Lila Downs links the worlds of the Americas by reclaiming her cultural roots
Singer-songwriter Lila Downs realizes that her name might cause some confusion amongst Latinos. "It's kind of difficult to explain that I'm a half-breed," this daughter of a Mixtec Indian and Scottish American says. She grew up in Oaxaca (what she calls "a very Indian, mestizo place") as well as Minnesota, and credits this experience with shaping who she is today, and the themes she explores in her music.
When Downs started wearing huipils, she received criticism from others in her community - "How dare this foreign woman wear our traditional outfits?" she recalls hearing - most likely directed at her because of her Anglo surname, until they found out about her story. (As for the more commonplace surnames like Sanchez, her mother's name, Downs points out that those are all Spanish and foreign to the Americas.) Being raised in Swedish and Norwegian communities in Minnesota exposed Downs to a different cultural tradition, one where people "don't like to talk about things" like race and other cultures. She says her time there "made me internalize a lot of these things I was feeling being a brown-skinned woman."
During this period of her life, Downs says she felt like an outsider, whether in Indian or mestizo Mexico or white Minnesota. Fortunately for her, she learned how to adapt. "That's where I get my chameleon-like nature," she says, good-naturedly. Then, proudly, she adds, "I do belong to these three communities."
Downs' affirmation of her origins didn't happen overnight, and the path she took was not without its tangents. From a young age she studied opera and continued her musical training in college. She actually dropped out and rebelled against the person she was becoming, "someone," she says, "that wasn't me."
"I also had those bigger questions about the meaning of life. I was not going to find those answers through the music but through asking questions about history: the history of different peoples throughout the world." Her search for answers to those questions took her back to her mother's home, where she embraced her rich cultural heritage and, ultimately, made peace with herself.
Ramírez adds: "She is very cognizant of her indigenous roots."
This awareness runs throughout her music, which consciously links the worlds of the Americas as well as their indigenous African and European components. For example, one of the standouts from Una Sangre/One Blood, her latest release, is her distinctive rendition of "La Bamba," the classic son jarocho twice popularized in the states as a rock number, which infuses the song with a subtle critique of militarism while recognizing its Afro-mestizo origins.
Downs explains how her grandfather's family came with other blacks from Chile and Peru to the coast of Oaxaca in the late 1700s looking for freedom. There they mixed with her mother's Mixtec ancestors. Their presence influenced Mexican culture, in this case through music, but their contribution remains largely ignored. As part of her effort to foster a greater awareness of our shared history, she argues that "It's important to look for those communities and the songs that they sung."
Downs' four albums all demonstrate this cultural reclamation project. La Sandunga, her first release, allowed a glimpse of the still-emerging yet self-assured artist performing traditional Mexican music blended with a strong jazz influence. She followed this with Tree of Life/Arbol de la vida/Yutu Tata, a multi-language disc which delved into her indigenous roots. (Ramírez singles out this album for praise, calling it "a symbol of the emergence of gente" and of the connections people share with one another.) Border/La Linea focuses her astute, aware lyrics on the life-or-death price of immigration, sharply honed in her version of "El bracero fracasado" and the biting original "Sale sobrando."
"It's always been an issue," Downs says, because "my mother is an Indian woman who married a foreigner," something Downs repeats with her marriage to sax player Paul Cohen, her compañero and collaborator.
Sold as a slave, Malinche negotiated her freedom and became an admired translator who smoothed out tensions between Indian communities and the Spaniards. In fact, according to Downs, Hernán Cortés was originally called Malinche, but the name was transferred to the woman now thought of as the betrayer of the Mexican nation. "How does this happen?" she asks, rhetorically, well aware of the subjugated position of women throughout history.
"Malinche was a woman who brought cultures together," Ramírez points out; "Downs exemplifies that in her own being."
Ramírez feels Downs' music speaks to people as it "tries to wake up their consciousness, so they can begin to mobilize and act in positive ways to change the world." Yet, due to Downs' socially aware and politically charged content, in the United States she has garnered greater exposure through alternative and independent radio stations - locally owned and college stations, NPR and Pacifica affiliates - than corporate-dominated Spanish-language media.
Unlike the United States, Latin American countries do not have a "world music" genre. Ramírez suggests the reason for this comes from the United States' "us versus them" mentality, a binary division between whites and everyone else - in particular people of color, linguistic minorities, and those who practice non-European customs. "A person like Lila Downs, who may not be seen as an 'other' in Latin America, is seen as an 'other' here," Ramírez says. As a result, "it's white people that have access to her."
Ramírez hopes to see Downs' open-air concert contribute to breaking down the us/them mentality. "She needs to be made accessible to gente." •