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Lila Downs: Sins and Miracles

In partnership with The Luckman Fine Arts Complex The Luckman Fine Arts Complex is the home of professional visual and performing arts on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles.

You lived in California as a teenager, how did that shape your identity?

When I was 14, I think I was turning 15, my father moved here. My uncle lived here in LA and I went to high school here in Roland Heights. I got a feel for California and I loved it. I loved learning and also being Latina in a certain way because I grew up in Minnesota in an area that was very plural but not very Latino. You know, it was really because of coming into conflict with "Who am I in the middle of the U.S.?" And who are these other people who are kind of like I am. And that's a big thing. This album, "Pecados y Milagros", was inspired by the notion of faith. And really it was inspired by a votive artist called Alfredo Vilchis who still paints these amazing little paintings and just had an exhibit at the Louvre in Paris.

How did these paintings influence your songwriting on the album?

I'm always looking for visual things that can inspire me. Retablos are these beautiful little paintings, votive paintings, that are by a particular individual that is giving thanks to their patron saint, or God, or to la virgin, for the miracle given to them. So you have all these amazing stories of people surviving car crashes, men surviving jealous husbands who arrived at the house and discovered that another man was sleeping with their wives. All these amazing miracles and sins that are fascinating. I have been able to get up on stage and ask all these people their miracles and sins and I have been very surprised by what I hear.

Many of these songs seem to be a commentary on Mexico today, was that your intention?

I wrote several songs about some of the very difficult things that are happening in Mexico, but also some of the very spirtual, grounding forces that are a part of our culture. My idea was that it would be open to interpretation. That is what's so beautiful about human nature, is the capacity for reinvention. It's also our downfall sometimes because we reinvent the notion of sin so much I think, that we have no idea of what we're doing wrong anymore.

It fascinates me, we did a concept called border, about the borderline between Mexico and the US, we did an album called "One Blood" when the war against Iraq began. And I guess that I find it a challenge. I know that as a musician, sometimes people ask me, "Do you want to cross over? Do you want to be accessible to people?" I guess I do, I want our music to be heard, but I also have very particular feelings about things and I like to show that through the music. It has to be very personal and for me, in order to write any lyrics, it has to come from my personal experience.

Lila Downs | Photo: Ricardo Trabulsi.
Lila Downs | Photo: Ricardo Trabulsi.

Can you describe some of the songs on the album and the influences you drew on while writing them?

There are many emotions that you go through and I think I wanted to find a way to compose something about my impressions. I wrote a song called the "Queen of the Underworld," La Reyna del Inframundo. It kind of coincides with the very beautiful Mexican folkloric tradition of calaveras, we call them. They're poems we compose on the the Day of the Dead. People do them in rhyme. So all the characters are dead, and they're making political commentaries and such.

"Zapata se Queda" is a song where I express my wishes, my hopes, my dream that Zapata accompany us on this journey, on this difficult journey. I guess because I think of violence and I can't understand violence. I try to put myself in this place, and I can't understand why someone would want that. It's about how Mexicans, we now want a democratic society, a plural society, we want to be respectful, we want to legalize drugs, we want all these different things, you know about a progressive democracy. But at the same time, we kind of love having our gun on our back and taking it out once in awhile. And it's part of our character, part of our personality. We have these two sides and we don't want to take any of that away, so what are we going to do next?

You collaborate with several artists on the album, can you describe how that process worked?

Me and my husband, we both collaborate, we write songs together. We do a lot of the arrangements, as well. And he and I were kind of tired of spending a lot of time on the collaborations. Collaborations really take a lot of energy, and finding out if people can do it, or if they're on the road or not. So we kind of decided to see just how it plays out. And Celso Piña, who is a great musician and an amazing person from Monterey, from Northern Mexico where they're having a lot of trouble, we wanted to do something with him for awhile. And he accepted and he had the time. And Totó la Momposina, the amazing Colombian singer and performer, who I had admired for many years, we met ten years ago, and I'd wanted to do something with her for a long time.

So I think it isn't coincidence, you know. I think it happens for a reason. We invited Illya [Kuryaki] and the Valderramas, these crazy cats from Argentina who do hip-hop and are very irreverent. I had this dream that they could somehow be in this song. And I mentioned it to Sony - we signed with Sony recently - and they made it possible. They said they would love to do it, so that's one of the benefits of being with Sony. We were a little afraid of signing with Sony at one point. Right now as an independent artist, you wonder. But I think in Mexico they have been absolutely supportive and wonderful with us, so we're very greatful for that.

There are several traditional, canonical songs on the album. How did you chose these particular songs?

When I decide on the traditional songs that become a part of our album, I usually have to live with them for quite a long time and perform them as well, and see what the human reaction is, and also what my reaction is. I choose a lot of songs and I'll tour with them for awhile, but in the end they don't make the album. A lot of times it's about the theme of the album and does it work on an emotion level, in terms of what the song is saying. And that's why I chose the songs that I did.

"La Cruz de Olvido" is a song that I always used to hear in the back of my mind, but I was never really attracted to it. But I started listening to it with Chavela Vargas, and it's a profoundly tremendous piece that's about saying goodbye to someone or maybe to a nation that you love. And that's what these songs really represent. It's kind of like singing a love song to Mexico saying, "I love you so much." I wanna say goodbye to the bad one and start new.

You're going to perform "Fallaste Corazon" for us, can you describe what's going on that song?

"Fallaste Corazon" is one of the most amazing lyrics I think because the song starts out saying, "And you who thought you were the king of the world..." So right away you know, in rancheras you're singing to the loved one that cause you the heartbreak - in the middle of the song you realize the protagonist is probably singing to his or her own heart. That you're saying "Maldito corazon..." You damned, damned heart, I am so glad that you are suffering now, cause now you really know what love means. It's kind of like a lesson in being humble.

It's so amazing when a musical piece can do that to you. It's like suddenly you're just on another plain. When you look at the history of the great singers, you think of the ones that speak to you with honesty and as a singer, I hope that I can always do that - for the sake of my own survival - I think it's really important to be truthful, I think the audience can tell right away in a few moments what is real and what isn't. And it's a challenge to keep it that way. There's always these tests in life that keep coming your way.

How do you see yourself fitting in to a legacy of great singers?

There are so many influences in our music, I think the same way there are in all kinds of music. We are an expression of our time and each of us make our choices based on what we believe is beautiful. In my case, I guess jazz has such an important place in my youth and as a philosophy: It's about taking a spoon and making a rhythym on a chair and respecting that. And respecting all kinds of genres and variations of what can be musical. And vocally that's very important to me as well. It's about learning from these traditions. And you never stop learning, you're humbled by that and I think that gives you more power and more freedom.

Lila Downs | Photo: Fernando Aceves.
Lila Downs | Photo: Fernando Aceves.

Lila Downs will be performing at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on Saturday, September 22nd at 8 pm.

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