Lila Downs Shows Her Roots On Raíz

GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY winner discusses her new collaborative project with Soledad and Niña Pastori, touring and what it's like to be immortalized by a grasshopper
  • Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
    Lila Downs
August 07, 2014 -- 12:01 pm PDT
By Fernando González / GRAMMY.com

GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY winner Lila Downs is on quite a roll.

On Aug. 12 the Mexican-American folk singer/songwriter will release Raíz (Root), an ambitious collaborative project with Latin GRAMMY-nominated Argentine folk/pop singer Soledad and Latin GRAMMY-winning Spanish flamenco singer Niña Pastori. On the eve of the U.S. release, Downs will offer a taste of Raíz, singing a few songs from the album (without her partners) at the House of Blues in Chicago. The concert will be streamed via Yahoo Live starting at 6:30 p.m. PT/9:30 p.m. ET. Downs is the first Latin artist featured in the series, which is a partnership between Yahoo and Live Nation.

The concert will mark the beginning of a three-week tour for Downs, including stops in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. But Downs has no plans to pause and celebrate. She's already working on her next album, which is tentatively titled Balas Y Chocolate (Bullets And Chocolate) and scheduled for release in 2015. And she recently had a grasshopper species named after her. Discovered on the side of a mountain road near Oaxaca, Mexico, the colorful grasshopper was named after Downs in recognition of her efforts to preserve indigenous culture and as a nod to her colorful stage attire.

In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Downs detailed Raíz, her upcoming Yahoo concert, following the Grateful Dead, and what it's like to be immortalized in the form of a grasshopper.

How did the Raíz project come about?
The [Chairman and CEO] of Sony Latin [Afo Verde] had this idea a few years back. I think he and Soledad talked about getting music from Argentina [heard], so they toyed with the idea and thought of various singers. And when they mentioned it to me, I found it interesting. I love to learn about different traditions. And María [Rosa García García, aka Niña Pastori] also seemed ready to try something different. I think it also had to do with the point we are at in our lives. We all have small children, and we all have worked a lot on our own, so we were ready to try something else.

Did you get to actually work with each other in the studio or was this one of those virtual collaborations?
Oh yes, we did work together. We first chose each other's songs, then we learned them, we did our own arrangements in our own countries and then we all got together in Mexico City to record the vocals — and that's when we really had to live with each other every day in the studio [laughs] for about 20, 25 days. Now, that was a challenge because the three of us come from very strong musical traditions, and we are ladies [laughs]. But it's gone so well. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished.

Are the three of you going to be able to actually perform together and tour?
Oh yes. We are going out in October here in Mexico. We have a few concerts lined up. And we're possibly going next year to Argentina and then hopefully to Spain and the U.S. Combining it with our own [individual] careers takes some planning, but it's working out.

But for your upcoming Yahoo Live-streamed concert in Chicago and your August tour dates, it's just you. What will the repertoire be?
I will be singing a few songs from Raíz but mainly I'll be singing songs from my previous album [GRAMMY and Latin GRAMMY winner] Pecados Y Milagros and also from [my upcoming] album [Balas Y Chocolate], which will be dedicated to the [Mexican holiday] Day of the Dead and chocolate. … I became very interested in … the [Day of the Dead] offerings, because we make these beautiful ofrendas of flowers, tequila, mezcal and mole. On the Day of the Dead there are all these aromas all over the city, wherever you go, it's such a beautiful time and it really is about celebrating life. You remember your ancestors, and you appreciate life much more. 

You graduated with degrees in music and cultural anthropology at the University of Minnesota. Did music lead you to anthropology or is music a tool, a vehicle to explore issues that interest you as an anthropologist?
I wasn't attracted at all by the music scene of my generation. It wasn't meaningful to me. It just seemed music was so light, Top 40 and that kind of thing. But once I studied anthropology I started to learn more about my personal story, the history of the Americas, which is fascinating, and I saw an opportunity to tell the stories I found interesting through music, which is a much more spiritual way of communicating.

Before going to school you took a couple of years off and joined the circus, so to speak, and followed the Grateful Dead. How was that experience?
[Laughs] Oh no, Paul [Cohen, my saxophonist, producer and husband] is the one who was the circus clown. He actually did join the circus. And I did follow the Grateful Dead. … [Laughs] I did it for a couple of years and really lived on the street for about six months. I really wanted to experience freedom in every sense and really discover what that was about — and I did. I think I'm going to have to perform one of their songs one of these days.

GRAMMY, Latin GRAMMYs, new albums, touring and now, to top it all, you have been immortalized by having a grasshopper named after you. It's not every day that a folk artist is discussed on Entomology Today. How did you find out? What was your reaction?
They wrote me an email saying there was a biologist who really loved my work and admired what I was doing with culture in my state. As well as being an artist and cinematographer, my father was a biologist. I grew up surrounded by students who were working with all kinds of insects and animals. So this was a great honor. I never imagined anything like that would happen in my lifetime.

(Fernando González, an independent writer and editor, is a regular contributor to the International Review of Music, JazzTimes and Miami Herald. He is based in Miami.)

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