Wednesday, February 15, 2012
While singer-songwriter Lila Downs was working at her mother’s car parts shop in Oaxaca, Mexico, a guy came in and asked Downs to translate a death certificate he received that was in English. It turned out his son died trying to cross the border and his body was sent back to him in Mexico.
“It became clear to me that there was something serious going on in that part of Mexico,” Downs says. “And I wanted to tell the story about it.”
The death certificate inspired the title track of her debut album, Ofrenda. It also demonstrated that for Downs, there are no boundaries – no borders – between life and art.
Now, nearly 20 years after her first album, Downs has come into her own as one of the Latin music scene’s most dynamic female singers. She performs Wednesday at the Henry Mello Center in Watsonville. Audiences can expect her to hold nothing back. Her lung capacity is volcanic.
Her diverse, cross-cultural background – she was born in Oaxaca to a Mixtec-Indian woman and a Minnesota-born, Scottish-American professor, so she grew up listening to Woody Guthrie as well as the traditional music of her native region – has helped her earn accolades including a Latin Grammy, a United States Artists Fellowship and appearances on soundtracks including Frida and Tortilla Soup.
Downs’ new album Pecados y Milagros (Sins and Miracles) is about faith. Downs has been touring behind the 14-track album throughout Mexico and even performed in several areas recently affected by a barrage of drug cartel-related violence.
“It was interesting to see the response [in those violent areas] to the issues that are presented on the album,” Downs says. “I was surprised how receptive everyone was to its themes.”
Also interesting: how Downs has continued to take death and bring its meaning to life.
LILA DOWNS performs at 9pm Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the Henry Mello Center, 250 E. Beach St., Watsonville. $24; $26; $50. 854-7243.