There is a seductive rhythm to Mexican singer-songwriter, Lila Downs’ new single, “Clandestino.” At first, it seems like the familiar bounce adapted generations ago from German immigrants in Mexico. Following the sound of that rhythm allows casual listeners to find an ascent into the realm of some fiery kind of reggae/ska music with a distinct Latin layover. With a closer listen, generations of native music is echoed in the soul of the song, with African percussion, rock guitars, and synthesizers. The mesmerizing melody is all wrapped in something modern and vital.
It is no wonder; the song is a cover from the passionate and politically influential French-Spanish singer-songwriter, Manu Chao. The song was written about the writer’s native France where immigrants have fled in droves over the years. The term, “Clandestino,” refers to illegal immigration. It’s a song of empathy from the perspective of the migrants and their plight. Chao wanted to give a human face to the “illegals” who were portrayed in cold terms of being criminal objects by the political culture. Chao and his parents were political refugees from Spain. Even though the song was originally recorded in 1998, there is something familiar in the lyrics that strikes true to today’s politically charged world:
To a northern city
I went for work
I left my life behind
Between Ceuta and Gibraltar
I’m a just a rake on the sea
A ghost in the city
My life is prohibited
Says the authority
The choice of “Clandestino” as a single release for her upcoming album, Al Chile, is intentional. With this song Downs, a Mexican with native-American roots, has her hand on the pulse of our nation and the current border crisis of disenfranchised refugees from Latin American.
But what drives the compassion behind this recording is specific. According to Downs in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I mention the immigrant children in the detention centers and sing from the feminine perspective, about the thousands of women and children who migrate today.”
A veteran of the border-culture wars since childhood, Downs believes music is the most effective way to bring attention and to create peace and understanding in the world today. For this song she has directed her attention to the children and their families. At one point in the song she says, “If we don’t fight for the children, what will become of us?”
Over the last two decades Lila Downs is known for her unique blend of traditional Mexican music that crosses cultural lines. Her music simply does not recognize musical boundaries. She brings African, Jamaican, American, South American and French influences to the sound she creates. She also brings the indigenous languages to her songs including Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, Nahuatl and Purépecha.
From the age of age 14 to 16 she lived in Los Angeles where she studied voice and became fluent in English. When her father died, she moved with her mother to her hometown, Tlaxiaco. It was in nearby Oaxaca City where she began performing traditional music.
It was while working at a store in the Mixtec mountains that an event happened, which would give definition and purpose to her career in music. She was asked to translate a death certificate for a customer’s son. When she read the young man had drowned trying to cross the border into the United States, she was moved beyond words. It would shape and influence her work to the present day. The effect of this encounter can be felt on her first recordings.
Her debut album, La Sandunga, released in 1999, began a series of 12 albums that would reveal an artist who crosses all musical borders without fear. Her recordings are experimental, complex, and integrated with a blend of styles that is often intoxicating. One good example is a medley of Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land is Your Land,” an original called “Land.” The two songs are woven together by an original rap that asks provocative questions:
Say you’re American but what does that mean?
You are the particle, the dust in the scheme
Now that you have all the things that you want
Did you ever look around and see who you forgot?
The medley succeeds in bringing jazz and rhythm & blues to the words of Woody Guthrie. The arrangement is seamless and brings new relevance to these two classic American folk songs.
But, one early period of her life saw her in a uniquely American cultural setting. This is when she became a Deadhead. As explained on a 2015 NPR broadcast, “I was embarrassed to have Indian blood. I was embarrassed that my mother spoke her language in public.”
The result of this sense of shame was a journey of self-realization. This included dropping out of college, dying her hair blond, and becoming one of the legions of disciples of the iconic American band, the Grateful Dead, following them to their tribal-like concerts around the United States.
Eventually she returned to Oaxaca, met her future husband and partner in music, Paul Cohen, and began to get back on track with her music. Downs studied anthropology at the University of Minnesota and voice in New York. Later, she attended the Institute of Science and Arts of Oaxaca Mexico to complete her studies. But, it would all lead to her music career trajectory.
The years that followed have seen Lila Downs’ public persona blossom as she has embraced her culture, her heritage, and her place on the international musical stage. Today, she is forging a unique legacy that mixes the soul of Aretha Franklin, the pathos of Edith Piaf, and the smooth style of Astrud Gilberto. But, mostly, she is her own artist who has crossed genre and cultural barriers to create a sound all her own. It is as though she has created her own genre. Few singer-songwriters accomplish this on the international stage.
With a stage show that is energetic, colorful, and full of celebration, she continues to build the style and the soul of her music as she experiments with new music.
Today, she returns to that moment many years ago when she read the death certificate for the grieving father and found his young son had drowned trying to cross the border. The same mission that called her is there again.
Today, children are being separated from their parents, dreamers are under the threat of deportation, and legal refugees who legitimately seek asylum are treated like outcasts and criminals. It seems we are going backwards in our humanity and compassion.
But, as Lila Downs has discovered, speaking out through music can change things. While politics divide, music unites. No one has lived this principle more effectively than Lila Downs. Today she returns to her original calling to speak out for those without a voice, even as she continues to make some of the best music on the planet.
Lila Downs comes to the California Center for the Arts on Saturday, May 11,, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., 7:30pm.