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VivaFest! Lila Downs Looks for Liberation in Apocalyptic Times

In Culture, Music
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“I got into music quite early,” says Lila Downs, the Grammy-winning singer/actress whose music blends traditional Mexican folk music, jazz, rock and soul—and who is one of the headliners for this year’s VivaFest! at HP Pavilion on September 16.

“According to my mother,” Downs says, “I started imitating traditional Mexican musicians, and also American musicians like Bob Dylan, when I was little. I went to school, and studied anthropology and voice. Then I dropped out of college and followed the Grateful Dead. That really brought me full circle to a whole other relationship with music—to the notion of community and a realization about how similar we really are as people.”

This eclectic start, Downs says, inspired her to approach music in the same way as the Dead and other jam bands, while incorporating themes from her multiethnic background: “I’m American and a Mexican at the same time, and Indian on top of that, from a native group called Mixtec. My grandma and my mom always spoke in their native language. That was also was cause for some discrimination in Mexico when I was growing up.”

Her latest album, Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles) was released last fall, and is a bit of a departure from her previous efforts, but it was still hugely successful. The New York Times called it “sleek modern Mexican pop with a thrilling, chameleonic voice at its center,” and it debuted at number one on the Billboard Top Latin Albums.

Part of the appeal of the album, Downs believes, is that, as she’s matured, she’s tapped more deeply into her religious faith.

“I think as you get older, your music just kind of melts into what your trying to say,” Downs explains. “My writing isn’t so explicit anymore; it’s more about metaphor. Faith is a very unusual, amazing quality that humans have, and it comes in so many varieties and ways you can interpret it.
“For Mexicans, it’s a very particular interpretation with its Christian and Catholic iconography, but it’s not only that, it’s a belief in nature, of mystical spirits and the spirits of old revolutionaries and things like that. My mother even says to me, ‘Whoever you think is dead or has passed, put his [image] up on the altar, and we’ll ask for miracles.’”

She continues, “So it’s a very apocryphal kind of religion, and I find it very liberating in these times. Especially in Mexico, which has been going through a wave of violence for quite a while now. In these desperate times you tend to think a lot about God.”

Her faith isn’t without its beneficiaries. Downs has long been celebrated for her social activism. She is still eager to help make a difference in peoples’ lives.

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