Lila Downs: Mexico's girl from the North Country

Her south-of-the-border roots earned her a gig at the Oscars and maybe on Broadway, but she learned plenty in Minnesota, too.

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Lila Downs performs at the Speakeasy at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, March 14, 2012.

Photo: Tony Nelson, � Tony Nelson

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AUSTIN, TEXAS - Amid the Jack Whites and the Bruce Springsteens at the South by Southwest Music Conference in March, one of the most crazed and passionate scenes in the mega-festival was a Latin music showcase helmed by Lila Downs.

The Mexican singer has performed everywhere from the Academy Awards to President Obama's Latino Inaugural Ball, but for the SXSW fest her media coverage didn't go much further than the cover of a local Spanish-language weekly. You didn't need to be fluent in Spanish to recognize these words from that cover story: "Universidad de Minnesota."

And you didn't need to know Mexican ranchera music from norteño (two of her specialties) to recognize that Downs has a voice as golden as the Mayan-style jewelry she wears. Dressed in an elegant white shawl and eye-popping floral dress, she took the stage to loud chants of "Lila! Lila!" (pronounced "Lee-la"). She sang the second song of her set, a traditional Mexican ballad called "Tu Carcel," to a packed crowd whose members bellowed the words as dramatically as she sang them.

Her opening song spoke a more universal language: alcohol.

"We must make an offering to this land," said Downs as she took a bottle of mescal and ceremoniously spilled a couple of ounces onto the stage. "For our Mother Earth."

Speaking later by phone from Mexico, Downs explained this truly intoxicating start of her show -- which could very well kick off her concert Wednesday at the Ordway in St. Paul.

The song, "Mezcalito," represents the conflicted theme of her latest album, "Pecados y Milagros" ("Sins and Miracles"), which spent three weeks atop Billboard's Latin albums chart.

"In Mexico, the sacred and the profane come together sometimes in our religious faith, because in our deities there is always the creator and the destroyer," she explained. "That's what booze is: It creates love, beauty, passion, joy, but it also creates anger, wrath and destruction.

"When we share a bottle of mescal or tequila or our more sacred drink, pulque -- all derived from the cactus plant -- we are honoring the Earth that is giving us these gifts, something to enjoy life with."

The way Downs looks at things from opposite sides on her new record reflects how she grew up, bouncing from one side of the U.S.-Mexico border to the other.

Recuerdos de Roseville

"Our house was right across the street from Rosedale Mall," Downs, 44, laughingly remembered of her first local stint here as an elementary school student in Roseville.

Her late father, Allen Downs, was a professor of art and cinematography at the University of Minnesota. He met her mother, a Mixtec (indigenous) cabaret singer named Anita Sanchez, on a trip to the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.

Lila spent her childhood living in two very different worlds. Mall view aside, she said her years in Roseville actually exposed her to more diversity than did her time in Oaxaca (where she still lives part-time, along with New York).

"I wasn't aware how large the Latino communities were in cities in the U.S. But there was also a Japanese-American girl and an East Indian girl in my classes, and students from the Hmong community. It really was like a global village."

After a stint in Los Angeles honing her performing skills, she returned to the Twin Cities to study anthropology and music at the U of M, the former proving as essential to her folkloric act as the latter.

"The dedication to the art of music as a discipline is big at the U of M. I had these voice teachers -- amazing characters -- who taught me a lot.

"And the art department, I had been very conscious of it before from when my father was a professor. That shaped my vision of how you can really just go out into the world and eat it like a piece of cake, learn from it, and apply that to whatever your dream is."

She also credits her U professors and Minnesota's prominent American Indian population for reshaping her views of her own indigenous roots.

"Things are very different in Mexico, but politically speaking it's very similar, and in the emotional sense, too," she said. "We carry this sense of pain and great loss, but we know that we had a great sense of pride in our history."

From 'Frida' to 'Chocolate'

Downs used her anthropologist's eye to deliver rich musical portraits of her mother's homeland on her first few albums of the late '90s, blending indigenous languages and other pre-Spanish influences along with traditional Mexican styles found in Oaxaca.

She was already a star in Latin America when she appeared on screen as a mariachi singer serenading Salma Hayek in a stirring scene from 2002's "Frida." That led to her becoming the first Mexican singer to perform at the Oscars, which in turn brought her American and European audiences.

Her latest high-profile gig has been writing the music for author Laura Esquivel's stage adaptation of "Like Water for Chocolate," which was slated for a run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater and targeted for Broadway but has been delayed by a change in producers. "We have great faith in the work," Downs said simply.

She and husband Paul Cohen -- also the bandleader with whom she writes and arranges all her music -- have been busy on another front, too: They recently adopted a baby boy after several years of dealing with infertility, a personal journey chronicled on Downs' 2008 album "Shake Away." Said Downs, "I'm loving the experience of nurturing a child and being a mother, and it doesn't matter if he's not from my blood."

Even with all these exciting challenges, Downs said, she has a renewed passion for her music career -- though for reasons she is sad to discuss.

"It's really important for us as Mexicans to have those positive reinforcements of who we are and be able to say, 'I'm proud to be Mexican,'" Downs said, when asked about Mexico's sharp rise in murders over the past decade related to drugs and organized crime.

On "Pecados y Milagros," Downs celebrates various facets of Mexican culture, but also addressed Mexico's tragic state of affairs head-on in "La Reyna del Inframundo" ("The Queen of the Underworld").

"There have been a few stories I've read about women who have been involved in one way or another, either they became cops or they entered the drug business because they had no other option," she explained.

All the songs on her latest album "spoke to me about pride and honor, and kind of about devotion and letting go -- letting go of something that has been a poison to your heart and soul, and to lift your head and look to the next chapter."

Sorry, Minnesotans, but that was clearly her Mexican side talking.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib

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    "Tu Cárcel" by Lila Downs, from the Pecados y Milagros CD

  • Audio: "Mezcalito" by Lila Downs

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    "Mexcalito" by Lila Downs, from the Pecados y Milagros CD

  • Lila Downs

  • LILA DOWNS

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.

    Where: Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul.

    Tickets: $20-$43. Ordway.org or 651-224-4222.

    HEAR SAMPLES FROM DOWNS AT startribune.com/music

    on screen

    Downs sang for Salma Hayek in "Frida" and then at the Oscars, and her music was used in the films "Tortilla Soup," "Real Women Have Curves" and "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada."

    ON RECORD

    Among her eight albums, 2008's "Shake Way" was nominated for a Grammy, and 2004's "Una Sangre" won a Latin Grammy.

    ON STAGE

    With husband Paul Cohen, she wrote the music for Laura Esquivel's musical adaptation of "Like Water for Chocolate," stalled in production but still generating Broadway buzz.

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