Ana Tijoux and Lila Downs Reveal What They Love About Each Other’s Musical Legacies

Courtesy of Lila Downs

Don’t call the alliance a no-brainer, because that would drain the importance of Ana Tijoux and Lila Downs’ artistic connection. A better descriptor might be fated. How better to label the convergence of two women who have fought so long for feminism, against neocolonialism, for a recognition of indigenous roots — through song?

It makes little difference that the Chilean emcee Tijoux and Mexican folklorist Downs are from opposite ends of the Latin American world. The two had long felt that the other was engaged in a creative voyage powered by the same fight for independence and respect. They were far-off sisters in the struggle. Of course, one day they finally met. The fateful convergence happened in Las Vegas of all places, during the Latin Grammys when Tijoux was pregnant. Later, while the rapper was working on an album that would prove to be wildly divergent from her previous career in hip-hop, Tijoux penned a heartrending narrative sung by a repentant alcoholic. “Prometí a mi familia, que ya no escaparía/Pero la noche llama, con cuernos que me gritan,” its lyrics ran. Who could endow the importance necessary in lines like these? Tijoux thought of Downs, her powerhouse vocal skills, her conviction in fighting for community. And happily, now we have the collaboration “Tinta Roja.” The song, which blends Tijoux’s lyrical majesty with Downs’ immense talent for the dramatic, locates a personal narrative within larger societal forces.

To celebrate its release, the duo are performing at New York’s PlayStation Theater on Friday, February 23. We were able to get the two on a conference call to chat about their momentous collaboration, Ana checking in from a remote corner of southern Chile and Downs from her native Oaxaca.

Lila, what about Ana’s art made it essential for you to collaborate with her?
Lila Downs: We Latinos lead a double existence. On one side, we are very generous, friendly. On the other side, we can be diplomatic, you could say. But also traitors, no? There’s a motive for this, historically speaking. It’s about survival. When I read rap from different peers, and especially that of Ana, I hear different layers, a historic symbolism that isn’t always explicit — but sometimes is in your face. Sometimes it’s metaphoric, deep. It’s like a dialogue of languages. That’s why I’ve been so attracted to rap throughout my childhood and youth, and especially when I find a voice like Anita’s that is true and musical and rhythmic. It has to do with the manner in which we as Latin Americans speak, and in her case, Chileans, Chilean women who have indigenous roots. It is admirable that that has survived, that we survive through different kinds of expression.

“I’ve been so attracted to rap throughout my childhood and youth, and especially when I find a voice like Anita’s that is true and musical and rhythmic.”

Ana, how do you respond to that?  
Ana Tijoux: I think my role is the same role as many. I think there are many of us in this same construction, in this historic recuperation. I don’t want to focus just on me because I think it’s a collective job. It’s a collective of people who haven’t all met each other in person, but we know who each other are. I have seen women on the Internet who rhyme from Nicaragua, who wear traditional dress. In Ecuador, there is a Quechua [emcee] who also wears her traditional clothes.

And how do you see Lila’s role in this panorama?
Ana Tijoux: It’s fundamental, core. This is kind of weird to say because she’s here listening, but I think certain musicians achieve — there’s a huge difference between musicians and artists. I think there are a lot of musicians, many people who sing beautifully, people who look pretty onstage, but few artists who have the capacity, who dare to stick out their sternum, the solar plexus, and affect you with their work. I think that Lila is part of a chain that is key in Latin America. Totally key. That’s why when Lila goes to Chile, to Peru, she fills the venue, because there is that recognition. She has Mexican roots, but you can see that she has something in common with the rest of Latin America. A strength. Lila is one of those people who makes and has made history. She has her feet in two places — she keeps making history, but she’s part of the people who are in the catalog, have made their mark. Great authors, great artists who are part of our Latin American culture and who are unerasable. That’s how I read her, at least.

Photo by Kenna Escobar
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Ana, we’ve seen in your most recent songs that you’ve turned away from hip-hop and are experimenting with softer sounds. Is this your new sound, or an interlude away from hip-hop?
Ana Tijoux: I think the most beautiful part about music is that it doesn’t have a set direction. I’ve been saving up some things, cooking up new verses, and right now I’m making an album with Quantic. It’s a hip-hop blend, but it’s great.

Can you talk to me a bit about the Roja y Negro album and your song together, “Tinta Roja”? How did you record it, how did you think of the theme, and what was the creative process for this song?
Ana Tijoux: Roja y Negro is a parallel project to Ana Tijoux that is acoustic, sung. For me, it’s very bold. This kind of song format has attracted me since I was very young, but I never dared to try it. “Tinta Roja” – I’m not even sure if it is about a man or a woman, because it’s about an alcoholic, a problem that is very common in Latin America. It’s a metaphor, between “la tinta roja” and blood, love. When we made the song we couldn’t imagine another person singing it [other] than Lila. We sent the song to Lila and she answered us very generously, gently, sensitively.

And now you’re going to sing this song, among other works, in the United States, where both of you have played many concerts and spent a lot of time. What does this February 23 show together, in the United States, in 2018, mean to you?
Lila Downs: It’s more important now than ever. I think that now, in the face of the biggest devil we’ve ever seen in recent times, it’s important to show this agility we have as Latin Americans. Also, to show the strength of our art. I think with art, you get to more people, more than any political dialogue. Art is profound and it moves us to the very base that we carry within ourselves, the plexus as Anita says, all through us, our chakras, our movements as existing beings, living beings on Earth. There are more people in the United States who are coming to Latinos to get to know us better. That gives me a lot of pleasure, to see the people of Trump turning to look at us. Someone asked me the other day, “So how do you see this new government in the United States?” Well, the truth is that pre-Trump, we [Latinos] didn’t exist and now post-Trump, there’s a lot of interest in Latinos. That’s something positive, no?

“It’s important to show this agility we have as Latin Americans.”

Do you have plans to continue this collaboration into the future?
Lila Downs: I hope so!
Ana Tijoux: I hope so; it would be beautiful.

I love this conversation. Can we open it up a bit? I’d love to know about your heroines. What other women inspire you?
Ana Tijoux: There are thousands. But the first person I thought of was Simone de Beauvoir. Simone, for me, is an untouchable heroine.
Lila Downs: I would have to say Mercedes Sosa. And I would also have to mention Frida Kahlo, because thanks to her I returned to art. If I hadn’t, I would have been a boring anthropologist. [laughs]

How did she help you return to art?
Lila Downs: She helped me realize that [being] Mexican has a lot of value, even if the world that surrounds one doesn’t believe it.

Lila Downs and Ana Tijoux play New York’s PlayStation Theater on Friday, February 23. To purchase tickets, click here.