with her parents to her mother’s hometown Oaxaca, Mexico, near where Lila (pronounced Lee-la) was also born. Years later, she enrolled at the University of Minnesota, earning a bachelor’s degree in voice and anthropology.
On this particular afternoon, Downs, who divides her time between a residence in Oaxaca and apartments in Mexico City and New York, has stopped by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in the Regis Center for Art to preview Allen Downs Life and Work: Winter Quarter in Mexico, an exhibit showcasing her father’s work. Allen Downs was a prodigious creative who is perhaps best remembered on the Twin Cities campus for leading a class in Mexico that attracted dozens of talented artists, painters, and photographers during its decade-long run.
The exhibit, which runs March 5 through 30, will feature Downs’s drawings, paintings, and photographs along with artwork created by 25 Winter Quarter in Mexico students. To mark the occasion, Lila Downs will present a concert, "A Song for My Father," ("Una Canción para Mi Padre") at the Ted Mann Concert Hall on March 10 at 4 p.m. The concert is a benefit for the Allen Downs Photography and Moving Image Fellowship, which supports a University of Minnesota art graduate student majoring in either photography or a moving image medium.
Lila Downs reflects on returning to Minnesota. "It represents order, and it reminds me of so many things that I learned about morality and responsibility." She’s drawing a connection between her childhood and her new album, which, she says, is about "the issue of morality." And morality in Latin America can be a slippery thing, she says. Native cultures have often had to be two-faced in order to survive European occupation. "You lie so you can survive and maintain your own traditions and yet pretend you are being colonized," she explains. In contrast, U.S. citizens—and Minnesotans in particular—have a harder view of honesty and dishonesty.
Or do they? Aren’t Minnesotans famous for telling white lies to avoid the merest confrontation? Downs pauses to consider the idea and adjust a bangle, then flashes a mischievous smile. "It’s true," she says. "Minnesotans, for example, they aren’t direct about emotion. They wait, and then in a civilized manner they find a way to say what they mean. . . . And, oddly enough, I’m a little bit that way too! When it happens, I always go, ‘Where is that coming from?! I mean, I’m Latin!’ "
Downs—whose all-male troupe plays drums, keyboard, guitar, accordion, and even harp—is fêted around the globe for her versatility. She loves the music of her homeland, especially the rancheras, "farmers’ songs," filled with guitars and horns, and norteños, the music of northern Mexico and Texas, flavored with polka beats and other rhythms brought by European immigrants. But her 10 albums—she released the first one in 1994—demonstrate her affinity for jazz, soul, blues, African roots, and even rap and klezmer. Her concerts and collections are clearly curated with an anthropology major’s eye.
|"I was very shy and introspective when I was very young. But they would say, 'Lila, sing, sing, sing .' So I would sing rancheras, those hardcore drinking songs. Can you believe it? And there were women in my town that would say, 'Oh, little girl, I don't think that's appropriate for you.' "
It’s an approach that impresses critics. "On [Pecados y Milagros], Mexican tradition is never far away," opined National Public Radio music critic Anastasia Tsioulcas in 2011, noting Downs’s ability to weave together mariachi bands, ninth-century texts, and the socially conscious ballads of the nueva canción folk-music movement that took hold in Latin America during the 1960s and ’70s. "Taken as a whole," Tsioulcas proclaimed, "Downs’s work is a true original."
Midway through the second half of her performance on the Ordway stage, Downs steps into the spotlight wearing a feathered cape, ready to sing "Cucurrucucú Paloma." Written in the 1950s in the style of a folk song composed in mixed meter, the song has become something of an unofficial anthem in Mexico. The lyrics tell of a man who died from grief over the loss of his beloved. Following his passing, a dove alights at the window of his house, calling out as if it were the man’s soul waiting for his love’s return:
Dicen que por las noches
no más se le iba en puro llorar
(They say at nights
all he could do was cry all the time)
By the time Downs completes the song—with a thrilling koo-ka-roo-ka-roo ending—the entire audience is on its feet, clapping and whistling approval. One man holds a full-sized Mexican flag above his head.
Allen Downs and Anita Sánchez met in Mexico City in the late 1950s. At the time, both were married. Educated in art and zoology at Kansas State College in Emporia, Downs began his career as a high school teacher but then switched tracks, obtaining a master’s degree in painting from the University of Iowa in 1940 and a teaching post in the art department at the University of Minnesota in 1950. "He was a filmmaker and photographer," says Linda Passon-McNally (A.A. ’64), a longtime friend of the Downs family and co-curator of Allen Downs Life and Work. "He was an adventurer." In the mid-1950s, Downs figured out a way to wed his interests in art and animals: He decided to make a film about the winter migration of blue-winged teal, following the flocks of ducks as they winged their way from Minnesota to Mexico.
|The Downs family--Allen, Anita, and Lila--in the Tlaxiaco town square in 1976.
Photograph by Linda Passon-McNally
Anita Sánchez had grown up Oaxaca and at an early age was forced into a miserable marriage. She eventually fled to Mexico City, where she found a job as a cantina singer. That’s where Downs first met and took an interest in her. "She was not real keen on it, because he was quite a bit older," Passon-McNally recalls, calculating the age gap at 22 years. "But he won her over." In 1961, they married. Seven years later, Ana Lila was born in Tlaxiaco, in the state of Oaxaca. She was named after Allen’s aunt.
The Downs family purchased a house in Roseville, but Lila and her mother spent every other school year in Oaxaca, and whenever possible, Allen traveled south. In 1972, Allen hatched an idea that would allow the family to escape Minnesota during the coldest months: He would lead an annual trip for students to Tlaxiaco during the winter quarter. Interacting with Mexican artists, the participants—U students, faculty, and other American artists—learned drawing, watercolor, ceramics, weaving, and metalwork, as well as the Mexican cultural context in which they were developed.
The professor organized field trips to nearby towns during the day and hosted parties at night, recalls Passon-McNally, who signed up for the first quarter. The Downs household was filled with whatever interested Allen at the time: clucking hens, rare orchids, eclectic music. Allen’s record collection was diverse: He enjoyed Bach and the Beatles as well as John Coltrane and Bob Dylan.
"My father loved music, but he couldn’t carry a melody," Lila says. "He would push me to perform. I was very shy and introspective when I was very young. But they would say, ‘Lila, sing, sing, sing.’ So I would sing the rancheras, those hard-core drinking songs. Can you believe it? And there were women in my town that would say, ‘Oh, little girl, I don’t think that’s appropriate for you.’ "
Allen Downs retired from the University in 1977, and the Downs family moved to Oaxaca, visited regularly by guests from the Winter Quarter program, which continued unofficially even after Allen’s retirement. But six years into his retirement, in 1983, the professor was struck down by a heart attack. He was 68.
|Top: Art professor Allen Downs taught at the University from 1950 to 1977.
Photograph courtesy of University Archives
Below: Street Scene with Cloudy Sky, watercolor on paper, by Allen Downs, is part of an exhibit at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery March 5 through 30.
Lila, then 16 years old, and her mother were grief-stricken. But looking back, Downs says her father’s death inspired her to commit herself to art—specifically, she recalls, "I decided to be very disciplined in music."
After graduating high school Lila returned to Minnesota to enroll at the U and study voice. "I even made the finals in the regional auditions for the Metropolitan Opera," Downs recalls. But then, on the eve of the national auditions, she dropped out of college altogether. "I realized I was filled with anger and confusion," she says. She was ashamed of her Native American roots—her mother is Mixtec, an indigenous people of southern Mexico—and embarrassed by her mother’s culture, language, and folkways. She dyed her hair blond and hit the road to follow the Grateful Dead.
"Dropping out of school, society, and even my family made me look at my life as an outsider," Lila says now. "Those were the first steps to figuring out who I was and who I wanted to be—the first steps toward becoming proud of my Indian roots and who I was."
Eventually she returned to the U to finish her degree, majoring in voice and anthropology. But her interest in opera had vanished, replaced with a desire to learn more about the music of Mexico and its indigenous peoples, including rancheras, norteños, and tunes sung in Mixtec, her mother’s native language. "My mother did sing some of those songs," Downs recalls. "But she sang to survive. So she was never very happy that I wanted to sing popular songs."
In 2010, after several years of trying to have a child, Downs and her husband, Paul Cohen, decided to adopt. "He’s such a positive force on my music," Downs says of Benito, now 2 years old. "We’re so happy that we found each other."
Downs and Cohen have collaborated musically for more than 18 years. They met in the 1990s, while Cohen, an American who studied visual arts and worked briefly as a circus clown before becoming a full-time musician and composer, was visiting friends in Oaxaca. In 2001, they married in the backyard of Lila’s mother’s home, surrounded by colorful flowers and chirping birds.
Drummer Yayo Serka, a native of Chile who has played with Downs on multiple tours, says Downs has become more confident as a person and an artist. Early on, he says, she could be prickly and defensive toward criticism. Serka speculates that part of her reaction came from working as a woman in a man’s world, or growing up female in a machismo culture. Bit by bit, however, the edges wore away.
"She’s become more feminine and sensual," Serka observes, yet she remains a staunch a defender of women’s rights and an advocate for immigrants. "She’s still intense about what she believes," Serka says. "But she’s more relaxed in the way that she carries herself."
Initially, most of the acclaim for Downs’s music came from South America and the United States. But in recent years, the singer’s popularity in her own country has skyrocketed. Her willingness to address—in song—such controversial topics as women’s rights, labor issues, immigration, and U.S.–Mexican relations has also boosted her profile.
Part of Downs’s success comes from her ability to bridge borders. "You have to remember that Lila is half-American," Serka says. "She can represent both cultures. She can make you angry or make you laugh in both cultures."
In mid-November 2012, Univision viewers who tuned in to the evening broadcast of the Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas got an eyeful. In the middle of a swirling crowd of dancers dressed like jaguars and antelope, skeletons and salsa dancers, stood Lila Downs. She swayed, danced, and beamed as she sang "Zapata Se Queda," a peppy musical homage to Emiliano Zapata, the celebrated leader of the Mexican Revolution. Singers processed through the audience and onto the stage waving feathers, carrying candles, hoisting banners that read "Tierra y libertad" (Land and freedom) and operating a giant puppet resembling Zapata.
The crowd ate it up and the critics loved it. Downs took home a Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album that night for Pecados y Milagros and, three months later in Los Angeles, won a Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Music Album.
Industry recognition is humbling, Downs says, but she feels most proud of her work when she sees people crying in the audience in response to her rancheras or receives e-mails from fans who thank her for giving them a sense of pride in their indigenous roots.
"I hope that they feel good about themselves, because that was a big issue for me," she says. "I was very insecure as I was growing up between cultures."
The medium of music is transcendent, Downs says, for it allows people to communicate values, ideas, anger, joy, and fear even when they lack a common tongue. "With music, you don’t have to explain all these things and what they mean," she says. "You can just sing them and feel them."
For Downs, there’s almost no border she won’t cross. "As a singer-songwriter, it’s always been my inclination to go into the eye of the hurricane," she says. "It’s just my nature."
Joel Hoekstra is a Twin Cities-based writer and editor.