by Raymond R. Beltran
Lila Downs was working in her mother’s car parts store in Oaxaca when a migrant worker entered with a piece of paper, he handed it to her and asked for the translation. The paper turned out to be the death certificate of his dead son that was working on the All American Canal at the time. “He knew I spoke English and asked me how much I would charge him,” said Lila, “but I told him I wouldn’t charge him. He had the body of his son in his car outside. He was from Acapulco, near my pueblo.”
The incident changed the way Lila Downs directed her music from then on. “I wrote the song ‘Ofrenda’ which is on the first album, and [the experience] was an inspiration to write about the border.” Lila Downs is a singer from the Sierra Madre mountains in Southern Mexico, and her music is deeply rooted in the heart of the state of Oaxaca. “I wanted to tell the story in ‘corrido,’ the [style] of my community,” she says. “I couldn’t believe what was told to me. It was too much. Something is going on here that’s not right.”
Lila Downs, the daughter of a Scottish American father and Mixtec Indian mother, grew up on both sides of the border, on opposite ends of the spectrum. She experienced life as a Chicano with her father in Minnesota where he worked as a University Professor and painter. She also has her other life as a member of the Mixtec people, her mother’s people, deep in the southern region of Mexico called Oaxaca. She began singing ranchera music as early as five-years-old, mariachi music when she turned eight, and at the age of fifteen, Lila began taking voice lessons in Los Angeles, California. As a prominent young opera singer during her years at the University of Minnesota, her singing career would take a turn for the better.
“I wanted to bring the influence of the north and south, the mixture, and find new ways of singing things and making them meaningful,” says Lila. “I wasn’t sure about being a singer ten years ago. I had to sing, but I wasn’t sure how to do that. I think about what changed my life, and after I met Paul (Paul Cohen, the tenor sax, keyboard and clarinet player) jazz had to be the next step for me as a human being, to grow.”
After writing original music and combining a more cultivated and polished sound, they began playing every night in clubs around Oaxaca. “We performed every night for one-hundred pesos a night. It helped us to see what people like,” she says. This is where her music is deeply influenced by ancient indigenous roots.
“We’re very unusual,” says Lila. “Oaxaca has this definitive community voice all over the place. This is our strength. Not one community will have the force to take over our very Indian ancient values.” Anyone who attended the Adams Avenue Street Fair on Saturday the 29th has become witness to this testimony. With 160 c.d.’s sold in one night, the crowd became hypnotized with Lila’s voice, with her sound, the variations of it: high, low, and everything in between.
Along with her amazing voice, the music comes across deeply embedded in the fields with migrant farm and factory workers of both U.S. and Mexico in songs like “La Linea” and the remake of Woodie Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” which can be heard on the latest self titled album, Border, La Linea. The lyrics attempt to manifest the struggles that come with surviving as a foreigner from Mexico in the United States, and how sometimes, as descendants of migrant workers whom we as Chicanos most likely are, we forget our ancestors and those who made it possible for us to indulge in the very spoils of the U.S.
The oblivion of the journey in our own personal history often directly influences who we think we are at times. Sometimes, as Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, it can be easy as we assimilate, or become intertwined in the U.S. experience, to be pulled further and further away from our indigenous roots making it impossible for us to fully understand where our customs come from. It is in this loss of understanding of who we are that causes us to divide as people, from our people, and ultimately generating resentment and animosity within our own communities.
“We’re taught, which is from our Spanish influence and because of Catholicism and our religiosity, to forget who we are,” says Lila. “But our dark skin, our black hair, point to our Indian roots. We need to point the finger at ourselves and accept who [we] are. Be proud about who we are. That’s how we will get along, the Chicano, the Mexican American, the Mexican. It’s that we don’t understand [each other].”
For Lila Downs’ music, not only going to the roots of indigenous ancestry is enough. “I would call our music ‘roots music,’” says Lila. “I look for the source. I like to go to the roots. I look at blues like Robert Johnson. It’s important to look at roots, its culture, its social context, the same thing in hip-hop music. I’ve been influenced by norteña, ranchera, veracruzando, the Zapotec, and Oaxaca Mixtec. My dad used to listen to blues like Miles Davis and Bob Dylan. My mom would listen to opera like La Bohéme.” Lila’s early influences were performers such as Lola Beltrán, Cesar Rodriguez, and Billy Holiday.
As a current resident of Oaxaca, Lila ultimately seems to see her mother as an omnipresent influence in her life. “My mother was one of the people married off by force. She ran away barefoot when she was fourteen-years-old to find a new life,” says Lila. “She was a nanny, a maid, and had other jobs that she didn’t want to talk about, but she was proud to have put me through the University. We are a very matriarchal background. My grandmother was an only child, my mother was an only child, and I’m an only child. We are the next generation, and our parents want us to succeed so we won’t have these stories that we don’t [want to] have to talk about.”
“It’s an overwhelmingly huge responsibility,” says Lila reflecting on how her music reaches people. “What you believe in, that’s what you do. Be a role model for yourself and people around you, even when you’re having a hard time and it’s difficult. To be an artist is beautiful, and going to mother nature is very important … I think life, the gift of life is finding balance somehow. You will go under if you keep looking at the waste. You will never lose sight of that. Take the negative energy and turn it into light and hope. We need that. There’s enough dark things, we need to look at the light.”
Lila Downs and the band are currently traveling with their music and the voice of the voiceless. They just left San Diego and are in the Bay area today. “My concern is to be strong enough to move people,” she says. “I’m worried about our next c.d. We’re working on our music, and concerts are our job. When people say, ‘You made me cry,’ that’s what I’m here for. When I move people, I find purpose and meaning.”
Presently, the group has two albums on sale titled Tree of Life and Border, La Linea. The group is dedicated to the people that we forget in our history that continue to live in those dark places of the world that we may have lost touch with in our current positions, and Lila Downs’ voice carries their strength and knowledge.
“I’m lucky the music is given me that gift. I really mean that. I think there are good people making changes out there in this country. And in Spain and Germany there are those people as well. We’re part of that community,” says Lila. “There is a reason that we are here. What is your part of the quest in life? What do you have to say in your position? If I try to work the fields, what good would I be doing? Question yourself. What could you do in your position, being brought up in the United States, and keep doing that.”