Long an advocate for rural communities in her native Mexico, singer Lila Downs is now adding inflections of cumbia and electro to her signature brand of folk — and taking on the hot-button issue of immigration.
The Grammy-winning Mexican-American’s just-released ninth studio album offers a defiant celebration of diversity while challenging US President Donald Trump’s hardline stance on immigration, something Downs calls a “responsibility.”
After performing with the likes of folk legend Joan Baez on the US-Mexico border to raise funds for migrant refugees, Downs decided to cover the iconic song “Clandestino,” an immigrant anthem originally by indie darling Manu Chao.
“If we don’t fight for children, what will become of us?” the 50-year-old says in her cover of the hit, referring to the White House’s immigrant detention policies that saw children separated from their parents.
“Immigration must always be looked at from a human point of view,” she told AFP while in New York to promote “Al Chile,” her album that dropped Friday.
“We must pay tribute to these people, make them songs,” she said, shaking her colorful traditional shawl as the breeze sent her long dark hair into ripples, the Empire State Building towering over the skyline.
– Half and half –
Downs — who is embarking on a tour that will take her to San Jose, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and later Spain, Peru and Colombia — now lives in Mexico’s southern city Oaxaca but grew up between Mexico and the United States.
The daughter of an American filmmaker and biologist whose mother is Mixtec, an indigenous group in southern Mexico, Downs says it’s her job to speak up on behalf of migrants as a performer of mixed descent.
“It’s a responsibility as a Mexican-American to talk about these issues,” she said. “My whole career has been like that, partly because I am half and half and I wanted to unite the two worlds.”
Trump’s discourse, she said, is precisely “the opposite of what I’ve tried to do my entire life.”
But despite its sometimes weighty content, the album that includes a collaboration with US singer Norah Jones — who sings in English and Spanish — also celebrates life and is perfect for a party, Downs said.
“It has a lot of heart on some subjects, but it’s mostly for enjoyment” — something for “the waist down,” she laughed.
– Spicy but tasty –
In “Al Chile” — a reference to the spicy fruit as well as a Mexican expression that loosely translates to “keeping it real” — Downs worked with the acclaimed musician and DJ Camilo Lara, founder of the Mexican Institute of Sound, to create a work that’s simultaneously modern and classic, urban and rural.
The sounds in part owes its uniqueness to “sonideros,” a trend originally from Mexico City that sees a DJ and entertainer manipulate audio, lights and messages to the public during street dances.
The album also explores the relationship between Mexicans and the chili, a food that brings them joy as well as suffering.
She laughs that she herself is a bit “like a green chili, spicy but tasty,” lyrics she sings in a rendition of “La llorona.”
Downs’ sings her version of the Mexican folk song on this album — which some 180 artists contributed to — in the language Zapotec, accompanied by an orchestra of indigenous children from the town Juchitan de Zaragoza, which was devastated by a 2017 earthquake.
In the pump-up song “El son de chile frito” — “The sound of the fried chili” — Downs’ voice rises above the wind instruments and percussion to run through all the types of chilis she wants to eat, testing how much suffering one can endure before pleasure dances on the tongue.
“Yes, it stings the chiltepin, but without chili I don’t know how to live,” she sings, referring to a potent red pepper similar to cayenne.
“The chili has to do with our personality, and the mystery of who we are as Mexicans,” Downs said.
She also sings of local specialties including chocolate, mole sauce, tequila and mezcal.
Food is “something very important to me” that is linked to “the senses” and “intuition,” says Downs, after singing a verse evoking her desire to eat “chili tacos with beer, salt and onions grilled over a fire” — just like grandmothers do.
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