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The Warrior Voice of Lila Downs

November 17, 2015

Lila DownsLila Downs is the woman of “multiple voices.” As a New York Times reviewer once put it: Her voice stretches “from an airborne near-falsetto down to a forthright alto and a sultry, emotive contralto.” Downs, a Mexican-American, is also a fiery voice of political activism in Latin America and her songs are filled with the images and ironies of daily struggle.
These voices all came together recently with Downs’ debut with the San Francisco Symphony. The Dia de los Muertos program included songs from her new album, Balas y Chocolate. The album cover includes a mesmerizing photo of Downs, who is often shown to be sultry, distant, or bemused. But in this photograph, she brings another projection, that of a warrior goddess.

We reached Downs to ask about how she uses her songs to sway hearts and minds. In an email, she replied, “I'm not trying to sway people to my point of view. I'm only expressing the truth as I perceive it in my role as an artist. And perhaps through that, people may see things in a different light, become aware of something they hadn't previously known, or learn to appreciate other cultures and lose some fear of the ‘other.’" "I'm not trying to sway people to my point of view. I'm only expressing the truth as I perceive it in my role as an artist."

Downs grew up in Oaxaca and Minnesota, the daughter of Anatasia Sanchez, a Mixtec Indian who ran away from home to sing in cantinas in Mexico City. That is where she fell in love with Allen Downs, a University of Minnesota professor. Downs herself studied classical voice and anthropology at the University of Minnesota.

Her musical influences include the Ranchera music of Mexico; American and South American folk; blues; and hip-hop. “I write about what I see occurring in the world around me and right in front of me,” she wrote to us, “as well as my own personal journey as a human being. In this world there is a lot of love and pain, corruption and altruism, comedy and tragedy, exploitation and compassion. Art — whether poetry, music, painting, sculpture, or graffiti — has always been a vehicle for expressing the societal and human experience of the time, for better or for worse.”

Downs’ and her husband and collaborator, Paul Cohen, have produced 10 albums, earning both a Grammy and a Latin Grammy award. She is currently working in collaboration with Argentine singer, Soledad Pastorutti and Spanish flamenco singer La Nina Pastori.

Downs noted recently, in an article in El Tecolote, a San Francisco neighborhood newspaper, that during this year’s Dia de los Muertos she was honoring her grandmother and father, as the Mazatec curandera and shaman, Maria Sabrina, who died in 1985; and three of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School who disappeared on September 26, 2014. Three have been confirmed dead; the fate of the others is unknown, but Downs did not include them in her ceremony, in hope they are still alive.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is