This article originally appeared in She Shreds Issue #14, which was released in February, 2018. Receive a copy as your first issue when you subscribe here.
Born in Oaxaca, Mexico to a Mixtec mother and a Scottish-American father, Lila Downs says she was always very aware of the social makeup of her environment:
“My mother would really make me notice the world of women, and in Latin America they have a kind of magic in that they make society function in every kind of intimate way, as well as in the bigger picture.”
As a child, Downs sang mariachis and watched classic Mexican films where stars like Lola Beltrán sang in traditional folkloric fashion. She eventually moved to the U.S. to study classical music and opera, but became disinterested in the commercial side of the industry. After a hiatus, Downs took a different approach to songwriting, one that would truthfully represent the history and sociopolitical themes affecting her community at home.
For 25 years, Downs has composed award-winning albums that intricately blend rancheras, mariachis, and corridos with sounds from all over the world. She’s explored the depths of Mexican folk music while preserving her heritage, writing lyrics in Zapotec, Nahuatl, Mayan, Purépecha, and her native Mixtec.
Downs’ latest album, Salón Lágrimas y Deseo (RCA Records), continues to challenge institutions that perpetuate racism, misogyny, and attacks on Native and immigrant communities. With her operatic voice, revolutionary songs, and immaculately executed performances, Downs is making sure women are still heard—and she is still making it happen through a vision that is authentically hers.
She Shreds: What does it mean to write music on your own terms?
Lila Downs: When I was in college, I wanted to know more about my Native American past because I come from one of the 64 Native groups that are very much alive [in Mexico]. But there was nothing like that. So I ended up designing my own major that included women’s studies, philosophy, and anthropology.
I also became familiar with Mercedes Sosa, an important singer in Latin America from Argentina. She had been singing songs about social movements and conviction, and stories about women and Native people. That made me understand there was a way to sing beautiful songs, but also have content be the important part of the music.
In which elements of musicianship—such as collaborating, writing, or performance—do you push yourself the most?
In composing. It’s really something that you try to do the best piece that you can. And of course, collaboration is always a wonderful way to push yourself. I love collaborations. Sometimes people think that music labels push us to do that—which they do as well—but I think it’s very natural for musicians to want it, too. It’s really fun and everybody learns a lot.
Your most recent album is unapologetically feminist, like the song “Peligrosa.” You have always featured stories of women in your music, but when did you decide to center them in your songs?
It began in the first album that we did, Ofrenda. I noticed that people wanted to hear [classic folk] songs like “La Llorona.” I knew it because in Oaxaca we have a strong participation of music and dance in an important [annual] folk festival. We all learn about our different ethnicities—16 in all—and we know what women dress like and their traditions. That made me conscious of how women are at the center of life. The next album was inspired by the pre-Hispanic manuscripts that survived the Inquisition. I really discovered that women were an important element in our pre-Hispanic past.
I also come from a matriarchal family. My grandmother was left alone, not by choice. And then my mother as well. We lost my father when I was 16; he died. I was an adolescent figuring out that you’re not really worth much when you’re all women. People in my village stopped talking to me simply because my father wasn’t around anymore. These lessons make you stronger and make you realize how difficult it is for young women to move ahead in this society.
A lot of your songs are really iconic, such as, “Cucurrucucú Paloma.” You perform them in a very classic style, both visually and sonically. Do you have a favorite?
Definitely a song like “Cucurrucucú.” It’s really enjoyable for me to perform. It has different elements, like folkloric parts in the rhythm that are really sophisticated and complex. I work very hard on pieces like that one, and like “El Querreque” and some of the huapangos that come from this beautiful tradition of a mix of Spanish influence from Andalusia and our Native American traditions of singing. Of course, the rancheras are also very difficult to sing and have a very variable rhythm, and only the mariachi knows how that goes.
I saw you play at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival in Prospect Park over the summer and was so taken aback by your incredible voice. There’s so much power there. How did you start developing your vocals?
Partly it’s just something that nature gives you. I remember as a child holding these long notes, so there’s something that’s already there. But I do think it’s a constant question of knowing and taking care of yourself. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a tequila or a mezcal once in a while [laughs]. In my case, it’s very important to have it because through that you express the emotion you have from within. Sometimes that gives you some more secrets about how to handle your instruments.
I had an accident many years ago, and I have a problem with my neck, and a herniated disk. I never got [an operation]; I do exercises instead. It was really difficult at first because my whole singing technique changed, my breathing and muscles. Everything is like a challenge. That’s the beauty of having an instrument and working on it constantly.
Speaking of instruments, what’s your favorite one to play live?
The jarana is my favorite instrument now because it really sounds like something from the past‚ kind of like the granddaughter of the laud, an instrument from the Middle East. These instruments were brought to Latin America, and in Mexico they were adopted in different regions.
There are a lot of elements of tradition in your music, as you’ve mentioned. How do you balance the traditional with the contemporary, and how important is that in your writing and performance?
I feel a spiritual sense, and that sense is a connection between generations. Some of the lyrics are about connecting intuitively with Mother Earth, sometimes with our evil nature, sometimes with our goodness. I love to connect with my ancestors. Also, I need to express these concerns that are a part of my generation. And of course, that’s why this last album is about longing and the desire to succeed. It’s about ambition, neglect, and denial in terms of immigration and the U.S..
There’s a song that I wrote called “Envidia,” or envy, because I think a lot of people in the U.S. who are ignorant about Latin Americans are generally just envious of us. A lot of us don’t have it easy, but we make the best of things, and that makes people really uncomfortable. They don’t know about who we are culturally, or that we come from indigenous groups that go back in time thousands of years with beautiful languages that survive from our ancestors.
Where do you see the evolution of your music heading?
For me, I think it means being happy with myself. And doing something that matters and makes people change in their vision and in their attitude. I truly believe that we can change the world through art. That’s my main concern. I hope that music is something I’ll always do. Jazz is an important element and something that will hopefully be in our next album.