Chicano culture, art, and politics
Interview with Lila Downs
a tree is born a fruit made of woman
death surrounds her power
the branches of her blood will die
her house and town
will be abandoned
fire and blood will stain
the fruits of her fertility...
will become the mother earth
will become the mother earth.
-from "Arbol de la vida/Tree of Life,"
sung by Lila Downs?
Downs is a world-class singer effecting a unique collaboration
between cultures, genres, voices, languages, and politics.
Yet her music has gathered these otherwise disparate
elements into a cohesive and seamless whole through
four critically-acclaimed albums: La Sandunga (recently
re-released), Tree of Life (based on Mixteco and Zapoteco
codices), Border/La Linea and her most recent, One Blood,
all from Narada World Records.
in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca of a Mixteco
Indian mother and a Scottish-American father, there
is a transcendent quality to Downs' work that crosses
all borders and yet captures the desperate and often
harrowing "bordered life."
question sometimes how I go musically in one direction
without losing what is precious to me, which is the
expression of our times, the things that are in our
collective consciousness, the power to unite," Down
was raised in La Mixteca, the mountains of Oaxaca,
Mexico, as well as St. Paul/Minneapolis. In her youth,
she studied music and anthropology at the University
of Minnesota and at the Bellas Artes University in
learned classical music," Downs relates. "But I felt
so distant from this because the training pushed me
away from the direction I felt I had to go-I wasn't
being true to what I was. The reason I dropped out
of school was the rigid nature of the classical tradition,
not being able to express myself with freedom. Slowly
I realized [performing] the music from Oaxaca was
what I wanted to do.”
years ago, this is precisely what she did singing
in restaurants and bars in the colonias, pueblos and
barrios throughout Oaxaca; her repertoire included
Mexican traditional rancheras, blues and Mixteco indigenous
in the restaurants and bars was an experience for
me," Downs says. "My mother didn't want me to sing
in those places because she used to sing on tables
and drink a lot. She knew what this kind of life did
to women. It took me a long time before I understood
it was okay for me to hang out in bars and sing."
her American husband Paul Cohen, Lila Downs traveled
to Mexico City and then Philadelphia to continue their
vital blend of indigenous, Mexican and world sounds.
Paul, who plays saxophone, piano and clarinet, has
been with her ever since. They now divide their time
between Oaxaca City (where her mother lives) and New
York City. Along the way, she also acted and sang
in Salma Hayak's 2002 biopic Frida.
of my preoccupations technically in the music is the
purity of tone," Downs explains. "I look to people
like John Coltrane, who's a strong influence on me.
Paul and I share so much love for jazz, the roots
of it, because of the power of spiritual healing it
has. I aspire to move in this direction. I also try
to be honest with myself. Writing every day and having
discipline is very helpful. Singing every night in
the bars took me to the next place I needed to go."
world is divided," Downs says. "For me that's where
I'm coming from--this is one of my main concerns,
because my mother always taught me to respect the
roots. At the same time, we have so much wealth in
this world, but we need more consciousness. I think
art is one of those amazing things that can bring
people together." She also has addressed some big
subjects in her music, such as the plight of Mexican
migrants in the United States, while still allowing
the music to speak for itself.
Downs does this with amazing grace, power, beauty
and deep caring. Don't miss her live in concert whenever
she comes your way. Also, buy her CDs-her generosity
and vision is grand and embracing, which is what we
need in these violent and uncertain times.
Rodriguez is a writer of poetry, children's literature,
fiction, nonfiction and memoir, including Always
Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. He is
a cofounder of Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural -
the cafe, bookstore, art gallery and performance space
in the San Fernando Valley-and editor of Xispas
Magazine. The official Lila Downs website is located
website is owned and operated by the XISPAS Colectivo © Copyright.
All rights reserved. c/s