Interview: Q&A with Lila Downs – Indigenous Roots as Musical Healing (April 2024)

As every Latin music aficionado knows, spring in London is synonymous with La Linea Festival, an annual celebration that has become a staple for Latin American and Iberian culture enthusiasts. For over two decades, Como No! has been at the forefront of bringing a diverse array of Latin music, performances, and screenings to the city, enriching the vibrant tapestry of London’s arts scene.

This edition of the festival holds a special significance as it marks the final chapter led by its founding visionary, Andy Wood. The programme promises to start on a high note with a standout event at the Barbican on Friday the 12th of April, featuring the iconic figure in indigenous Mexican music, singer/songwriter Lila Downs. The night is set to showcase the depth of Mexican musical heritage, also featuring an opening performance by Mariachi Las Adelitas, a genre and stereotype-defying all-female mariachi band from London.

Since we started writing about music here at Rhythm Passport, we have always been fascinated by the Grammy-winning musician from Tlaxiaco. So, we sought to delve further into her musical narrative and vision. We recently had the privilege of connecting with her for an in-depth Q&A. Our conversation spanned her latest work, La Sánchez, her ties to the pulsating music scene of Mexico, and her highly anticipated, completely sold-out London performance.

Your latest album, La Sánchez, is nearly a year old. How do you feel about its release and the response it has received from listeners?

Well, it’s seven months old, and yeah, I guess that a month old is too old nowadays. But yeah, I’m very happy about this album. I’m proud of it, and the music has been received in a very positive way.

Can you share the inspiration behind the album and how it reflects your personal journey?

Originally, I started composing some of these songs during the pandemic, so it has to do with kind of personal healing and a lot of fear, because there was so much fear during that time. And so somehow, being victorious after this fear, I think, is one of the attitudes in the album.

La Sánchez delves into themes of love, loss, and healing. Could you discuss the process of exploring these themes through your music?

It was a challenge for me to deal with the recording of this album, especially because my husband had died in December of 2022, and I had to record the voice in January. It pushed me to be very strong with my technique, and that made me keep going.

How has incorporating traditional Mexican and indigenous sounds continued to shape your music, particularly in this latest project?

Some of the people from my indigenous group, the Mixtec, interpret northern music a lot. In a way, it’s about representing that part of my indigenous heritage. And La Sánchez is also my mother’s last name, exploring my identity and who I am.

We’ve recently read that the song “Toda la Noche” is described as therapeutic for you. How do you approach songwriting as a form of healing?

“Toda La Noche” is still very difficult for me to perform. It began with my daughter thinking about love and family, and it became a narrative about our family. It was kind of the last song my husband worked on with me.

You’ve performed across the world and at prestigious venues. How do you prepare for a major performance, such as the upcoming one at the Barbican as part of the La Linea Festival in London?

Being at the Barbican is very exciting. I prepare by trying to be in good shape vocally and spiritually, and it’s going to be a wonderful emotional and fun night.

Your music often carries strong messages about social justice and cultural identity. Are there specific messages you hope to convey while touring with La Sánchez?

The messages are similar to before, about immigration, respect towards women, and the beauty of their art. I’ll also be talking about protecting indigenous corn and the importance of traditional food.

In recent years, there has been a revival of the so-called regional Mexican music. How do you perceive your contributions to this scene, or in what ways do you believe your work has influenced this resurgence?

I’m proud to say that I have contributed to this as well, especially coming from the South of Mexico and through the identity and the textiles that I wear in our concerts.

What are you currently enjoying in terms of music? Are there any specific artists, albums, or genres that you find particularly inspiring or that you’ve been listening to repeatedly lately?

I’m currently listening to Laura Itandehui, Amanditita, and Son de Madera. They inspire me.

Your career has spanned several decades and produced numerous albums. How do you keep your music fresh and relevant for both new and long-time fans?

I’m constantly writing songs, but I’m harder on myself now. There are a lot of songs that I still need to keep writing about important issues.

You’ve collaborated with an impressive array of artists over the years. Are there any collaborations on La Sánchez that you are particularly excited about?

I would love to do a collaboration with a banda called La Arrolladora. It’s exciting to enter the mainly male-oriented Northern music scene.

Balancing a deep commitment to social activism, particularly advocating for indigenous rights and cultural preservation, with your musical pursuits, how do you harmonize these dual passions within your career as an artist?

I try to be respectful of my origins and always trying to translate for people and connect different worlds through my music.

Looking back on your career, which moments or achievements do you consider particularly meaningful?

Performing when the Dalai Lama was present at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl was very meaningful, especially the recognition of indigenous presence and languages.

What advice would you give to young artists who are inspired by their cultural heritage and aspire to make a difference with their music?

Perform as much as possible, have passion for what you’re doing, and investigate the background and meaning of things. Storytelling is crucial.

We like to end our interviews with a challenging question. If you were to introduce your music to those few who have yet to hear it, what would you tell them?

I would invite them to listen to the languages and diversity in Mexico, and enjoy the resistance we express through the beauty of our music.