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Lila Downs: Art that Breaks Barriers

She is currently one of the greatest performers in Latin American music but she still maintains her fighting spirit and continues to step away from her comfort zones and prestige to “keep stirring things up.” In this exclusive interview, the Mexican singer-songwriter, actress, producer, anthropologist, and activist talks about her new album, the book she is working on, and how music has changed her life.

Text and photos: Winnie T. Sittón 

 

Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs is one of the most important figures in contemporary Latin American music. Her successful artistic career and combative social activism have spanned more than three decades, years during which she has had the courage to try musical genres as diverse as jazz, bolero, folk, and world music. This is why she is considered a consummate creator who enjoys great recognition and international prestige, as confirmed by the eleven studio albums and two live albums in her solo discography, alongside the Grammy Award and the five Latin Grammys she has earned. 

She recently released her latest album, Al chile (No Holds Barred), on which she sheds pretense and surrenders to dance and fun, offering a tribute to indigenous Mexican rhythms and the touch of spice that is essential to life. Even amid so much excitement and zest, there are songs that deal with the violence plaguing México, the rights of immigrants, women’s empowerment, and the eternal search for happiness, among other topics that occupy her mind. 

Your new album is a tribute to the boldness of chili. How did the idea come about? 

We were invited to play at a concert in Acapulco, where we encountered “chile frito” (wind) ensembles, which are common in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. This style of music is played with saxophones, trumpets, clarinets, snare drums, and that’s it: party time! I wanted to do something related to dance and fun and the traditional village bands and sonidera (Mexican cumbia) music from the capital of México. The musical inspiration came from various places, which is why the album contains slices of very different cultural worlds.

Having been in the music business for so many years, what keeps you up-to-date? 

When I was younger, I used to think that older people were not worthwhile; now that I’m a little older, and thank God, still here, I believe it is very important to be with younger people, mentor them, and set an example. This is how it usually works in the indigenous communities of my México and Latin America. I will proudly continue to stir things up, whether people like it or not.

You’re working on a book. What’s it about? 

It’s anecdotes from my childhood. It started as an autobiography, but then I thought: “Wow, the way you’re telling this is so boring.” We decided to include the voices of other people, people who have been part of my life. I come from a rather bleak town, one that is very difficult, very hard on a woman. All of that left its mark and I want to talk about that. The book is partly fiction and partly true. 

Is the world still a tough place for women? 

I think we’re being heard now. My adolescence and younger years were spent in a world that was completely the opposite. They used to tell us: “You look prettier when you don’t talk,” a common saying in México. They didn’t let us speak. Seeing how things have changed makes me feel optimistic. We women are making progress, although it may not look like it when we see the statistics of violence against women and many other situations or contexts in which women have no access to education. There are deficiencies in both big cities and rural areas. I think that those of us who are privileged should show our strength and our need to love ourselves by using liberating words. 

Why do you think we humans have not managed to create a more just society? 

I think humans carry darkness inside; it’s something we all face. Perhaps in the future, there will be more therapies and music and art to change our attitudes. I’m convinced art can do that. Art is wonderful; even I don’t fully understand the power it exerts. Certain songs, recordings, and concerts have changed me, saved me. 

How did you become 

an activist? 

The truth is that it doesn’t come from a good place. In my case, it’s that my mother is an indigenous woman and I was always marginalized in social settings. I felt like I didn’t fit into the social fabric, that people were pushing me out, that I didn’t belong. On the one side, I had my indigenous mother; there was and is a lot of racism. On the other side, I had my Yankee father; both sides were always rejected. There was also a little envy, but more hatred. When my father —the white person in the family— died, the people in my town suddenly stopped talking to me. That’s when “me cayó el veinte” (the penny dropped), as we say in México. I was sixteen and it was like a spark was lit inside of me. I said to myself: “They’re going to treat me like that? Ok, then. Game on!” So we started composing songs. I began a project and learned to look at life in a different way. 

How do you deal with being both North American and Mexican?

It’s complicated to be from both here and there, because I feel like you’re never really accepted. I think I’m loved in certain circles, but a part of me always has doubts. I think I’m really critical of what’s happening in the United States and it stresses me out that I don’t know how I can serve as a bridge between these two cultures. I’m also critical of myself, because there was a time when I rejected my indigenous identity and my Mexican identity. So the savage beast also lives inside me, but it is very interesting to see how music has soothed it.