When it comes to authentic female performers, Lila Downs stands high on the international list. Since releasing her first album in 1994, Downs has received commercial success along with a Grammy Award and two Latin Grammy Awards. In 2017, 12 albums later, she continues to tour the world and will be making a stop at the Paramount Theatre Wednesday, Oct. 4.
Born in Oaxaca, Mexico to a Mixtec mother and a British-American father, Downs has embraced her multicultural identity through her original lyrics and music. Fluent in Spanish, Mixtec and English, her sound blends traditional Mexican and native Mesoamerican music with jazz, blues and other genres. Her new album, ” Salón Lágrimas y Deseo,” brings unique elements inspired in part by the political landscape of today’s Mexico and the U.S.
“The new album was inspired by Oaxacan, Mexican and Latin American cinema and music from the 40s and 50s, as well as the political situation we’re going through,” Downs says. “Politics is not separate from the arts and life. The decisions that are made about who we should be always have deep consequences on subcultures, and this is something that has long been of my interest.”
Downs states that she has a sense of what it means to feel marginalized.
“On one side, I come from an indigenous culture through my mom’s family and, on another, my father was a North American Yankee who was discriminated against in Mexico. The album is a letter of love, affection and passion but also heartbreak toward the U.S., which is also my country.”
A recurring theme in Lila Down’s music is feminism, and her new album is no exception. Songs like “Peligrosa,” which means “dangerous woman,” embrace the power of being a woman.
“I do think women are ‘dangerous’ because they have opinions, they have broken with social norms and concepts of women and their influence,” she states. ” I wasn’t thinking of dedicating the album to women until I listed to the final product. I found it very feminine and there was a theme of demanding our rights, conscience and respect.
When asked about the most influential women in her life and career, she has plenty to share.
“One of the first female influences in my life was Lucha Reyes, a character in the Mexico’s history, but also my grandmother Matilde, an indigenous woman who was very spiritual and connected to the earth. She was a campesina who didn’t know how to read or write, and I naturally dedicated my album to her,” she said.
Lila Downs’ work has, for many years, brought a sense of cultural relevance and significance to the very groups that have most deeply been affected by President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric–immigrants and women.
“Discrimination, racism and hate are all incorporated in the original and classic cover songs we chose for the album, Downs continued. “When Trump was elected, I was very depressed to the point I didn’t think I’d continue writing. I’m an artist who tried blending both of my worlds in hope of bringing understanding and love for each other. When I saw Trump’s ideals represented in the people who voted him into power, it was very hard to process.”
Downs’ sense of humor and grounded character, however, never cease to impress.
“I drank a bottle of mezcal, which is sometimes like medicine, and the next day I continued finishing some of my songs that I had left unfinished.”
Her roots and deep connection to Mexico are evident not only in her music but also the way she engages with her people in her home country, especially through rough times.
“There are so many needs all around us and people like myself who are lucky enough to enjoy privileges like education and financial stability owe our help and kindness towards those who don’t have such privileges,” she continued. “We contribute to a cause every year, which at the moment is helping those affected by the recent earthquake in Oaxaca through a concert we produced and organized in September.”
Downs is excited to be able to bring her live show to Texas during this time when minorities are challenging the norms and the messages of hate that surround the world today.
“The word ‘racist’ has been taboo and something not easy to talk about, but I feel like we’ve made progress towards being more open,” she says. “It’s like we have come out of the closet, in many ways, whether in the gay community or among women and feminists. As an artist, I play a part in writing songs that liberate those demons and with it we can move forward little by little.”
Don’t miss the chance to see Lila Downs in Austin this fall. For event details, visit austintheatre.org.