Pan Caliente: Lila Downs feels trapped in a time that has suddenly changed

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Oaxacan singer-songwriter Lila Downs has been an icon of Mexican folk music for decades. Currently in the early planning stages of a new album, the GRAMMY and Latin Grammy winner jumped on a call with José Galván to chat about her latest single, the effects of COVID in Oaxaca, and her thoughts about her work being classified as “World Music.”

José: Your new single, “El Silencio,” is a darkly-somber ballad with hints of reggae vibes. Is the overall theme focused around loneliness and reflection inspired by having to be locked down at home?

Lila: Well, I think it’s a piece that’s really about feeling trapped in a time that has suddenly changed. And it reminds me of my childhood. Because I remember a time when everything wasn’t so frantic. Things were calmer and seems like there was less happening. That’s my own perception of course as an individual, but I think as a culture and also humanity, that we have revolutionized everything. And that’s what these thoughts are about. It’s about feeling kind of trapped in something that we created for ourselves that I’m not sure we’re extremely happy about.

José: You are well known for your activism and you also spent a lot of time in Minnesota back in the day, attending the University of Minnesota.  Do you have any thoughts about the murder of George Floyd and the activism that this event that occurred in Minnesota sparked?

Lila: I think it’s terrible that something like this can happen. It’s outrageous.  But I do think it’s a consequence of a president who has instigated hate and who campaigned on this. It’s a very sad thing and these are the results of a leader having a hateful message. And of course to see this occur in Minneapolis, is sad. But there is a lot of racism under the radar, all over the U.S.

José: I would align and classify your music style with ‘World Music.’ Would you agree with that classification?

Lila: Well, you know, I’ve heard that the World Music category is for musicians who make music that is not Top 40 and who happen to not be white... so that’s why you put them in that category. But, I like to think of it as music from this earth. Because I think it is. It’s roots-y and it has to do with the history of instruments and the history of musical traditions. Folk as well. And so… it’s ok to still be considered as World Music… I guess…

José: Ok. So I won’t call it World… but going back to the single, “El Silencio” is very distinct in that it’s got a little bit of reggae mixed in. When you think of Lila Downs, it’s not traditional Lila Downs music.

Lila: You know, I have different phases in my life where I look more to jazz, or more to rock or reggaeton or ranchera. Actually, when I wrote this song, I thought it would be a ranchera. But it turned out like it did. And it’s the first song where I’ve done spoken word. It really felt like I had to speak part of it because sometimes things need to be spoken instead of sung. So that’s kind of something different for me.

José: The speaking portion is very impactful; it definitely grabbed me and made me focus my attention to the lyrics. Are you missing touring at all?

Lila: Oh, yeah. I really miss it. I love to sing and dance and perform. Connect with people and hear their stories. Travel with the musicians, it’s so much fun, we’re all family. You know musicians, we really enjoy life. We’re very lucky.