Lila Downs Woos Fans With 'Shake Away'

Latina singer and composer Lila Downs Downs talks is touring with a new album, Shake Away. The ranchera and jazz singer talks about her singing career, balancing marriage with show business and what she hopes fans will gain from her latest project.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, we remember Motown hit-maker Norman Whitfield. He passed away earlier this week. But first, it's Latino Heritage Month, so we thought we'd begin our celebration with a visit with one of world music's hottest sensations, Lila Downs. She's a singer with roots in both Mexico and the U.S. Her new album blends experiences and cultures from both sides of the border. It's called "Shake Away." Here's a sample of the title track.

(Soundbite of song "Shake Away")

Ms. LILA DOWNS: (Singing) Your mama told me now, you're a child on your way. Don't you bother looking back at the steps you took today. If you're swallowed by the road like a man without a name. Because the poison in my skin has the color of your vein. Shake away, shake away all the many sorrows. Slide away, slide away, like a rattle snake...

MARTIN: Lila Downs was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio on her way to a performance and she's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for coming.

Ms. LILA DOWNS (Jazz Singer): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Tell me about the title. What are you shaking away?

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah. Shaking away a lot of anger, a lot of hate, a lot of fear that's been going on in this country for the past six to seven years. You know, since in our band we speak Spanish a lot of the time, people turn around and they look kind of a little afraid.

MARTIN: Even now?

Ms. DOWNS: Even now. You know, once in a while you run into people and you just go, OK, no, it's going to be OK, you know? I'm not coming here to put - plant a bomb in your bag or anything like that. So I think it's about taking that out. I'm dedicating this album to the healers, to the sacred women who really do our traditional ways of healing through herbs and through their knowledge. And I went to one of them in Wahaca, in my home state in Mexico, and I'm definitely in a different place right now.

MARTIN: That's great. That's great.

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mentioned that your music is about a blend, not losing of heritage but a combining of heritage. You are that blend. Will you tell us a little about your background for those who don't know?

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah. Well, I was fortunate to grow up in the mountains of Wahaca, Mexico, the southern - off the Pacific Coast. And also grew up in the Midwest in Minneapolis, Minnesota and for a year or two in Los Angeles, in that area. So I connected in part with some of my Mexican background in the U.S., but it was an issue for me to come to terms with my native community and identity.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. DOWNS: I guess because partly in Mexican culture and the national culture, it's rejected. It's discriminated against and I would venture to say in the U.S., as well. People who are very ignorant about our roots, who have estranged themselves from those roots, are kind of judgmental about native culture, native tradition. And you know, going back to my roots, my grandmother, she just rejoiced in the sacred ways of everyday life. And I guess, for me, it's been a beautiful story through the music to be able to go back to that.

MARTIN: There are some people who kind of shy away from politics and music because they feel it just doesn't sell or that perhaps don't want to hear it. You keep returning to it. Is that something you feel very called to do as an artist or just more as a citizen?

Ms. DOWNS: I do. Well, I think as an artist, I think, like I said, it's about personal transformation, and for me it was actually - I think that my illness had to do with political problems, you know, rendering a lot of hate from within isn't going to take you to a good place. And what it was doing to me and our band was creating a lot of tension and I didn't realize where it was coming from.

MARTIN: What do you mean, your illness?

Ms. DOWNS: Well, I guess I started with emotional kind of a problem because I wanted to have a baby and I couldn't and so, you know, I thought, OK, well, you can't do it so you just deal with it. But suddenly I started to lose my voice as a singer and then later on, you know, just sort of being a little negative with myself, punishing myself for it. You know, in Latino culture and of course, I think, in general, women, if you're not a child-bearer, I mean, what are you here for? So kind of punishing myself doing that, and I don't think it was healthy but I think that these issues are about finding truth, and sometimes truth can be painful and can steer you away from harmony within. And I think that's what these songs are about. They're about working out some issues like justice, for example. In Latin America we are struggling with this issue and then the issue about the immigrants, the illegal immigrants.

MARTIN: I want to play a piece from the new album that speaks to that, "Minimum Wage."

(Soundbite of song "Minimum Wage")

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) Traveled seven hundred miles, cross the border to the States, with a plastic bottle running. Cross the desert in a shake, come to English-only country hiding from the minutemen. Come to make this place my home. Run a long, long way from there, story of a lifetime for the minimum wage.

MARTIN: What struck me about this is that the tune is very buoyant. You know, it's actually, to use a classic phrase, it's got a beat and you can dance to it. Was that a conscious choice to play the top message against this sort of buoyant tune?

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah. Well, I think that it's always, you know, a healthy thing to deal with issues like that in the comic relief kind of way, you know. And certainly the comedians, you know, really represent that way.

(Soundbite of song "Minimum Wage")

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) Story of a lifetime for the minimum wage.

Ms. DOWNS: In Mexico and in Latin America, there are so many songs that we have been able to sing in Spanish about this issue and that are funny, as well. But I thought it would, you know, be important to write it in English this time and kind of, you know, expressing this kind of human side of people: Ethiopian, Columbian, Pakistani, Cantonese. I guess I'm making a case for Mexican people but also for all kinds of people that are in this country working for minimum wage.

(Soundbite of song "Minimum Wage")

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) Ethiopian, Colombian, Pakistani, Cantonese. Every man that I run into all the kitchens on the strip...

Ms. DOWNS: I do think that, you know, if you argue in terms of our human capacity of looking at each other as equals and the opportunities in this country and our history, can we actually raise our hand and say that we don't come from immigrants? I don't think so. So I think it's about remembering and looking back and saying, you know, these people are just like my great auntie and my great uncle and basically that's what they are. I think...

MARTIN: But you know, you're a person who travels across borders with ease. You also have a skill that is easily transportable and which is understood as you sing because you sing in more than one language. It's understood. You know, music is something that's understood across borders. But what about that point of view that says, gee, these folks coming across the border are jeopardizing what little economic well being I have? You know, they're taking the jobs that I should have. Do you hear that pain also, and I'm just wondering, does that ever sort of make its way into your music, too?

Ms. DOWNS: Well, yeah. I mean, I don't think that I like to focus on blaming anyone in my life. That's just a choice that I have made in my life. Of course, we have that nature, don't we? Humanity, we tend - when we're not doing so good in our own little corner of the world then we tend to blame those around us, and I think that's where that is coming from.

But I think if you look at the hard work and the labor in this country, and you know a lot of people who are, you know, sweeping the radio station or cleaning the dishes in the restaurant that you go down the block, and automatically, those are people, you know, just treating them as if they were criminals and terrorists, I think, is the thing that angers me very much. So I try to find a kind of a positive way of conducing these images through the music. And I certainly hope that it opens people's hearts.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News and I'm visiting with Lila Downs, and we're talking about her new album, "Shake away."

The album is not all political, if you want to call it that. You had a lot of fun with a classic song, Fleetwood Mac's "Black Magic Woman." Let's play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song "Black Magic Woman")

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) They call me black magic woman. They call me black magic woman. Call me black magic woman, got me so blend looking fuse. If I'm a black magic woman trained to make the devil out of me. Don't turn your back on me...

MARTIN: Of course, there's a Carlos Santana version of this song, too. How did you hear this? I'm always fascinated by that, how an artist hears another song and just makes it his or her own. How did you get the idea for that?

Ms. DOWNS: I think it comes from the notion of the healing, and you know, I guess when I decided that the album would be kind of dedicated to that notion, some strange things happened to me so I thought, OK, with the black magic, now, we don't want to go in the dark direction here.

MARTIN: Black - dark is a metaphor for all things negative, evil.

Ms. DOWNS: Evil. Yeah, as an evil. And I thought to myself, you know, I really believe in these ancient ways, and so I'm very respectful and I kind of made an offering. And I said, you know, this is a peaceful message. I don't wish to go in the darkness. But just a little dash of it is OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song "Black Magic Woman")

Ms. DOWNS: When I first heard the song, I didn't realize that, you know, I listened to the words suddenly. And I thought, wait a minute, what's going on here? Demonizing a woman. And so I thought I would like to do a new take on it, kind of, which got complicated because I - then later on I wanted to invite (unintelligible) on this piece, especially because he is such a soulful performer, and I felt like it wasn't complete somehow without the man's voice. So it's complicated. I can't quite figure it out yet but I know that performing the song a lot of times, it's like a healing, you know. It's like you got to do the groove over and over again, and then suddenly you are in a different place.

(Soundbite of song "Black Magic Woman")

MARTIN: Speaking of collaborations, you're traveling with Paul Cohen, who is your husband. He is also a jazz musician. Has that collaboration affected your sound?

Ms. DOWNS: I think so. I think we have been through a bump together in life. And either we were going to split up or we were going to come strong together. And I guess it's love.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You got a lot of attention a couple of years back, when "Burn it Blue" - because of "Burn it Blue." It's a song you performed for the soundtrack for "Freida." It was nominated for an Academy Award. I'd like to play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song "Burn it Blue")

Mr. CAETANO VELOSO: (Singing) Burn this night. Black and blue. So cold in the morning. So cold without you. And the night sky blooms with fire.

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) Y la noche que se encendia.

Mr. VELOSO: (Singing) And the burning bed floats higher.

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) Y la cama que se eleva.

Mr. VELOSO: (Singing) And she's free to fly.

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) A volar.

MARTIN: You also had a role in the film, "Freida."

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was it fun?

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah, it was. It was very brief, but it was very interesting. I got some - got a little burn on my back after an explosion.

MARTIN: What? You have all kinds of adventures.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DOWNS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Does something like that help, kind of, exposure your music to a larger audience?

Ms. DOWNS: Oh, of course.

MARTIN: I mean, you've gotten a lot of attention on the Latin pop and world music charts, but does that kind of...

Ms. DOWNS: Oh, of course it does, yeah. It's a real blessing. As a musician I think you looked for those opportunities to get your music out there, but in this case it happens that the artist and our music kind of aligned with the same issues, kind of the same notion of the textiles and the artwork. So it's - we're very fortunate that way.

MARTIN: What should be play as we regretfully let you go?

Ms. DOWNS: We did this amazing collaboration with, like, the Bob Dylan of Latin America. Her name is Mercedes Sosa(ph). And I wrote a song about nostalgia and being far away from the land that bore you.

MARTIN: And the name of that?

Ms. DOWNS: It's called, "Tierra de Luz," Land of Light.

MARTIN: "Tierra de Luz," it's from Lila Downs' new album, "Shake Away." She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington. And thank you so much for stopping by.

Ms. DOWNS: Thank you for having us. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song "Tierra del Luz")

Ms. DOWNS: (Singing) (Spanish Spoken)

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