Lila Downs Explores Mexican Heritage Through the Pepper in New LP, ‘Al Chile’
“It’s about saying things al chile!” says Lila Downs backstage at the Center for the Arts in Escondido, where she’s about to perform cuts from her latest studio album, Al Chile. Just like the Mexican expression conveys — roughly meaning “straight up” — the folk singer has been keeping it real to her roots, and championing the lives of countless indigenous populations, since her emergence in the Nineties.
“I feel like I would be making a deal with the devil if I did [commercial pop],” she says with a wink. Her dedication to authenticity has served her well, though: Downs is perhaps one of the most recognizable traditional singers in Latin alternative music, boasting track streams and YouTube views by the millions.
On this day, she wears a pine-hued tunic adorned with embroidered magenta flowers; her hands are bedecked in gorgeous amber, with one silver ring carved like a pre-Columbian Zapotec figure. With one glance at her colorful indigenous garb, it’s hard not to admire the sense of pride with which she wears it. Born in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca to a Mixtec cabaret performer and a Scottish-American art professor, Ana Lila Downs Sánchez grew up speaking Spanish, English, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Nahuatl. Throughout her career, she has incorporated that multilingual prowess into her repertoire. “We [as Latinxs] got to be there representing, explaining, and translating,” she says. “It’s the only way we are going to have people come together.”
Yet the Grammy-winning artist is no stranger to raising hell and consciousness through the power of song. Since releasing her 2001 fusion-folk opus, Border/La Linea, Downs has aimed to shatter xenophobia through wicked wordplay, while building solidarity with migrants everywhere. With Al Chile, she continues to dignify the lives of marginalized communities, and honor their traditions via street-style cumbia and the rural, vibrant sounds of Mexican pueblos. Just like Mexico’s strange and complicated connection with the piquante chili pepper, the themes in the album explore those burning sensations that cause “happiness, suffering, pain, and tears,” she says. “They remind us of the thin line between love and pain.”
In your new album, you decided to pay homage to el chile, or the chili pepper. Why this Mexican fruit?
It’s about saying things al chile! This project isn’t too much from up here [points to chest], but more from below [points to torso]. Because Mexicans are very picositos, it could also be a double entendre, but that’s very subtle. We all have a feminine and masculine side, and the male counterpart took charge [this time]. My previous record, “Peligrosa” is more feminine, from the head and heart. There are also these bands on the coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca [we call] Chile Frito. I thought that was pretty cool, so I also began to think about el chile because of them.
You’ve previously written about other foods like mezcal, mole, and chocolate. What about certain cuisines intrigues you to explore them musically?
The first song about food that I wrote is mole [“La Cumbia del Mole”]. It was partly because I was very homesick from Oaxaca when I was living in New York. There, I was surrounded by Poblanos, some Oaxaqueños and Veracruzanos. I was thinking of a way to honor the women back home. Little by little, the verses began to take form. There’s also a verse in the song that goes “Por el cielo de Monte Albán.” We have a lot of faith in ghosts and things from our past, and Monte Albán is a very sacred place for us. I wanted to honor our history.
Camilo Lara adds cumbia callejera to Al Chile. Talk to me about this collaboration.
It’s a combination where urban meets el campo. It was fun working with Camilo Lara because he likes to do things without polishing them. A lot of times producers really get into fine tuning. In hip-hop, it’s a whole thing — tuning, tweaking, changing, transforming. But in folk music, you never do something like that. In fact, it’s the other way, and sometimes it’s too out of tune. We did the recording of “La Llorona” with a kids’ band in Juchitán [de Zaragoza], and we tuned a few instruments that were off, but not a lot of touch ups. [Lara] focuses a lot on loops and experimenting with different sounds. He’s on top of all these vintage instruments, and he knows them very well. He’s not a traditional musician, but there’s something cool about having a different vision of what you what to hear.
You dedicated your cover of Manu Chao’s 1998 song, “Clandestino,” to immigrant families. What made you decided to remake that song?
I met Manu Chao about 10 years ago. I’ve been a fan of that song and his whole thing. He’s a genuine artist and a citizen of his country. He also has immigrant parents, so he relates. Today, there are more [immigrant] women and children, and so it’s really about them. [Last year,] I was invited to tour with Jackson Browne and Joan Baez [through Women’s Refugee Commission], and [Baez] said, “You know, these gringos don’t know you, but it’s important that you come and hang with them.” It was a little tough because we [as Latinxs] got to be there representing, explaining, and translating. It’s the only way we are going to have people come together, in my opinion. Otherwise, we keep dividing more and more.
Some of your songs are in Zapotec and Mixtec. What is it like to perform in a language that most of your audiences are likely unfamiliar with?
It’s beautiful. Last night [May 10th] I performed at the Walt Disney Hall. I began with a verse in Zapoteco, and everyone stood up [in a standing ovation]. They might not understand, but they know that it’s not en español and they respect that. I think the [Alfonso] Cuarón movie Roma has helped us pay honor to our indigenous roots, but it has also shown the ugly side of racism in Mexico that we know we have. But we are advancing little by little, you know. We’re having different attitudes about race and racial features, and all these things that have been taboo for Latinos to talk about.
You were wearing a Oaxaqueño huipil and a Chiapaneco belt at your show. What can you tell me about the clothing you wear?
I studied textiles, and my focus was in the Triqui community, one of the more discriminated [indigenous] groups of my country. We call this garment a vata, which is from the Oaxaca Valley. The story of the woman is told [through these embroideries]. They do modern weavings of chiffons, flowers, and mini dresses. This one [on my blouse] is called hazme si puedes [meaning: make me if you can], because it’s so tiny you could hardly see it. They are little boys and girls. The women are always inventing more traditional patterns, but they’re also making new ones with different colors. Oaxaca is so modern — we are very developed in the visual sense and have this natural vibrancy, well, Mexico in general. This [embroidered vest] is an example of something that’s European[-influenced].
There are other textiles that are more geometrical and natural in pattern, like the greca you are wearing on your vest. Grecas are very profound and mathematical. There’s a book that analyses them. The women that weave these textiles count the exact number that it takes to make a structure that coincides with the pyramids, and they still continue to do this. These mathematical numbers are supposed to protect them against death. If you sit there and stare at the pattern long enough, you go into a deep trance. Our ancestor knew priests who combined mathematics with spirituality, and it was one, but the West segregated that.
The road to being a folk artist is quite disparate from that of a pop act. What are some of the challenges that you overcame by singing folk music?
I think that I have influenced several generations of performers in Mexico. I’m proud of that because it isn’t easy in these scenes. But then it is easy because it’s what you love to do, and it’s your passion. Even in your down times, you are always accompanied by your music.
I always look to my Latin American hermanos. The guitarist that plays with me is from Venezuela, and he’s a real rocker. At one point, he was involved in an important rock movement in Venezuela. I was never a part of something like that. I think it’s because my mother taught me to always be proud of your roots. She’s such a traditional lady; fierce yet humble, accepting yet righteous. Whenever I would do a rock tune, she was like, “eso no es mexicano” [“that’s not Mexican”]. We didn’t have a TV in my pueblo, so I fell in love with rancheras, which is the origin of my influences. I do remember feeling like I wanted to ascribe to rock. I really related to it and jazz. There is a part of me that is very proud and will not give in; I feel like I would be making a deal with the devil if I did that.
Your song “Son del Chile Frito” talks about the variety of chiles. Which one is your favorite?
Did you know that there are 68 kinds of chiles and 68 languages in Mexico? It’s very strange that it’s the same amount. Within those 68 chiles, there are many varieties too. There are different types of cuaresmeños and jalapeños, and different ways to prepare chipotle. There are chiles that are flavored by drying or smoking, and that is also a whole other tradition, which is so beautiful.
I know the audience is like, what the!? when I perform [“Son del Chile Frito”]. It’s fun to do stuff that makes the people react that way. “Cumbia del Mole” is like that too, and people reacted similarly. It’s a tribute to those amazing ladies who sell tortillas and sit by the sidewalk. You know what I love about going back to Oaxaca? That those ladies know who I am. We sit y nos comadriamos [and we gossip], and that is so beautiful. They’ll say, “this lady made people respect us.” I can now die with just that.
Lila Downs will make appearances throughout the United States, starting July 7th at the California World Fest in Grass Valley. Al Chile is out now.
Lila Downs U.S. Tour Dates
July 14th – Grass Valley, CA @ California World Fest
August 11th – New York, NY @ Central Park SummerStage
August 13th – Alexandria, VA @ Birchmere
October 9th – Davis, CA @ Jackson Hall
October 12th – Oakland, CA @ Paramount Theatre
October 13th – San Diego, CA @ Balboa Theatre
October 16th – Tucson, AZ @ Centennial Hall
October 19th – Hollywood, CA @ Ford Amphitheatre
October 22nd – Mesa, AZ @ Ikeda Theatre
October 24th – Costa Mesa, CA @ Segerstrom Concert Hall
October 26th – Santa Barbara, CA @ Santa Barbara Bowl
March 4th, 2020 – Austin, TX @ Paramount Theatre
March 6th, 2020 – Houston, TX @ Jones Hall
March 7th, 2020 – Durham, NC @ Carolina Theatre
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