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4 Indian Arts Organizations in Chicago to Know


Natya Dance Theatre (Photo: Amitava Sarkar)

The arts have flourished in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. And ancient traditions still thrive in modern-day Chicago thanks to a vibrant community of artists and arts organizations. Though Chicago’s Little India is centered on Devon Avenue in the city’s northwest side, the entire metropolitan area is home to the second-largest population of Indian Americans in the United States. Here are a few Chicagoland organizations where you can learn about the diversity of India’s performing arts, either as an audience member or as a student.


Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts

Kalapriya Artistic team (from left to right): Priya Narayan, Preeti Verlapati, and Komal Shah.

Kalapriya Artistic team (from left to right): Priya Narayan, Preeti Verlapati, and Komal Shah.

Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts “supports, celebrates, and offers the vibrant traditions of Indian dance, music, and storytelling through performances, workshops, outreach and community programs, and formal arts education with expert artists, choreographers, dancers, musicians, educators, activists, and collaborators.” Kalapriya’s Academy serves students of all ages, including dancers in kindergarten. Kalapriya presents performances by company members and guest artists at diverse venues including the Harris Theater, Auditorium Theater, Museum of Contemporary Art, Logan Center for the Arts, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Field Museum. Learn more about by visiting Kalapriya’s website. Enjoy footage from a Kalapriya performance, “Finding Home,” at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts below.

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Natya Dance Theatre

Natya Dance Theatre's "Shakti Chakra" (Photo: Amitava Sarkar)

Natya Dance Theatre’s “Shakti Chakra” (Photo: Amitava Sarkar)

Natya Dance Theatre is devoted to the art of bharatanatyam. Like the word itself, the art form combines bhavam (expression), ragam (music), talam (rhythm), and natyam (dance). Hema Rajagopalan, the company’s founder and artistic director, is one of the nation’s foremost Bharatanatyam gurus. She won an Emmy Award for PBS’s World Stage Chicago and an astonishing seven National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Awards. The New York Times said that Natya Dance is “triumphant…an enticing mixture of restraint and abundance.” The company has performed with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lookingglass Theater Company, and the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. Besides presenting original work, the company also teaches the next generations of dancers through it’s academy. If you’re curious to practice bharatanatyam for the first time, Natya even offers free technique classes. For more information, visit Natya’s website. Enjoy footage of a pop-up performance in downtown Chicago with Natya dancers below.

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Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam


Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam during the 2015 Utsava

The Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam (CTU) was formed by Prof. T.E.S. Raghavan and Tyagaraja Rao in 1977 with the mission to “promote South Indian classical (Carnatic) music and traditional Indian dance forms in the USA,” and to “propagate these arts among the next generation of children in the United States.” This year, the organization celebrated its 40th anniversary during its annual festival, Utsava, surrounding Memorial Day weekend. Each year, the festival kicks off with a feast, and CTU even shares some of their favorite recipes online. Throughout the year, CTU offers instruction and presents performances, including summer camps to introduce students to Carnatic music, and to allow them to focus on violin or voice specifically. For more information about CTU, visit its website. Enjoy video from last year’s Utsava below.

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Archarya Performing Arts Academy

Young dancers at the Academy

Young dancers at the Archarya Academy

Archarya Performing Arts Academy offers a diverse array of educational programs, with classes in music, dance, theater, yoga, and handcrafts. In addition to year-round classes, the Academy offers summer camps. Asha founded the Academy as a place where “budding talent is nurtured” and “learning dance and music is made into an enjoyable and memorable experience.” To best serve the community, Archarya offers classes in two locations: the Chicago suburbs Schaumburg and Aurora. For more information, visit the Academy’s website.




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Young American and Scottish Musicians Prepare for Independence Day Salute


For many Chicagoans, celebrating Independence Day would not be complete without a trip to Jay Pritzker Pavilion to enjoy live music, a picnic, and fireworks.  This year, audiences will be treated to the sounds of American and Scottish youth ensembles.  On Monday, July 4 at 6:30 pm, the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCS) will join the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) to celebrate the USA’s 240th birthday.  The concert will also be broadcast live on WFMT.

After a rehearsal on Sunday, July 3, three CYSO musicians talked about their collaboration with the NYCS for this year’s Independence Day Salute at the Grant Park Music Festival.


From left: Kathryn L. of Naperville, Sophie S. of Skokie, and Vincent W. of Des Plaines backstage at Jay Pritzker Pavilion

Although the CYSO started to rehearse on June 22 for this concert, Sunday’s rehearsal at Pritzker Pavilion was the first open dress rehearsal with the NYCS.  All three musicians described the NYCS’s sound as “angelic.”

“They’re just…wow!” said Vincent.   Sophie added, “We haven’t really had a chance to meet with the choir, but you can tell they are just very mature and have a beautiful sound.”

The musicians also expressed their excitement about working with Christopher Bell, Chorus Director of the Grant Park Music Festival and Artistic Director of the NYCS.

“He’s so energetic and fun to work with,” said Vincent.  “He also makes you feel his energy when you play,” commented Sophie.  “It’s very in the moment.”

“He also had the best shoes today,” noted Kathryn.  “They were plaid!”  Chicago audiences have come to anticipate Bell’s Fourth of July concert attire, and this year will be no exception.

Audience members can also expect to hear patriotic favorites, but this year’s concert has some new additions and twists.  “We’re playing some Scottish pieces with the choir,” Vincent W. said, “and the opening of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture will actually be sung.  It’s gorgeous.”

Performing patriotic music comes with great responsibility.  Sophie stated, “We sometimes think that this music is easy to play, but we have to play them perfectly because they’re so well known.  It’s very important to our country, and we have to perform at our best.”

Sophie also applauded the fact that in light of the international controversy surrounding “Brexit,” Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the National Youth Choir of Scotland is “willing to come and celebrate our national holiday with so much energy and fun.”

Both the choir and orchestra are eager to perform on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.  “We normally perform at Symphony Center,” said Kathryn, “but we don’t get to see the faces in the audience.  Here, it’s really relaxed, and you can see the excitement on everyone’s face.  Classical music might be worlds away for some people, but it’s cool that we get to bring it to everyone on this patriotic holiday.”


For more information about the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, visit their website.

For more information about the National Youth Choir of Scotland, visit their website.

Photos From Tonight’s Grant Park Music Festival Concert – June 29, 2016


Grant Park Orchestra cellist Eran Meir warms up before a performance

Is there a better way to end a beautiful summer day than with beautiful music in the park? For tonight’s concert, thousands came to Chicago’s Millennium Park to hear an open air concert as part of the Grant Park Music Festival. Carlos Kalmar led the Grant Park Orchestra, opening the program with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar, Symphonic Suite, Op. 9. Afterwards, Juho Pohjonen joined the musicians to perform as the soloist in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The program concluded with Rouse’s Thunderstuck.

If you couldn’t make it to Millennium Park for the concert, don’t worry. The pictures below capture the atmosphere on the Great Lawn in Millennium Park before the performance, as well as some of the musicians backstage as they warm up.

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Judge Approves Settlement in ‘Happy Birthday’ Copyright Case



LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge has approved a settlement that will put “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain.

U.S. District Judge George King approved the agreement Monday. It ends the ownership claims of Warner/Chappell Music, the music publishing company that has been collecting royalties on the song for years.

The company has agreed to pay back $14 million to those who have paid licensing fees to use the song.

Last year, King ruled that the company didn’t own the lyrics to the ditty, one of the best-known and most beloved songs in the world. He said the company has no right to charge for the song’s use.

Warner/Chappell has said it didn’t try to collect royalties from just anyone singing the song but those who use it in a commercial enterprise.


Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Poet Tyehimba Jess Honors Sissieretta Jones, First African American to Perform at Carnegie Hall


Singer Sissieretta Jones, known as “Black Patti”

PoetryNow is a new series of short radio pieces co-produced with the Poetry Foundation that features some of today’s most innovative poets reading and sharing insights on a new poem. In this episode, Tyehimba Jess pays tribute to Sissieretta Jones, the first African American to perform at Carnegie Hall in 1892.

Born Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, was known in her time as Sissieretta Jones, or as “Black Patti,” after the European singer Adelina Patti. During her life, she performed in the United North America, South America, Australia, Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Listen to Jess’s poem, “Sissieretta Jones,” in this episode of PoetryNow produced by Colin McNulty, below.


About Tyehimba Jess

Born in Detroit, poet Tyehimba Jess earned his BA from the University of Chicago and his MFA from New York University.

Tyehimba 1 2009

Tyehimba 1 2009

Jess is the rare poet who bridges slam and academic poetry. His first collection,leadbelly (2005), an exploration of the blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter’s life, was chosen for the National Poetry Series by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and was voted one of the top three poetry books of the year by Black Issues Book Review. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that “the collection’s strength lies in its contradictory forms; from biography to lyric to hard-driving prose poem, boast to song, all are soaked in the rhythm and dialect of Southern blues and the demands of honoring one’s talent.” Jess’s forthcoming book Olio is set to arrive in 2016.

A two-time member of the Chicago Green Mill Slam team, Jess was also Chicago’s Poetry Ambassador to Accra, Ghana. His work has been featured in numerous anthologies, including Soulfires: Young Black Men in Love and Violence (1996), Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry (2000), and Dark Matter 2: Reading the Bones(2004). He is the author of African American Pride: Celebrating Our Achievements, Contributions, and Enduring Legacy (2003).

His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award. A former artist-in-residence with Cave Canem, Jess has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, as well as a Lannan Writing Residency.

Jess has taught at the Juilliard School, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the College of Staten Island in New York City.

*This biography of Tyehimba Jess appears on his website.


15 Classical Musicians Who Are Out and Proud



June is LGBT Pride Month, and we are celebrating musicians who are out and proud. Besides just inspiring audience through their talents as musicians, the people below inspire others by being true to themselves. Tell us who your favorite out and proud musicians are in the comments below.

  1. Jean-Yves Thibaudetjean-yves-thibaudet

    Gramophone Award winner and Grammy nominee Jean-Yves Thibaudet has performed with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the LA Philharmonic, and the Orchestre National de France. Beyond his extensive honors (like this impressive lifetime achievement award from the Victoires de la Musique), the pianist also has a killer concert wardrobe designed by the highly esteemed Vivienne Westwood.

    Thibaudet lives between Paris and Los Angeles with his long-time partner of twenty-one years, Paul. According to this article from 2003, Thibaudet will not attend events if his partner is not invited as well. Though Thibaudet mostly plays classical music, the couple is very fond of jazz, as well as Latin pop. (Jean-Yves admits that Paul often keeps him up to date on the latest music).

    Watch Thibaudet play Debussy’s beautiful piece “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” here.

  2. Our Lady J
    OUR LADY J - photo Christopher Dibble

    As a classically trained pianist, Our Lady J has collaborated with diverse artists from Lady Gaga to Christine Ebersole in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center. She released her first studio album in 2013 titled “Picture of a Man” featuring Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 and 2, a rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” and a few original songs.

    In addition to her thriving career as a pianist, Our Lady J is also a writer for the Golden Globe winning TV show “Transparent,” a comedy series that focuses on a family and their lives after they learn that their father is transgender. Our Lady J has been included in OUT Magazines “Out 100” and Huffington Post’s list of transgender icons. She’s also written about the politics of language and the transgender community for the Huffington Post.

    Watch Our Lady J perform one of her original songs from her album Picture of a Man here.

  3. Sharon IsbinSharon Isbin

    Multiple Grammy Award-winning guitarist Sharon Isbin has been a soloist with over 170 orchestras. She frequently premieres music by living composers like John Corigliano and Ned Rorem. Isbin was the featured soloist on Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning The Departed, and there’s even a documentary about her life.

    When she is not touring the world, this Minneapolis native founded the guitar department at the Juilliard School in 1989, and currently serves as its director. She is also the director of the guitar department at the Aspen Music Festival. Isbin cites her performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards (where she was the only classical musician who performed that evening) as one of her career highlights.

    She has also had the honor of performing for the Obama family at the White House in 2009. Watch here.

  4. Patricia RacettePatricia Racette

    A self-identified “singing actress,” Patricia Racette is most noted for her portrayals in Tosca, Jenůfa, Kátya Kabanová, and Il trittico. She is so dedicated to her acting, that when preparing to perform the role of Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly, she flew all the way to Japan so that she could learn about seppuku, ritual suicide, from samurai.

    Racette has won many awards, including the Richard Tucker Award, and tours ten months out of the year to venues such as The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Royal Opera House. When not touring, Racette and her wife, mezzo-soprano Beth Clayton, live in the outskirts of Santa Fe with their dog, Sappho.

    Watch her sing “Un bel dì” from Madame Butterfly the Met here.

  5. David DanielsDavid Daniels

    Countertenor David Daniels has enjoyed success with performances in the world’s most prestigious venues and several critically-acclaimed albums. He received the prestigious Richard Tucker Award and Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year. He was the first countertenor to give a solo recital in the auditorium of Carnegie Hall! Recently, Daniels premiered the title role in Theodore Morrison’s opera Oscar, which dramatizes the persecution of Oscar Wilde.

    In an interview with WFMT, Daniels said, “What I learned while I was rehearsing Oscar is that there was a lot of pent-up emotion—even though I’ve been openly gay, even though I have a partner, even though I was out to my parents and there was no rejection from my family. I think as a young gay man, you always are aware of discrimination, and to be telling this story in rehearsals with all of my cast and all of us there together in love, telling the story of this man, it just brought all of this emotion out.”

    Oscar also encouraged Daniels to propose to his now husband, William Scott Walters, in the summer of 2014. He recently began teaching at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and still maintains a very active performance career.

    Watch him perform the title role of Giulio Cesare at the Metropolitan Opera House here.

  6. Emmanuel VassEmmanuel Vass

    Identified by BBC Music magazine as a “Rising Star,” Emmanuel Vass has recorded two solo albums. He has performed at venues like London’s Steinway Hall and Queen’s Theatre West End. In January of 2012, Vass was named Yamaha’s “Unsigned Artist of the Month”.

    The British-Filipino pianist wants to change the way the media presents classical music. In a photo shoot in 2015, Vass painted his body to look like a piano. In an article from, Vass explains, “As a piano player I play something external, but it is a part of me – there has to be a connection between you and the instrument. I wanted to explore that link.” Vass has yet to wear his “piano suit” on stage since, he said, “The music deserves a certain level of respect.”

    Enjoy his recording of the “James Bond Concert Etude,” which he created in honor of the James Bond 50th Anniversary here.

  7. Sebrina Maria AlfonsoSebrina Maria Alfonso

    Cuban-American conductor Sebrina Maria Alfonso is the resident music director of the South Florida Symphony. In 1994, she won the Stokowski International Competition and made her debut with the American Symphony Orchestra. Alfonso is the first Cuban-American invited to conduct the National Orchestra of Cuba in Havana. She has served as guest conductor for the LA Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival Orchestra, and Prague Radio Symphony.

    Alfonso is also a composer who recently premiered her composition “Freedom Crossing,” a commemoration of the Mariel Cuban boat-crossing in which many people died while trying to attain freedom.

    See her conduct the South Florida Symphony here.

  8. Yannick Nézet-SéguinNezet-Seguin-Yannick

    Yannick Nézet-Séguin was recently appointed the Metropolitan Opera’s next music director. Currently, he serves as the music director for both the Philadelphia Orchestra and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the artistic director and principal conductor of the Orchestre Métropolitain in Montreal.

    Nézet-Séguin currently lives with his partner Pierre Tourville, a violist in the Orchestre Métropolitain. They split their time between Montreal and Philadelphia with their three cats.

    Watch Yannick do what he does best at a rehearsal with The Philadelphia Orchestra here.

  9. Breanna Sinclairébreanna sinclaire

    Though she just graduated from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2014, Breanna Sinclairé has already made history. In 2015, Sinclairé became the first transgender woman to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” at a professional sporting event!

    Sinclairé has funded her transition by hosting several recitals. She performed selections from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Bizet’s Carmen, and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Sinclairé’s story has caught the attention of major news outlets like The Wall Street Journal and OUT Magazine.

    Watch her sing the national anthem here.

  10. Jamie BartonJamie Barton

    While still a student at Indiana University Bloomington, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. That year, the competition was filmed for the documentary The Audition. In 2013, Barton became the first woman, and only second person in history, to win both the Song Prize and the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. She has also won the Richard Tucker and Marian Anderson Award.

    The 2015-2016 season, she made her house debuts at the Glimmerglass Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Barton is very open about her personal life and came out as bisexual on National Coming Out Day.

    Enjoy her award winning performance at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Final in 2013 here.

  11. Tona BrownTONA-BROWN

    Tona Brown is the first African American transgender woman to perform for the Obama family at the White House. Brown is also the first transgender woman of color to perform at Carnegie Hall.

    A violinist and mezzo-soprano, she has performed works for violin and voice throughout the U.S. and Europe. Some of Tona’s other projects include her 2012 album titled “This Is Who I Am” and her online TV series Conversations with Tona Brown.

    Watch an excerpt from a recital that she performed in Maryland here.

  12. Nicholas PhanNicholas Phan

    Grammy-nominated tenor Nicholas Phan has performed with the San Fransisco Symphony, New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and other renowned orchestras and ensembles. A former member of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, Phan has released three albums.

    Phan’s most recent solo album, A Painted Tale, was reviewed as the Best Classical Album of 2015 by the Chicago Tribune and received high praise in Opera News. A lover of art song and vocal chamber music, Phan co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago (CAIC) in 2010.

    Watch him perform selections from Britten’s Les Illuminations here.

  13. Stephen Hough

    Stephen Hough

    A self-described polymath, Stephen Hough is a highly regarded pianist, composer, and writer. He has performed with the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, among other orchestras. He has performed solo recitals at Carnegie Hall‘s Stern Auditorium, the main stage of the Concertgebouw, and London’s Royal Festival Hall. Hough is the first classical musician to have been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. He has also been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

    Hough lives in London with his partner who is a music publicist. He is a member of the Juilliard School faculty and holds a visiting professorship at the Royal Academy of Music.

    Watch Hough play Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” at the BBC Proms here.

  14. Jill Grove

    Mezzo-soprano Jill Grove has impressed audiences around in operas by Handel, Wagner, Strauss. She caught the attention of audiences during her performance of Strauss’s Elektra recently at the Lyric Opera of Chicago because of a unique costuming decision. Klytamnestra, Grove’s character, was originally supposed to be topless.

    Grove said in an interview with The Windy City Times, “In the pictures they showed me, I pointed out that real women’s breasts don’t do that—they just don’t sit there.

    “So the next option was to just build them with a silicone prosthetic. So last year I went in and they did a mold of my upper torso and made a whole cast for these breasts that are relatively real—and they look great!”

    See Grove get into another interesting costume for a Lyric Opera production in a video here.

  15. Jory Vinikour


    Jory Vinikour is the first harpsichordist in history to receive a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Solo Instrumental Recording – and he was nominated a second time, as well. His repertoire ranges from Rameau to Meltzer, and he is often engaged to perform with the finest opera companies around the world, including Paris Opera, Netherlands Opera, and Teatro Real de Madrid. As the harpsichord soloist in Handel’s Rinaldo in a production mounted by Lyric Opera of Chicago, Vinikour earned hearty ovations from the audience and high praise from the New York Times.

    Vinikour recorded and toured with some of the greatest artists of our time, including David Daniels, Cecilia Bartoli, and Anne Sofie von Otter.

    A native of Chicago, Vinikour spent much of his life working in France, where he traveled on a Fulbright Scholarship and ended up staying for quite some time. He recently returned to the Windy City, where he regularly leads performances with local ensembles in addition to a busy schedule of performances around the world.

    Enjoy Vinikour tearing it on the keyboards here.

This Video of Leontyne Price Singing “This Little Light of Mine” Will Totally Brighten Up Your Day

ca. 1963 --- Portrait of opera singer and soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. --- Image by © Marvin Koner/CORBIS

ca. 1963 --- Portrait of opera singer and soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. --- Image by © Marvin Koner/CORBIS

ca. 1963 --- Portrait of opera singer and soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. --- Image by © Marvin Koner/CORBIS

ca. 1963 — Portrait of opera singer and soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. — Image by © Marvin Koner/CORBIS

Sometimes all you need to brighten up your day is a little music. American soprano Leontyne Price is certain to shine a little light on you with her performance of the gospel children’s song “This Little Light of Mine.”

In an interview with John Pfeiffer recorded by RCA, Price said, “Spirituals are my soul. They are the expression of me as an American, of me as a human being.”

“I think the spirituals have the depth, the wonder of any Romantic – Schubert, or Schumann, Joseph Marx, or Richard Strauss – that is why I include them on my programs.”

Her favorite spiritual? “It’s also my mother’s favorite,” she said,” which is also a philosophy: “This little light of mine,\ I’m gonna let it shine.”

Luckily for us, she also recorded it on video.

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What are your favorite spirituals? Tell us in the comments!

Singer Lila Downs Serves “Bullets and Chocolate” at Chicago’s Symphony Center

Singer Lila Downs in the cover art for her new album, "Balas y Chocolate" ("Bullets and Chocolate")

Singer Lila Downs in the cover art for her new album, "Balas y Chocolate" ("Bullets and Chocolate")

Singer Lila Downs in the cover art for her new album, "Balas y Chocolate" ("Bullets and Chocolate")

Chocolate goes with almost anything. But bullets? Singer Lila Downs explores the dark side of chocolate in her new song, “Balas y Chocolate” (“Bullets and Chocolate”), and album of the same name.

“We all enjoy this amazing candy all over the world, but in the countries that produce it, there’s a lot of bullets and violence,” she said in an interview from her home in Oaxaca, Mexico, which is currently dealing with the aftermath of violent clashes over the weekend that left 8 dead and over 100 injured.

“I think that my little six-year-old son inspired this song quite a bit because he has a passionate relationship with chocolate,” she said, “the same way that probably most children do. I have been reading stories of children who leave Latin American countries that are cocoa producing countries, very important ones like Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador, and Mexico.”

“While following their stories, I wondered how I could make a tribute to these children and also talk about this issue? A lot of times these children have been deported form the U.S. and go back to their countries and then end up with fatal stories.” According to, millions of children, many of whom are victims of human trafficking, work in cocoa fields around the world.

Despite the dark themes in the song, Downs ultimately described it as festive and reflective. “I thought of this song as a refuge for myself to think about these issues. The lyrics say, ‘Some people do work towards being an example every day for their community. In spite of all these bullets and violence, my love towards you will never diminish.’ I hope that I give hope to people with this song.”

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The entire album, Balas y Chocolate, Downs said, is “a metaphor about life and death and about appreciating this wonderful gift that we have. In a lot of Native American poetry in Latin America, we refer to life as a dream.  I think in the creation of all these songs for the album, we thought about creating a poem to the ancestors to, as my mother says, ‘have a dialogue with the past and to ask them for help in our times.’”

Downs performs selections from her album with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on June 28, 2016 at Symphony Center. Donato Cabrera conducts the program, which also includes Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez.

Hearing Downs at Symphony Center may seem as unlikely a combination as bullets and chocolate. But, one might say that Downs herself is a combination of juxtapositions that on their surface seem contradictory, but ultimately make perfect sense.

Born in Oaxaca to a British-American father and a mother with Native-American roots, Downs grew up in Minnesota. There, she formed happy childhood memories, though also experienced shame and discrimination for the first time.  “I grew up in a wonderful community that was very plural, though there weren’t too many Latinos,” she said in a public talk she gave when visiting Chicago to receive an honorary doctorate from DePaul University.

Lila Downs has a visual style that is as striking and original as her voice

Lila Downs has a visual style that is as striking and original as her voice

“I remembered feeling uncomfortable because of the color of my skin and hair. Most people in Minnesota are of European descent. The real discrimination happens when you cross the border. The way the agents look at you and treat you is a unique experience.” In Mexico, Downs also felt discrimination because of her background. “In Oaxaca they called me ‘la hija de la india y el yanqui,’ which means ‘the daughter of the indigenous woman and the Yankee man.’”

In her journey embracing her identity, Downs said she had revelatory moments when spending time with the Trique (also spelled “Triqui”) people. She describes them as “a native group in southern Oaxaca that is the most discriminated against but the most autonomous groups in the state, and also one of the most visible.” She became fascinated by the visual ways in which the people express their history, “which goes back to the sun and the moon. I thought, ‘This is language, and this is symbolism, and this is strength of woman. I want to be close to those things and figure things out through music.’”

Downs blends musical styles from many cultures and time periods to create a sound that is all her own. She also uses her gift for languages to create music that communicates to broad audiences. She has recorded songs in Spanish, English, Portuguese, and indigenous languages such as Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, Nahuatl, and Purépecha.

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“La Sandunga,” a song Downs will perform at Symphony Center, reflects Mexico’s complex colonial history. “I started performing it when I was studying voice in the old days,” Downs said. “The song was brought over to Mexico by the Spanish at the end of the 1700’s and it used to be danced. It acquired some different lyrics here in Mexico that are pertinent to the politics of the time, but it also references motherhood and women.”

By lending her voice to share Mexico’s diverse cultures, Downs has become an inspiration to many people. But she finds the strength to inspire others because, she said, “there are many people who inspire me constantly, and there are people who face constant adversity and situations like the Orlando gay nightclub shooting.”

She especially admires “women here in Mexico who have definite influence on the culture in spite of all odds in terms of their education. There is the great healer María Sabina whose practices are based on Mexican herbs and the knowledge of our ancestors here in Oaxaca. There’s quite a bit of literature on her, mainly anthropological, but also some of it is artistic.”


María Sabina, a “curandera (healer)

“There’s another healer that I am also in touch with here, Enriqueta Contreras. She just wrote a book about healing and her knowledge of herbs. These are things that are very much alive in Mexico, sadly are not as well-known out there. Even in our country we have to fight to protect and teach people about how we have inherited this knowledge and that it still is out there and being nurtured.”

Downs certainly practices what she preaches. She announces her presence in any room first with the scent of essential oils. “Wearing essential oils really helps my mood swings, which have been getting worse lately, and any other uncomfortable situations.”

Lila also relies on the healing power of music. “I love to sing for people, and that helps with my mood swings too – especially folk music. Folk music is the mother of all music. It’s the people’s music.

“I am very grateful to express my views through the music. Music can make people confront reality and confront themselves. I certainly hope that my performance at Symphony Center helps people reflect on the times that we are living in right now and the contrasts we’re living. I want them to leave learning something new about culture, life, and death.”

To learn more about Lila Downs, visit her website.