The Fabulous Lila Downs
A citizen of the world who brings a message of healing and wonderment
Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Lila Downs is an enigmatic singer who has transcended international boarders with her unique vocal styling. She has gained critical acclaim and legions of fans from throughout the world. She sings from her heart. Her honestly is ethereal, her performances dramatic and viscerally challenging. Lila is a citizen of the world who brings a message of healing and wonderment.
Published on LatinoLA: May 16, 2010
Lila grew up with the culture of her father, a professor from the United States, but eventually turned her back on this to explore the traditions of her mother, a Mixteca Indian from Mexico. In doing so she has created a very individual strain of song that has indigenous Mexican roots and North American sonorities. Born in 1968, she spent her early years in Mexico. After her parents split up she was shuffled off to live with a relative in California.
She grew to love music, specifically classical and opera, and began studying both in college. After two years, however, she experienced a crisis. She began questioning why she was singing. Lila dropped out to become a "Deadhead" following the Grateful Dead around the country in a VW bus and earning money by making and selling jewelry - and not singing at all.
Though she was not particularly moved by the Dead's music, she enjoyed the lifestyle for a short time. Soon she headed back to college in Minnesota where her father lived. When she finally graduated she had degrees in both anthropology and voice. Lila had a renewed enthusiasm for her Mexican heritage and singing.
Settling in her mother's hometown of Oaxaca, she began vocalizing again and exploring her roots while realizing that she was still half Yankee. She met up with Philadelphia-based jazz pianist Paul Cohen and the pair began a professional and personal relationship. Their first fruit was the self-released (cassette only) Ofrenda in 1994. That was followed two years later by another cassette, the live Azul?ío: En Vivo con Lida Downs, one of whose songs won "Best Original Latin Jazz Composition" in a Philadelphia poll.
Along with jazz she was slowly developing a more intense, folkloric style that began to rear its head on 1997's La Sandunga (released in the United States on BMG in 1999). The title track and "La Llorana" offered a hearty passion showing her jazzier efforts. That vocal promise was fulfilled in 2000 with the release of Tree of Life, the lyrics of which were largely derived from the religious codices of the Mixteca and Zapotec people. The album was recorded in Oaxaca, where Downs and Cohen were sustained by a foundation grant, although their home base remained in Mexico City. Tree of Life was her first recording for the Narada label, where she would remain for eight years. The next year Downs issued Border (La Linea). In 2004 Una Sangre (One Blood) was released, followed by 2006's La Cantina, whose song "La Cumbia del Mole" presented the singer with the opportunity to make her first music video. Downs and her band released her final album for the Narada imprint, Ojo de Culebra, in 2008,. She followed it up with Lila Downs y la Misteriosa en Paris - Live ?á FIP on World Village in 2010.
LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor, Al Carlos Hernandez (thanks to an introduction by A Train Entertainment CEO, Al Evers) had the pleasure of talking to Lila Downs right before her performances in Paris this week.
Q: What are the best and worst parts of growing up the way you did? What was the moment when you knew you were going to make music your life's work?
A: The spirituality of my Indian background is important to me. Being proud of being Mexican is also important, especially in these times. Being honest and searching for the truth is something I inherited from my American father. It took me a long time before I chose music. After I studied in college I did weaving. I learned about weaving Native American textiles from the south of Mexico. After that I came back to music. I had to let go of it for a while. I ignored it to really appreciate it.
Q: What was the whole Grateful Dead period all about? Has their music or lifestyle influenced your music?
A: It was really about dropping out of society, just being fed up with order. I had been a classical music student through my college years and didn't want to get up early every day I so dropped out of school and became a Deadhead - one of those people feral to the music part of the Dead; rather a merchant traveling, just learning to survive on the road. This taught me about life, not worrying so much about the material world. Yes of course the music influenced me - the attitude, the philosophy of kind of making your own family, surrounding yourself with people who hold true to the same belief systems that you do and really living these ideals.
Q: Where does your music muse come from? What inspires you to write and perform? Is your musical thematic view of death therapeutic or cathartic?
A: Sometimes it comes from reading things that affect me in a deep way. Recently I read about a terrible and tragic death here in Long Island - a crime - a very dark subject. I usually find that I'm good at converting these subjects into light and trying to make it into a song that is incredibly funny or very melancholic. I am inspired by people with beautiful strength who smile in spite of possible bitterness, but decide they don't want to go down that route. I am inspired by amazing events where people can come together and move mountains in spite of their differences. My music is both therapeutic and cathartic, I think this is what is magnificent about the Mexican interpretation of death - it can be highly tragic, sad and melancholic, but it can also be festive, happy, with the people laughing at it. This is something I am grateful for having.
Q: You are embraced by the world jazz scene. Do you consider yourself a jazz artist? If so, what about pop, rock and other genres? You seem to do it all very well.
A: Jazz has taught me to believe in no boundaries for music in any sense. Whether I would call that jazz I don't know. It's the original notion as to what jazz means, I believe. Pop is very important to me but I don't listen to the radio everyday. Rock is more amazing and more profound in its various incarnations through time, I am particularly in love with the music of the 60's and 70's. One can hear it in our music.
Which is your dominant culture? Do you prefer to work in Spanish or English and why?
I love Spanish because Spanish has all of the vowels that are so beautiful in which to sing. But I am leaning to love English as well - the beauty of sarcasm and the fun you can have by writing songs in English. Now that we are working on our musical theater it's really fun.
Q: Have you ever been racially profiled? What do you think about what is going on in Arizona?
A: I probably have been profiled (ha ha) but I try not to focus on these issues. I think sometimes things need to get worse and right in your face. People who have been hiding behind an issue when their opinion is a racist one, and the reasons for them not coming out and talking about it, have not been discussed openly. It's a good thing to be able to discuss this on a national level.
Q: You are an internationally acclaimed artist. Why do Paris and Europe appreciate what you do?
A: Wow! I'm glad that you have that impression. I hope that they do and I'm happy to translate certain cultural differences that we have in Mexico. In native American communities, as opposed to our national Mexican culture and also in relation to the US, what we have is preconceived notions as to what it means to be Mexican or Latino or Indian or native. I think that Europe has a great appreciation of culture for the different layers of meaning that this carries.
Q: How has fame and various awards effected you?
A: Oh, well, I don't believe that I have fame. But I believe in working hard at what I do and I insist on being heard. I believe that I've been rewarded in my lifetime for things I stand for. I have been very proud to stand in my native American wipplil dress at the Oscars.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time? Would you consider settling down someday and have a family?
A: I like to read and to spent time out doors connecting to the trees Being near water is important to me because it lets me shed my melancholy which I find very important as a woman. And the moon, of course, is very important. Yes I would like to start a family. In fact I am heading into this next phase of life because we are trying to adopt a little child. This is going to change our life I'm sure, and I'm looking forward to that.
Q: What do you think your dad would say about your fabulous success?
A: My father would be so proud that I am fighting for the true expression of my heart. I am so connected to my grandmother, a woman he deeply admired and respected as a wise lady - a wise native woman.
Q: What is the ultimate goal of your career?
A: I hope that people can understand more about where we come from and why we are here. I will never get tired of fighting for that. Hopefully people will learn to care about each other more - respect each other and remember that we all had some parent or grandparent that worked the fields, swept the floor, or produced and cultivated lettuce or strawberries - any of our beautiful food which we so comfortably eat everyday.
Q: What would you like people to know about you that no one knows?
A: I do love to watch TV (laughing).
Q: Grateful Dead Fans adored Jerry. How do you think your fans esteem you?
A: I think there is so much love out there - so much support. These are the people who have turned me around at those times when I am at a very dark point. I believe they make me come back and keep doing what I'm doing. It hasn't all been easy.
Q: What do you hope for your legacy to be?
A: I hope than one day people look back and say, "Oh! This singer changed the way I look at things and opened me up!" Maybe they will remember that it was me. Perhaps it will be something in a song that I sang or something that I wrote that they carry in their hearts.
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