Lila Downs is more than just a beautiful woman with a striking falsetto. This Mixtec/American artist is one of the most intelligent, conscious, and driven women I’ve come across. I don’t just say this because I’ve been a long time fan of her music, or because when I first heard “Alcoba Azul” from the 2002 Frida Soundtrack, it made my skin shiver up to my spine. Or even because I had a long distance phone conversation the day of my birthday with a charming, confident, and articulate woman who knows where she stands.
I say this because being introduced to the music of Lila Downs during my undergrad days probably altered my life. She made this fronteriza San Ysidro girl go from being a math major to wanting to earnestly understand and interpret what I saw through music. She was all I expected her to be and more. In this interview, Lila talked about how time and place influenced her latest album Pecados Y Milagros, the enchantments of her native Oaxaca, and what the sins and miracles of life mean to her.
Oaxaca is a culturally rich state that is unique from the rest of Mexico. In your personal perspective, how would you describe Oaxaca, perhaps to someone who has not visited yet?
It’s a very beautiful place that still has many traditions from our Native American past that are very much alive. That includes of course the traditions of food, textile, political organizations, and also in terms of faith. Spiritually, I think it’s a combination of cultures. We have sixteen different Native American groups that still speak their languages in contemporary times. This is still very active in the educational sense as well as artistically. We are one of the most important states in terms of our craft, which can be seen all over the world; with music as well. The art is very developed in the contemporary scenario. We have very important contemporary painters and visual artists, who are the kind of avant garde of the visual art scene in the world.
You are Mexican of indigenous and Scottish descent. How is it like sharing a heritage from two very opposite cultures?
Oh it’s very beautiful to have a very rich heritage from my Indian ancestors. My mother is Mixtec [a native tribe of Oaxaca], and my father was Scottish American. Growing up with those cultures has been enriching. Though, at first very difficult because I was rejected by one culture — in the Mexican Nation there is a lot of discrimination towards the Indian groups. So I struggled with that and with being discriminated as a Mexican. But I think music has been able to erase those boundaries. I think it’s easier to stop talking about those borders, and talk more about the music — to make music so that those borders are erased in a poetic way.
STOP TALKING ABOUT THOSE BORDERS AND
TALK MORE ABOUT MUSIC. MAKE MUSIC SO THAT THOSE
BORDERS ARE ERASED IN A POETIC WAY.
On the topic of borders, throughout your career you’ve done many things supporting the issues of immigration and marginalization of ethnicities. You’ve even dedicated an entire album to the border, La Linea. What is your personal relationship on immigration and the border?
I consider myself a border person, even though I grew up in the south of Mexico and very north of the U.S., in Minneapolis. I hold many of the same realities with the people who have grown up around these borders. We share the languages, they have a very kind of open identity of who we are, they are constantly growing and learning from different cultures, and also absorb what comes from other cultures to make it our own. I think that’s the combination of elements that I have as well. The border is a very strong influence in all of Mexico and also in the US with the Mexican/American community.
What would you say has shifted from your previous album Ojo de Culebra, to now Pecados y Milagros?
Each album reflects something that is happening in our society at the time being. Right now, I’ve been very affected by the violence that we have all ben very conscious of here in Mexico. In a moment of desperation, for the past two years, I’ve been writing songs that keep me stronger, that symbolize the strengths that I haven’t been able to find in other areas of our life. Also singing about these issues; some of them that have to do with the violence, and about women involved in violence in the drug trafficking business. Writing songs about that and then looking into the visual arts for inspiration. I found ex-votos, or votive paintings, which are dedicated to a particular saint. And in dialogue with this saints, they’re thanking or asking for a favor of a particular kind, be that in the face or about our reality that we are living. So a lot songs are about this idea. One of them is dedicated to the mezcal, another one is dedicated to the Queen of the Underworld, and another to the miracle of life. That for me is my son and the representation of the corn, which is a very beautiful image for me at this point because the women who work with corn are the strongest workers and they represent something that we have to look at it right now.
Speaking of miracle of life, you’re a recent mother!
Yes, my son is about 1 year and 4 months ago.
So as a mother now, would you say your music and compositions have evolved somehow?
I don’t know. I imagine the audience is going to be more perceptive of what is happening, and I think you have less time now, so everything becomes more immediate. If you have something to say in full words, well maybe that music has changed in that way, but I imagine I’ll hear some criticism some people at one point and it will be good to hear.
So what are your definitions of a “miracle” and a “sin” in today’s world?
The sin is about our notion of what is right and what is wrong, and how we bend the truth based on we want and I think. In Catholicism, we tend to do this a lot, and I think it’s very interesting and very beautiful yet very disturbing at the same time. A miracle is about believing and having faith. I think that it these times, and in Mexico, we have been to the point where we have been loosing faith. It’s really important for me to remind myself that I must continue on having faith, in my people, in my nation, in the woman, and in all the beautiful things that my country represents.
You do a number of fascinating cover songs in this album. “Tu Carcel” for one by Marco Antonio Solis.
Yes, there are a number of songs that are not mine. They are called “La Cruz de Olvido,” “Fallaste Corazón,” “Dios Nunca Muere.” These are songs part of the classic Mexican music repertoire. They are originally from Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Cuco Sánchez… I would say that they are classic songs from Mexican repertoire. They are about crying, about heartbreak, about the disillusionment in the strength that we might have had at one point. I think that’s what music is about: finding a place to cry or maybe to express doubt, frustration and fear. And I think right now is a moment when we can find refuge in music. It certainly has served that purpose for me and I know that these songs are going to continue walking with us, to be in our subs and in our music in our presence, and in the different concerts that we give in the US, Europe and in Latin America.
THAT’S WHAT MUSIC IS ABOUT: FINDING A PLACE
TO CRY, OR TO EXPRESS DOUBT, FRUSTRATION AND FEAR.
What can we expect from your performances this time around?
It’s going to be mainly devoted to the recent album, but we will also do some of the regular songs that we do in our concerts, like “La Llorona,” but mainly it’s like devoted painting its about giving thanks for the faith and trying not to loose our faith at this point in hour history as Mexicans, and as Mexican/Americans I guess to reflect an art in what it can make us feel and I hope that our audience can come together with this songs, I think a lot of them are very intimate songs about crying, about forgetting, about lost cry and some of them are about love and really finding a space in emotion, I really hope that the music creates in people dancing, and moving and experiencing different emotions, that’s mainly our concern.
Returning to the origins, what’s your first music related memory as a child?
As a child, they are Rancheras, which are Mexican songs about guns, and about lost love and drinking tequila. So I would have to say that this album is coming back to that. It is also about our revolutionary self, and I think that’s part of what we are struggling with as Mexicans. I think Colombians have also struggled with this reality we have kind of a romantic idea of who we are. We have this gun in our hand and at the same time we don’t want to have that gun in our hands in a certain way [laughs]. So that’s what these songs are a lot about, so I invite people to come and hear a sing about these things and the dreams that we have.