Lila Downs Review- Interview with a humanitarian musical artist

Lila Downs, an American-Mexican singer-songwriter and actress, performs her own musical compositions that incorporate indigenous Mexican influences, and Mexican and other Latin American folk and pop styles. Her music and vocals are a unique and striking meld of many and varied styles and ancient cultural influences, from soul to jazz, from blues to rap, even including klezmer music. She’s collaborated with traditional as well as experimental Latin artists. It’s been written that she incorporates and embodies the stylistic quirks of the artists she admires, absorbing them and then launching them anew as “exaggerated, postmodern interpretations of familiar standards or originals”. A remarkably beautiful woman, Downs is well known for her self-styled, colorful and exciting fashions, as well as for being at one time a follower of the Grateful Dead. She is a multiple Grammy –Award winning performer with a voice that is described as an amazing triple-octave spanning instrument, one which all of Chicago-land will be able to hear when she appears at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan on Tuesday night, June 28, 2016 at 7:30 PM with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Donato Cabrera conducting. The concert will feature Downs performing selections from her 2015 release “Balas y Chocolate” (Bullets and Chocolate) as well as traditional selections, and will open with the CSO performing contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Marquez’ “Danzon no. 2”.

Lila Downs; photo courtesy of Elena Pardo

Downs is a noted social commentator, an activist, and especially a humanitarian. The album “Balas y Chocolate” was particularly influenced by “the violence that  plagued Mexico” in 2014. Right now, the most dangerous place to be a journalist is Mexico.


Downs was in Chicago earlier this month to participate in a press conference and interview session at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, and to take part in the DePaul University commencement ceremony, where she was honored with the degree Doctor of Humane Letters for both her musical “trajectory” and her political and social activism. This reviewer attended the press conference and had the opportunity to interview Ms. Downs the following week about life, love, nourishing the body and the soul, the Grateful Dead and more. Paraphrased below are highlights from her remarks at commencement and from both interview sessions.


On Thursday, June 16, the day before commencement, Downs was interviewed by award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa, guest moderator, anchor and executive producer of "Latino Usa" on National Public Radio, herself an educator at DePaul and an earlier recipient of an honorary doctorate. Downs admitted that “Mexico is not paradise”, and that looking at it’s problems from within “is too painful”. However, in her life, it has been the “discrimination, the violence, the negative things” that made her strong. Growing up in Minnesota, in a “plural community without many Latinas”, she felt uncomfortable because of the color of her hair and skin, but crossing the border is when discrimination really happens”. There are 52 languages spoken in Mexico; her mother was a Mixteca Indian, her father a British-American professor. She and her mother returned to Mexico in her adolescence after her father passed away. In both places she felt targeted because she was indigenous.


She now lives in Oaxaca, Mexico, with musician husband and collaborator Paul Cohen and their son. Cohen’s devastating medical diagnosis- he is, thankfully, well,-helped fuel the album “Balas y  Chocolate”. It was a response to her fears of his death, and it helped to express these fears. In Mexico, the “Day of the Dead” is celebrated- the dead are acknowledged. One burns copal to bring the dead into the home.  She believes we are visited by the dead. The album also address the primal nature of giving/taking/receiving food- something that has always been sacred to the different cultures that make up the land.


As to what is happening here in America, we are in denial of a hateful reality-at which invisibility is at the core. A lot of Latin Americans are working in the kitchens and the fields, in very bad conditions. “You do what you can in your lifetime”. She tries to make people aware of injustice. “Who you are depends upon your perception”. What drives her passion is innovation- “We all hope to reinvent ourselves”.

Lila Downs; photo courtesy of Chino Lemus

When asked what she thought of Donald Trump by an audience member, Downs avoided getting drawn in, but very wisely and gently commented, “Try to focus on love”.


The following day, June 17, 2016, Downs gave an inspirational  graduation speech. She told the graduates, “You have the opportunity to use your knowledge and apply it to help your community and you will make a difference in people’s lives as in your own. I invite you to do what you believe profoundly and make a statement about your reality…I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality”.


During our discussion, Downs said that when confronted with her husband’s possible death, she “could either cry or write a series of songs that confront death”. The award-winning album that resulted, “Balas y Chocolate”, helped “in the way that art allows a catharsis and to express fear. In the end, we are all fearful of death-if you can have a dialogue about it/with it. It helps you to deal with it.”


 At the conference, Downs had described how she loved to eat mole, and to share with women who make corn tortillas and to breathe in the beautiful air in the rural areas. “There are issues about caring for Mother Earth”. She commented to me that “food is probably most representative of the way humans care for, share with and nurture each other”. The process, the preparation, the getting of the perfect ingredients, all matter. Chocolate, she has read, “was used as a sacred offering during the Day of the Dead. It also represents the excesses of life- she wonders about those who consume a lot of it.


The feelings of love are the most beautiful as well as the most interesting of human emotions. “Hate is the ultimate expression of Death and destruction”.


The Grateful Dead influenced her deeply and not just musically: this life is “a sisterhood, a brotherhood of caring. Jerry Garcia was amazing- and she fell into that way of living her life. “You find a truth and walk with it because you’re comfortable with it. Then you become uncomfortable with the comfort. Growth comes from being not so comfortable’.


For tickets to this engaging humanist’s upcoming concert, go to the CSO website             





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