Quiz composer/vocalist Lila Downs about her striking resemblance (minus the unibrow) to troubled Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and surprisingly she doesn't tear your head off or sigh impatiently. Ask her the question, which she's heard 100 times, and Downs gently explains she's not that unusual: "If you go to Oaxaca, you'll find many women who remind you of Frida. I probably ask for it by wearing the huilpil [embroidered blouse] and putting my braids up."
With her long, dark hair up or down, a penetrating gaze, traditional Mexican garb, and jewelry galore, Downs often deals with comments about her exotic looks. Child of an American father and a Mixtec mother, the Minnesota- and Oaxaca-raised musician is about much more than her appearance. She's made a career out of combining cultures, fusing the stories and music of her maternal ancestors with those of her Anglo-American half. Singing in English and Spanish as well as such Mexican languages and dialects as Mixtec, Maya, Zapotec, and Nahuatl, Downs adds jazzy, bluesy embellishments to folk sounds. Oddly she found her voice by hanging out in the clubs of Philadelphia's barrios, learning to croon standards such as "My Funny Valentine" and "Lush Life." (Under the auspices of Miami-Dade Community College's Cultura Del Lobo Performance Series, she'll perform in Homestead this weekend.)
As for finding her identity, Downs admits that's something she still grapples with. "It's always changing, just as your place in the world is always changing," she says.
Turning back to the inevitable Kahlo question, Downs is asked whether she would have considered switching careers momentarily to portray the painter in the upcoming biopic now set to star Salma Hayek. "I actually have three scenes where I sing in the film," she relates excitedly. "Of course they made me take off my jewelry, so I wouldn't look too much like her -- but they couldn't take away my voice!"