Grammy-Winning Mexican Singer-Songwriter Lila Downs Speaks Truth to Power

Lila Downs
Lila Downs Photo by Marcela Taboada
click to enlarge Lila Downs - PHOTO BY MARCELA TABOADA
Lila Downs
Photo by Marcela Taboada
As a quick scan of news headlines in the Americas indicates, indigenous peoples — as they've been since colonization — are caught in an ongoing struggle over their lands, the Earth’s resources, and their own people.

One indigenous artist who has given voice to this plight is Mexico's Lila Downs, one of this weekend’s highly anticipated acts at the GroundUp Music Festival. Raised by her Mixtec mother and Scottish-American father in a tiny village in Oaxaca, Downs says she never had much of a problem gripping her familial and cultural roots, but she can certainly appreciate why many immigrants have to fight to preserve or reconnect with their own.

“I grew up in a village in rural Mexico, and then I moved to the city,” she recounts, explaining how she eventually went to college in her father’s home state of Minnesota and worked for a number of years with her husband, Paul Cohen (also her saxophonist and manager), in New York City. That rural-to-urban experience, she found, was more jarring than the separations societies create through race and class.

“I think my battle has kind of been to bring those different worlds together,” she says.

This clash of opposing internal forces comes across in her eclectic, high-energy alter-Latino genre of Mexican music. Also evident is her intensive investigations of anthropology and linguistics, studies that were her “tools to understand [her] own story, the story of the Americas, and the Native American vision,” she says.

Downs' albums are a mix of these cultures and other influences. Over the course of more than two decades, she has consistently found innovative ways of infusing typical Mexican genres such as cumbias and rancheras with the folk sounds of other countries, including Cuba-inspired boleros and salsa, as well as African-American-derived jazz.

These sounds have won her fans from across all of the above genres, and in 2014, they also won her Pecados y Milagros a Grammy Award for Best Regional Mexican Music Album. As the record's title implies, its music vacillates between notions of sins and miracles beneath a veil of Catholic and native mysticism.

On all of her albums, Downs' lyrics speak to divisive U.S. or north-south border politics, racism, machismo, and even ageism, employing a wide range of emotions to stir and affect the listener. In addition to writing her own music, she borrows, reinterprets, and rewords the songs of others. For example, on her 2001 album, Border (La Línea), Downs made a medley of songs by legendary civil rights activist and folk singer Woodie Guthrie and adjusted the lyrics to serve as the voice of indigenous peoples and migrant farmworkers. And on her latest album, 2019's Al Chile, she modernizes the funky French and Spanish activist and pop star Manu Chao’s 1998 song “Clandestino” by switching up the places of origin and destinations of the migrant protagonists. The original version focuses largely on the immigration boom Europe experienced during that era, whereas Downs’ version features those struggling at the U.S.-Mexico border today.
The song “Dear Someone” — a duet written by Gillian Welch that Downs recorded with jazz crooner Norah Jones — speaks to the dream of independence, of building a boat to sail away toward a soulmate. And no matter what’s happening in the world, one of the best forms of resistance is to keep up the faith and the felicidad; it's a sentiment Downs calls upon in her cover of Cuban pop artist Descemer Bueno's song “Sé Feliz,” or “Be Happy,” which she recorded with Chilean indie-pop artist Gepe.

Thanks in part to the raw, experimental approach of Al Chile producer Camilo Lara, Downs’ quick-witted words and compositions truly run wild. They also unleash some stinging cultural critiques: The term al chile is a Mexican way of saying things “straight up,” and in the title track, Downs invites listeners to celebrate gender roles in a playful way and pokes fun at the term as a double entendre while still confronting dangerous attitudes of machismo.

“We have these contradictions in our culture,” Downs says, noting that Mexican women often love the formality of traditional male-female relationships but sometimes find themselves deploying a combination of force and humor to combat male rage and control. “The question is, how do you fight against the things that are negative for us but at the same time have fun? That’s the secret of folk, right? I think that’s why it’s so very universal.”

Over the past few years, Downs and her band have been trying to cultivate a spirit of resilience, resistance, and unity by inviting local artists onstage. They make the invites and arrangements ahead of the show, but once the music gets going, the collaborations and live performances are largely improvisational.

“It’s wonderful because you get to know the local artists and what they’re doing,” she says. “At the same time, you’re giving them the possibility of another audience getting to know them.”

Given the number of bands performing at this week’s GroundUp festival, she says it’s unlikely she’ll be able to have that kind of collaboration with local artists, but stranger things have been known to happen.

“We’ll probably improvise,” she admits. “I’m sure we’ll be doing things with the Flor de Taloache, of course, and with some of the Snarky Puppy members.

And though the Latin vibe of South Florida has for decades been recognized as a largely Cuban one, the number of immigrants moving to the region from Downs' native Mexico or from neighboring countries such as Guatemala is increasing. Asked to give ideas about how to embrace and incorporate their cultures — often indigenous ones — into the South Florida mix, Downs says locals should attend Mesoamerican folklore festivals. By trying the food, listening to traditional music, and observing the colorful costumes and dancing, South Floridians can gain a deeper appreciation for the universal values and mores underpinning these disparate ways of life.

“I think one of the very bewildering sensations for us who have indigenous origins is that we are spoken about as if we were in the past. That was the only greatness, right? And they talk like we are no longer here, but we are, we’re all here,” she says. “That’s why we have brown skin. That’s why we eat corn. That’s why we inherit these amazing greens and different dietary principles — in our life and in our vision. I think if we look to that route, we would learn a lot, and we will realize that we don't have to divide so much politically.”

Lila Downs. At GroundUp Music Festival. 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, February 15, at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; Tickets cost $85 to $825 via
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Julienne Gage is a Miami-based anthropologist and journalist who has worked as a reporter and as a civil rights and international aid communications specialist in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. Her fieldwork has exposed her to many forms of cultural expression, and during her master’s in anthropology, she studied at Cuba’s Center for the Investigation and Development of Cuban Music.
Contact: Julienne Gage