Effortless, singular and guapachosa, Lila Downs conveys an amalgam of feelings in her songs that take listeners from nostalgia to heartbreak and overwhelming joie de vivre in a single track.
Riding on a tour bus on her way to a gig in San Francisco, Downs, who graces Santa Fe’s Lensic on Wednesday, Aug. 27, took time to speak to SFR.
“These bus trips are really fun because we can just take our shoes off and have yogurt,” Downs says with a hearty laugh, when asked about the glamorous life on the road.
In her latest, Raíz, the Oaxaca native seeks council from Argentinean folk singer Soledad “La Sole” Pastorutti and Spanish cantaora María Rosa García García, aka Niña Pastori, to deliver a poetic and hauntingly multicultural kaleidoscope.
“I seek where I’m from / For I have lost my way / I seek where I am from / For my roots lay there,” goes the album’s title song, “La Raíz de Mi Tierra,” a biographical sentiment that echoes in Downs’ upbringing as the daughter of a Mixtec cabaret performer and a Minnesotan art teacher.
“María’s verse talks about herself. Being on an island and the ocean and the beauty of the place which she comes from. She never had to leave her culture,” Downs explains. “In my case, I had to leave my roots and be rejected at one point in order to survive, psychologically and racially speaking.”
Inspired by time–honored folkloric sounds, Downs began performing at an early age. In 1994 her first album, Ofrenda, was released, and by the time 1999’s La Sandunga rolled along, Downs cemented herself as an artist who feels equally at home surrounded by the traditional and the avant-garde.
"It was very painful to deny part of my heritage, which
is Native American and Mexican, and
I think that’s
the story of
a lot of Mexican-Americans and Latin Americans."
“I think it’s been very positive,” she says of her stateside reception. “I’m very happy to see that there are four generations of people that go to our concerts and that’s really beautiful. There’s the grandma, the mom, the daughter and the babies. To have fans that are 4-years-old and 14, is always very exciting.”
Reclaiming indigenous elements and infusing them with a dose of cool has been a hallmark in Downs’ career. The move is an intrinsic one.
“It happened very naturally,” she says. “When I was a child I loved to perform—especially the Mexican, traditional songs. My mother says I would run around the house dancing in her long dresses and wearing these bullet holders, they were called carrilleras, like the ones revolutionaries used to wear on their chest.”
Raíz’ “Zapata Se Queda” (Zapata Stays), co-authored by Downs, pays homage to her early revolutionary days with an Andean flute-tinged huapango.
“My whole career, I guess, has been about figuring out my own version of singing and telling stories,” she says. “It was very painful to deny part of my heritage, which is Native American and Mexican, and I think that’s the story of a lot of Mexican-Americans and Latin Americans who are kind of left in another dimension in this country.”
That outside-looking-in duality, she says, not only informed her career, but also helped propel it.
“We are becoming a majority now, but when I was growing up, I was a minority and it was difficult to forget yourself. Suddenly you look at yourself in the mirror and there you are, so singing songs has been good therapy for finding myself.”
Professing her love for turquoise and Native corn, Downs is excited for her upcoming return to Santa Fe.
“The Zuni and Apache people have beautiful ears of corn that you can eat while paying tribute to some of our brothers and sisters who are living on the reservations around that area, and speaking their Native language; it makes me so proud to hear that,” says Downs, a champion of indigenous language preservation.
Regarding her most recent collaboration, “It takes a little longer for women to trust me,” Downs says with a chuckle. “We had to be humble, which is difficult for a flamenco singer and also for an Argentinean, actually. The three of us come from strong cultures and also happen to be traditional singers.”
“I’m kind of like a student of the world. I’m always learning from other traditions,” Downs says about the cross-cultural recording experience. “I think the hard part was really applying ourselves to the rhythms, which we finally learned the third time we got together.”
Bouncing off each other, she mentions, was key for the trifecta.
“We each are so different, but we coincide in so many ways and the music really shows that,” the “La Llorona” singer says.
This celebration of heritage, regardless of national origin, Downs hopes is contagious.
“I think that it’s important to remind people of our stories,” she says, pausing. “Our different stories are fascinating; there is a lot of wisdom to be inherited and used in our future. A lot of times the songs and the cultures teach us to look in that direction.”
Though not everything in Downs’ world takes cues from the past. She admits candidly to be a fan of La Roux, and, in an unexpected turn, Cypress Hill.
“I really love them,” she says of the hip-hop trio. “They’re important, they’re definitely important,” she adds when further asked about the South Gate, Calif. group.
Downs also professes her love for reggaeton, though she disagrees with the genre’s often-misogynist message.
“I don’t agree with a lot of the lyrics, so I write my own version of reggaeton and that’s what ‘Zapata Se Queda’ is.”
Downs’ unique fashion sense also plays into her stage persona. She revels in “doing exciting things with ancient textiles.”
“I guess that I love feeling comfortable with the stories on the textiles,” she says. “I think that textiles can express the way you feel about sexuality, about feminine strength and color. I love color. I’m very fortunate to come from Oaxaca, which is filled with color.”
7:30 pm Wednesday, Aug. 27. $59
Lensic Performing Arts Center
211 W San Francisco St.,