Singer Lila Downs grew up with the culture of her father, a professor from the United States, but eventually turned her back on it to explore the tradition of her mother, a Mixteca Indian from Mexico. In doing so, she has created a very individual strain of song that has indigenous Mexican roots and North American sonorities. Born in 1968, she spent her early years in Mexico, but after her parents split up, she was shuffled off to live with a relative in California. She grew to love music, specifically classical and opera, and began studying those in college. After two years, however, she experienced a crisis, questioning why she was singing and dropping out to become a Deadhead, following the Grateful Dead around the country in a VW bus and earning money by making and selling jewelry, and not singing at all.
Although not particularly moved by the Dead's music, she enjoyed the lifestyle for a short time, before heading back to college in Minnesota, where her father lived. When she finally graduated, it was with a double degree, in anthropology and voice, and a renewed enthusiasm for both her Mexican heritage and singing. Settling in her mother's hometown of Oaxaca, she began vocalizing again, and exploring her roots, while realizing that she was still half Yankee. She met up with Philadelphia-based jazz pianist Paul Cohen, and the pair began a professional and personal relationship whose first fruit was the self-released, cassette-only Ofrenda in 1994. That was followed two years later by another cassette, the live Azuláo: En Vivo con Lida Downs, one of whose songs won Best Original Latin Jazz Composition in a Philadelphia poll.
Along with jazz, she was slowly developing a more intense, folkloric style that began to rear its head on 1997's La Sandunga (released in the U.S. on BMG in 1999), whose title track and "La Llorana" offered a hearty passion not to be heard on her jazzier efforts. That vocal promise was fulfilled in 2000 with the release of Tree of Life, the lyrics of which were largely derived from the religious codices of the Mixteca and Zapotec people. The album was recorded in Oaxaca, where Downs and Cohen were sustained by a foundation grant, although their home base remains Mexico City. Tree of Life was also her first recording for the the Narada label, where she would remain for eight years. The next year, Downs issued Border (La Linea). In 2004 Una Sangre (One Blood) was released, followed by 2006's La Cantina, whose song "La Cumbia del Mole" presented the singer with the opportunity to make her first-ever music video. Downs and her band released her final album for the Narada imprint, Ojo de Culebra, in 2008, and followed it up with Lila Downs y la Misteriosa en Paris - Live à FIP on World Village in 2010. Her seventh studio album, Pecados y Milagros, arrived a year later in 2011, with Canciones Pa' Todo el Año following a year after that in 2012. ~ Chris Nickson, Rovi