Singer Lila Downs Masters Looking Inward and Outward


Lila Downs explores identity in song.

Photo by Marcela Taboada

Lila Downs has come a long way from her first Bay Area performances at La Peña in the mid-1990s. The Oaxacan-born singer first made an indelible impression with a repertoire of traditional songs she delivered with rich contralto in Spanish, Mixtec, and Zapotec. Over the past two decades, she’s steadily expanded her musical vision, collaborating with an international array of artists while gaining confidence as a songwriter capable of addressing inner torment and social struggles.

She returns to the Bay Area on Sept. 30 for a Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall on the heels of her latest release, Lágrimas Y Deseo, an album that draws on blues, cumbia, danzón, banda, and Cuban son. With six original songs and seven reinterpretations of classic ballads by revered Mexican composers such as Agustín Lara, José Alfredo Jiménez, and Álvaro Carrillo, Downs joins forces with some of Latin music’s most celebrated artists, including duets with Chilean singer/songwriter Mon Laferte, Mexican indie pop star Carla Morrison, Spanish flamenco great Diego El Cigala, and Argentine rocker Andrés Calamaro.

What’s striking about Downs is that her gift for looking inward and outward was present on her first recording. The daughter of a Mixtec Indian mother from Oaxaca and a white anthropologist father from Minnesota, Downs has carved out a singular niche on the world music stage by exploring the fault lines of her parentage. In a childhood marked by abrupt dislocations—she grew up moving every few years between Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley, Minneapolis, and Southern California—music proved to be an essential force in making sense of her mixed identity. In performance, she’s an arresting presence, dramatic, tempestuous, playful, and earnest. 

Lila Downs, 8 p.m., Sept. 30, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, 510-642-9988,

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