Feature Photo by Jorch Orrantia

Talking to the multi-genre, multi-vocal and inspirational Lila Downs, I don’t know if she could sense the nervous quiver in my throat. The more we talked the more I felt at ease, calmed by her voice. Her directness and openness only confirmed the sincerity and empowering nature of her music. Despues de los saludos, we moved into our interview as if I was talking to a tía or old friend. Lila Downs holds nothing back and speaks directly to the experience and consciousness of migrant diaspora. Her music reflects the borderlessness, the divides constantly crossed and the strength of those multilingual tongues mixing and creating new representations of culture.

Lila Downs’ sound can’t be categorized any more than our bodies and histories can be locked into static nationalities or geo-political spaces. Her music reflects the journey of migrant Mexican peoples traveling across genres, from cumbias to corridos, African root, blues and beat style poetry-rap. As our transnational communities often go unheard and unnoticed, we are safe in knowing a champion of humanism still shouts the peoples’ song. Lila Downs’ precise and poignant political voice, her lyrics and representative, world sound fuel the spirit, the body and the mind to sound all the alarms and keep fighting for the people. From the small town in Oaxaca where she was born, Lila’s voice has flourished into an international icon of progress and positivity. I was honored and blessed to discussed Lila’s origins as a singer, her struggles with creating and collaborating on music, and her tremendous role as an artistic pioneer.

JLB: What’s one of your earliest memories of music?
LD: Listening to Lola Beltrán, Amalia Mendoza, and my mother singing Traigo penas en el alma, which I covered later.

JLB: When did you know you were going to be a performer?
LD: I used to practice singing and performing as a child, I’d act a lot. According to my mother, I was always doing this crazy stuff when I was seven or eight. When people would come over to the house I grew up in, they would invite me to sing for quinceneras and weddings. Since I grew up in a small village, the word spread quick. I wasn’t so convinced about being a singer. It was much later that I started considering music. I studied anthropology and voice but had taken a break from music. I had to come back to music on my own time.

JLB: From cumbias to corridos, what’s the hardest part of representing or recreating such distinct regions, cultures and sounds in your work?
LD: It’s hard to marry the genres especially when your working with musicians that are very professional, more educated, and a little more snobbish about traditional forms. It’s harder to work with them to create music. They want things to be sophisticated. A lot of the times traditional music is simple. It might just be three or four chord changes. The time signatures are very straight ahead, not a lot of syncopation. Even though rancheros seem like a waltz, simple in 4 time, the actual sabor or flavor of it isn’t that simple to reproduce well and with the right emotion.

JLB: Was it difficult starting out in the music industry, with people pigeon holing, doubting or misinterpreting your vision and sound?
LD: I think people know exactly where I stand, porque si no saco la pistola [light laughter]. We all have the right to our opinions about where we come from and why we are the way we are. If we only knew our history. Even in Mexico there is a lot of ignorance about who we are as a people. I have to say many things that make certain Mexicans very uncomfortable. I’m grateful to help make change, to make people conscious of their comfort and privilege.

JLB: What do you think about the situation right now with the Arizona bill SB 1070?
LD: It’s very difficult to not feel tremendous anger. It makes you think of the ignorance out there. People forget their history so easily. Maybe these white folks could open up a history book. That whole state used be part of México. I believe these issues should be discussed. I think these white people are using the law as a cover for their racism, making it political. It’s amazing how ungrateful we are of the people making and setting the food on our tables. Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, African-Americans, we all at one point had ancestors who busted their butts to get us an education and opportunities. Migrant workers are not animals and I think a lot of people treat them worst than animals.

JLB: Do you feel your music is part of a political or social movement?
LD: I think I happen to be in a wave of reflection about our Indian identity in Mexico. It has a lot to do with the Zapatista movement since 1994. We became part of a musical movement.

JLB: Like proto-feminist singers Chavela Vargas and other women singing boleros and baladas, when you sing do you feel your voice changes the traditional roles of women?
LD: I hope so. I don’t know if I’m making that change. Maybe it’s a reciprocal thing. Women in my time have changed the way we do things. The decisions we make are different then my mamá. We make different choices. I think that’s reflected in my music and who I am. Sometimes I sing songs that are more depressing. Life can be a very dark place for women. I look to my santitos and the support of my husband. I try to write songs that bring a positive light, like the song Dignificada. In that song I tried to find the light. Being a strong women despite the story, like Digna Achoa, We knew she was fighting for a very dangerous cause and in the end she was assassinated. It sounds like I’m singing about something else in that song, but I’m looking for the light to help take us through the darkness.

JLB: How do you think music and art can influence or change culture?
LD: Each musician has their own way of becoming part of this sea of thoughts and beauty. We all get our chance to put in our two cents. I guess for me it’s about how you can accomplish bringing people together and making change. To change people in a profound way is very important to me. A lot of people talk about it, but doing it, actually changing and inspiring people at a show is very difficult. I think music needs to move people. It’s about celebration, having fun, laughing at yourself and your culture. I think a lot of what I do is about introspection and refection. Looking within our communities and finding joy.


Lila Downs at the House of Blues Chicago
Friday, April 30, 2010.

329 N. Dearborn
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 923-2000

Doors: 07:30 PM
Show: 08:30 PM
Prices: $26.00 – GA Advanced, $28.00 – GA Day Of
Ages: 17+

Lila Downs

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