Being the progeny of a Mixteca cabaret singer and a professor of art from Minnesota means that Lila Downs’s musical world isn’t so much about cultures colliding as it is about beautifully caressing two traditions into something that far exceeds the sum of their parts. Abounding with life and love, her vibrant musical fusion also reveals a strong social conscience. Be it the divisive border battle between Mexico and the U.S., spiritual healing, or simply a craving for chocolate sauce, Downs injects her music with a perspective that is as enlightening as it is unique, and she does so in a way that will leave you wondering whether you should be dancing or Googling. Returning to Arts & Lectures with her multinational ensemble this week-and having just laid the recorded foundations for a new album-Lila Downs recently invited me to spend a little time in her world.
You’re on the road again, and seemingly have quite an international collective playing with you. We have a band that’s mostly based in New York City, but the people are from different places: Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, and Cuba. So we have kind of a bilingual relationship here on the road, as my husband is from New Jersey and there are also two musicians from New York City.
Was that by fate or was that by desire? It’s very much by desire to bring different influences to the music, and that was one of the main reasons Paul and I moved to New York. You build a relationship with people as individuals and then you have things in common, different views in life, and what you think is important to share as a Latin American artist. I think that’s what holds us together as a band.
I understand you spent March recording a new album. What direction is it taking? We started recording some songs we’ve been working on for about two years now and are doing many more tunes in English this time. It’s going to be kind of like a double CD. The issues have to do with what is close to us, such as migration. But the main theme of the album is spirituality and healing through the Earth, which is a very beautiful native tradition that I have been a part of all my life. It’s a tribute to the shamans and healers and to traditional healing in medicine.
You mentioned that this album has a lot more songs in English. Given the topics that the album is touching upon, was that a conscious decision to broaden the scope of the message you are trying to convey? In the sense that I think there are many people in the U.S. who don’t speak Spanish and who really do want to know more about the culture and what it means. So it is to try to reach out to those people, but also to reach out to myself a little. Growing up bicultural and bilingual and having that affinity with North American culture is something that I’ve always had and I’ve kind of avoided it in a way because it’s been my quest to look to the other side and that’s mostly because I was in such a negation of it in the past. So, now I’m coming to terms with who I am, and I guess it’s about time. I am in my late thirties, here!
You mentioned your dual heritage. It is not only dual, but quite a contrast, too, I believe. It is, isn’t it? I come from these contrasting experiences because my mother was a very rural woman who came from a very small Indian village in Mexico and my father was a bohemian, quite knowledgeable, and very thirsty for cultural and all kinds of artistic endeavors. He was an important mentor for me when I was younger, so I have this combination of being concerned with learning more about culture and wanting to be educated. At the same time, my mother reinforced the notion of never denying your roots-my roots being very poor and humble and someone of Indian descent who should learn to respect our traditions.
What specifically did each impart upon you musically? In the musical sense, the tradition of my mother was these amazing cantina songs about losing yourself and dying for love. On my father’s side it was more classical, through education and studying opera and then seeing what you come up with as an artist. I’m very fortunate to be able to take from both of those traditions. So I’m trying to come up with something in the meantime that people can relate to and somehow meet me in the middle.
Lila Downs performs at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, May 7, at 8 p.m. For more information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.