Lila Downs, born in Oaxaca, Mexico, is the daughter of Mixtec cabaret singer Anita Sánchez and Allen Downs, a Scottish/English-American art professor. She grew up in Oaxaca, California, and Minnesota, where she graduated from the University of Minnesota in voice and anthropology. Her musical vision is anthropological in nature, as varied as the ancient and earthy cultures that inspire her. Downs is accompanied on her musical journey by her longtime band, La Misteriosa, multicultural multi-instrumentalists who include Paul Cohen, her collaborator, producer, and husband. Latin Grammy winner and Grammy nominee Downs takes listeners on a world music journey that's both intensely personal and vividly universal. Switching between Spanish and English, many new songs address the heated topics of immigration, political justice, and transformation, but Downs's compassion and humor are always present. This evening's show is a benefit for Circulo de Mujeres.
Her powerful persona and voice caught Hollywood's attention. She played a role in the Salma Hayek film about Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, sang the Oscar-nominated soundtrack song "Burn It Blue," and became the first Mexican to perform on the Academy Awards telecast. She also captured a Latin Grammy for 2004's Una Sangre. At the Festival of Sacred Music at the Hollywood Bowl, Downs participated alongside luminaries including the Dalai Lama. "I sang in Mixtec, my mother's native language. There were so many Mixtec people in the audience—who wash dishes, who cultivate the fields, and we got a standing ovation. It was the most intense moment in my life. It was an honor to have that connection."
It's a connection she strives to make every moment, succeeding admirably on her newest and Grammy-nominated release, Shake Away. Downs taps into the native Mesoamerican music of the Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, and Nahuatl cultures. The title track, "Shake Away (Ojos De Culebra)," (Eyes of the Snake) references symbols in the Olmec culture. "It's a metaphorical event, losing your skin. But I went to a place with Shamans who inject the venom in their body to become immune, a practice traced back to pre-Columbian times," Downs explains. "Mexico also has an important African community—in the history of music in Latin America we owe so much to our African roots, yet people in the U.S. might not know how important that is."