Lila Downs traces her musical diversity and social activism to her days as a Deadhead

Different worlds converge, rather than collide, in the improbably varied life and music of Lila Downs. Like the Grateful Dead, the fabled San Francisco band she used to follow from city to city and concert to concert, she embraces the earthy, the cosmic and much in between.

Downs, a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and a devoted social activist, was born in Oaxaca. Her Mexican mother was a Mixtec cabaret singer. Her American father was an art professor. She grew up in Mexico, Minnesota and Southern California, and her colorful stage attire salutes the indigenous Indian tribes of Mexico.

Downs, who performs Thursday at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a multidisciplinary degree. She majored in both classical voice and cultural anthropology, with an emphasis on the symbolism in textiles created by Mexican women.

Her debut album, 1994’s self-produced “Ofrenda,” combined traditional Oaxacan and Mexican favorites with songs Downs wrote in three languages: Spanish, Mixtec and Zapotec. But before she graduated and made her first album, she had a more pressing matter to pursue.

“I dropped out, ran around and lived on the streets for a while and in a kind of hippie commune in Minneapolis,” Downs, 48, recalled. “We would follow the Dead and would be outside their concerts. I made jewelry, and my friends …”

She giggled, then paused for a moment to think of the most diplomatic way to describe her friends’ Dead-related activities.

“…did interesting things to get by,” continued Downs, who in the late 1980s also attended several Rainbow Family gatherings. Held in remote locales, those gatherings served as a template of sorts for the annual Burning Man festival that now take place each year in the Nevada desert.

“I think I’m less explicit in my lyrics than I was 15 years ago, because I have found music can sometimes be even more powerful when it is very simple and beautiful, instead of being angry. But there’s room for anger, too, and I still have some anger in me.”

Lila Downs

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Humphreys Concerts by the Bay, 2241 Shelter Island Drive, Point Loma

Tickets: $48, plus service charges

Phone: (800) 745-3000


Twitter @georgevarga

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