Lila Downs: Go for the things that you love

Lila Downs: Go for the things that you love
Photo courtesy of the artist

Lila Downs is one of the foremost names in Mexican world music. Her most recent full-length album, Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles), won the 2012 Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album and the 2013 Grammy for Best Regional Mexican Album. Downs has been performing music in the traditional style of her native Oaxaca for decades, and the singer acted and sang in the 2002 Acadamy Award-winning film Frida (you know, with Salma Hayek). It might surprise you, then, that Downs has close ties to Minneapolis.

Downs's late father, Allen Downs, was a University of Minnesota professor of art and film for 30 years. He founded the Winter Quarter in Mexico program at the U of M, and this week, the Katherine E. Nash Gallery opened an exhibit honoring his life and work. Lila Downs spent part of her childhood in Minneapolis and attended the University of Minnesota, majoring in music.

Lila Downs currently lives in Oaxaca, but she is returning this spring for a U.S. tour in support of the stunning Pecados y Milagros, and she has chosen to kick things off with a very special concert in Minneapolis. In what will surely be a touching and eye-opening performance, Downs is dedicating her Sunday-afternoon concert at the Ted Mann Concert Hall to her father, calling it "Una Canción Para Mi Padre" (A Song for My Father). Gimme Noise caught up with the singer ahead of the show to talk about her new album and why Minneapolis is important to her.

Gimme Noise: Your music in the past has been very traditionally Mexican. It's gorgeous. Your new album, Pecados y Milagros, carries a lot of the same themes, but is a remarkable departure from your earliest work -- almost branching over into Mexican pop, like I hear in "Zapata Se Queda." There are a few modern influences in there. Tell me about your decision to shift sounds, and the evolution of your music.

Lila Downs: I think for me, it's very important to listen to all kinds of pop music that express the needs of different audiences that there are, and I think it's exciting to try different influences on. We have been doing cumbias for years... We started doing a lot of electronic influences a lot of years ago. A lot of times people think that we started being only acoustic and have been slowly electrifying ourselves, and that isn't really the case.

You were raised in Minneapolis. Fill me in on a little of your history. Why is this an important part of your life?

I haven't been there in a long time, but of course I grew up for part of my life in Minneapolis. I went to elementary school and college there, and I was part of an alternative community there. I learned environmental and cultural values there. That was part of my upbringing. My father, Allen Downs, was a big part of the film community in Minneapolis, so it's important for me to be able to come back to Minneapolis and celebrate his life and his work.

What I find intriguing is that you have a really unique view -- with some pretty close local ties -- as to what it means to be Mexican-American and still have a grasp on your identity. You take a lot of pride in your heritage, at a time when I think it's all too easy to forget where you came from. Why is it important to maintain your identity in that respect?

For me, it became very important. For a time, I felt like I was lying to myself, and I feel like it's a shame when you try to suppress a part of yourself that can be enriching. I think it's a shame when we try to repress things in our culture or that we might enjoy... I think you just have to go for the things that you love and discover yourself in the context of today's realities.

You've shifted, somewhat, from your traditional style of dress -- a very traditional Mexican ensemble to incorporating some more modern looks. Do you feel like this was important for you to incorporate because your music has shifted in sound, or because it makes you more mass-marketable to a certain type of audience?

It's different for everyone, for how I look. For some people it's the other way around. For some people, it's that I look more traditional now, more like a woman should. To pluck your eyebrows is more feminine and more traditional. So it all depends on where you're starting from... Like, I studied textiles, textiles have been an important source of information for me, to discover that part of my identity. I didn't discover Frida Kahlo until I was in college, and I discovered that she was also very interested in textiles, and I come from a place that values textiles. It's not something of the past. So I think the changes that I've had as a woman are because I rediscovered my values as a woman, and I wasn't awakened in that respect. You discover more layers in yourself.

The concert you're doing at the Ted Mann Concert Hall is a tribute to Allen Downs, your father. Tell me about what makes this an important concert for you.

I think it's very representative of my life between the U.S. and Mexico. Minnesota is a very particular place to me. It's taught me about very important things, and it coincides with an important sense of community, as in Oaxaca -- what you can do for your society to maintain your identity. I think that is an important thought in Minneapolis. I'm excited to perform, to participate and share the work of my father, who goes with me wherever I go. I'm very grateful to Minnesota for sharing that.

Lila Downs is playing on Sunday, March 10 at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the University of Minnesota. 4 p.m. $15-$150. Details here

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