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On Center: Mexican American Lila Downs tells impassioned stories through song

by on August 02, 2017 4:26 PM

Lila Downs is a global superstar and champion of indigenous cultures, but most people in the State College area probably haven’t heard of her. Central Pennsylvanians not familiar with Downs’ three-octave vocal range and poignant storytelling can get to know her when she makes her Penn State premiere October 17 at Eisenhower Auditorium.

One of the world’s most singular voices, Downs, who grew up in the United States and Mexico, tells tales that go beyond borders. The daughter of a father from Minnesota and a mother from Mexico — where she now lives in Oaxaca — her artistry bridges traditions from across the Americas.

“Fluency in Spanish isn’t necessary to understand Lila Downs’ shape-shifting voice,” writes a critic for the Associated Press. “It transcends language, carrying pure emotion. Downs moves from operatic stylings to rap and everything in between, with both artistic exploration and pop sensibility.”

Winner of a Grammy Award and four Latin Grammys, Downs has been influenced by the folk and ranchera music of Mexico and South America, as well as North American folk, jazz, blues, and hip-hop. As a passionate human rights activist, she often highlights issues in her lyrics that relate to social justice.

“The Mexican American singer has a stunning voice, a confident multicultural vision grounded in her Mixtec Indian roots,” writes a Los Angeles Times reviewer. “Ms. Downs has multiple voices, from an airborne near-falsetto down to a forthright alto and a sultry, emotive contralto,” adds a writer for The New York Times.

An NPR journalist describes Downs’ new album — Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo — as “a mix of traditional Mexican genres with a feminist beat.”

“On 2015’s Latin Grammy-winning Balas y Chocolat, Lila Downs delivered an album of folk songs and originals that juxtaposed modern Mexico with its rich history,” writes an reviewer. “Its songs highlighted the impact of the drug war, environmental devastation, and the widening rift between economic classes in Mexico. Downs believes an artist’s role is not only to create but to be an activist. Salón, Lágrimas y Deseo is in many ways an extension of Balas y Chocolat, though its emphasis is different. Here Downs employs classic and on original songs to deliver a feminist manifesto … .”

Downs “was surprised at how explicitly woman-centric her record turned out and how full of pain she was feeling about the new reality of politics in the U.S.,” relates an NPR writer, who met with the singer to talk about the June release.

After hearing the new recording, a writer for Univision’s U-LAB podcast says “Downs demonstrates masterful vocal dexterity through songs spanning genres, original compositions, and covers of classics by Alvaro Carrillo and José Alfredo Jiménez. She has never sounded so free, fierce, or vulnerable.”

The presentation is part of the Center for the Performing Arts Diversity and Inclusion Collaborative. For information or tickets, visit or phone (814) 863-0255.

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts.

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
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