This article is from the November 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back to Articles List

Treat Yourself to the Music of Lila Downs

by Stan Gotlieb 

Stan Gotlieb lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. He has been writing on Mexico and Oaxaca for seven years. He also maintains a website, “An Expatriate Life” ( and publishes “The Oaxaca/Mexico Newsletter,” available by subscription only. His email address is 

Lila Downs is a diva coming into her prime, and “Borders / La Linea,” her latest CD, lets you know that in no uncertain terms. Her range, her passion, her tight band full of solo quality musicians, her program of Mexican, Indigenous and English songs will blow your mind. Call her world-beat, crossover, third-world or just the girl next door, but don’t miss the unique experience that is Lila Downs.  

The latest in a series of brilliant CD’s, “Borders” is the first to include a song in English – the centerpiece of the album, a medley of songs including Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land is Your Land,” reworked by Lila and arranger/keyboardist/husband Paul Cohen. (The Guthrie family rarely permits reworking of Woody’s original work, but after hearing Lila’s version on a disk, she not only had their permission, but was invited to share a stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival with son Arlo Guthrie.) The issues raised in the song are common to Lila’s people, the “cloud people” of the Mixtec highlands in the mountains north and west of Oaxaca City – the balancing of the need to feed one’s family against the dangers awaiting those who cross “al otro lado” (to the other side of the U.S. border).  

Lila, herself the daughter of a Mixtec mother and an gringo father, has experienced the cultural differences and prejudices on both sides of the border. Lila’s father, Alan Downs, was an art teacher at the University of Minnesota when he went to Mexico on a film project back in the 60's. In Mexico City, he met Lila’s mother, Anita, a Mixtec Indian who had run away from her home in the mountains of Oaxaca to become a nightclub singer. One thing led to another led to Lila. 

Growing up in two cultures – her father divided his time between Minneapolis and Oaxaca – was hard on her. Alan died when she was 16, and by 18, she was bound for Minneapolis to major in operatic singing and archaeology.  

After four years in Minnesota, and some “lost” time on the road as a Dead Head, Lila returned to Mexico. She did some singing, worked on a “dig,” which turned up some significant Mixtec codices, and helped out part time in her mother’s auto parts store in Tlaxiaco, the regional capital of the Mixtec highlands.  

One day, Paul Cohen, juggler, professional circus clown, saxiphonist and keyboard player, was driving through Tlaxiaco when his car broke down. There, in the auto parts store down the street, he met Lila. Thus started a collaboration that has evolved from a small jazz group to the present ten-member touring entourage – from playing in small clubs in Oaxaca to concerts in major cities in Mexico, the U.S. and Europe; from covers of traditional Mexican songs to classic jazz riffs to heart-wrenching elegies for neighbors drowned while trying to swim the Rio Grande, and insightful social commentary about our divided continent.  

Lila’s previous CD’s, “La Sandunga” and “Yutu Tata” (Tree of Life), like “Borders,” contain songs in many languages – Zapotec, Mixtec, Mayan, and Spanish. Don’t let the fact that you don’t understand the words stop you from listening to Lila. Her voice and her band speak a universal language.  

By the way, did I mention that I have a deal with Amazon? If you order her stuff through my website (, it doesn’t cost you any more, and I get a cut.