November 14, 2008

Lila Downs sings with the soul of two cultures

By Mariana Martinez

Lila Downs defines herself as a product of migration, a fortunate combination between voice and feeling that has captivated audiences from Greece to New York.

In her visit to Tijuana, she reflected about her role as a cultural translator, her thoughts on machismo and the faults of Mexican culture, the survival of indigenous people and how her happiness is linked to her singing rancheras.

Her latest release titled “take away” has a eclectically surprising mix of influences and a few musical guests such as Chilean sensation Enrique Bunbury, Gilberto Gutierrez and Argentinean diva, Mercedes Sosa.

Do you think the music that you do comes from a struggle to find yourself?

The music that I do is a very special gift. Music is a very mysterious thing and I feel honored to be part of it.

The fact that I belong to two cultures has been my ammunition, my tool to represent those things that have been in our history. We are a culture conquered, not a a nation but 64 different native communities that are alive in México and are alive today.

So we have a relationship that has been very angry in many ways because it has been prohibited to speak the language, to do the religion and to be who you have to be, and it has been a struggle to understand there’s nothing wrong with my black hair, dark skin, dark eyes, I’m beautiful, I don’t have to be white to be beautiful, and this has been a very difficult path for me.

Foreigners have a very hard time understanding Mexico, how do you see it?

Mexico is complex, for people who come from the outside because they are not aware of many historical confrontations, but art is the best way to know people because when you listen to the poetry, you can understand what hurts their hearts, minds and their future, and then you understand a people better.

Mexico is a mysterious place, even though we had confrontations with the west we managed not to forget our past, we still are recreating our identity today and I hope I can create a song that can goes straight to my people, -and when I say my people I say that as a Mexican, as an Indian and as a human being.

But half of you are American and you married an American man.

I think I am North American, but my soul is more Mexican and my heart is more Mexican.

My vision, and my need to find truth I believe is based in a kind of Lutheran notion about being honest and simple. I like that, for me it makes me happier as a person, to be open about being Mexican, in this new way to be Mexican.

I believe that I had a difficult time with my Mexican boyfriends.

So you have encountered the negative sides of Mexico such as machismo and the violence towards women?

We all know the negative sides.

I come from a family that is very negative so my whole life I have tried to be positive. When I was little my mom said “you don’t sing strong enough, you don’t work hard” so it has been important for me to be with people who are positive, and me, I try to stay positive despite the fact I find out many sad things about my country (and I mean México) from the border, especially in Tijuana, or Oaxaca who has recently been in a lot of political trouble.

Are those pains in your latest work?

In this latest work I wrote songs that talk about this difficulty, I don’t have any solutions but if you sing about it you can help.

I sing to justice, I tell her, “where are you, I’m looking for you on the streets, on the television, in the paper, the courts, the justice system, I can’t find you” because it seems we have a contradiction in our culture; we want stability but at the same time our culture doesn’t permit us to have such stability, its complicated because I love my culture so much, the different traditions of my Mexico, and at the same time, there are many things that need to change.

What do you hope to do as a composer and an artist?

I hope that the songs that I compose goes straight to the people and they say “I’m not going to take this anymore, I’m going to walk away, be positive now, put my head strong and continue to work hard and be independent”.

What has been your happiest musical time, what genre of music do you just adore?

To sing ranchera music makes me the happiest.

When I was younger I could relate to these songs because they are so strong. They are about drinking in a cantina, drinking a tequila…This are the lyrics of the Mexican, it’s very tragic, it’s about love and longing about something you can’t have and it’s about feeling sad for yourself, and drinking.

It’s a release of anger, of discontent, sadness, I think we are very sad, melancholic people but we can also be very happy.

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