Lila Downs Celebrates Mexico's Culinary And Cultural Sides With 'Al Chile' : Alt.Latino The iconic Mexican vocalist and composer Lila Downs uses music to celebrate the chile pepper.

Lila Downs Celebrates Mexico's Culinary And Cultural Sides With 'Al Chile'

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Hey there. Felix Contreras here. Some of you may have recently noticed a bunch of extra episodes from different NPR shows in your podcast feed. If so, it was because of a web server error on our end. And we're really sorry about this, and we're working to fix the problem. We'll have updates at OK. Let's get on with the show.


LILA DOWNS: (Singing) Son chile. Un saludo a toda la costa chica. Pinotepa nacional, Chilapa, Guerrero, Santiago Llanogrande. Yo tengo, yo tengo ganas de comer taco de chile...

CONTRERAS: Lila Downs is our Chavela Vargas, Mercedes Sosa and Lucha Villa all rolled into one. Those iconic vocalists from Latin America, at the height of their powers and popularity, became synonymous with the purity of folk traditions. They were known for the singularity of their voices, and they were beloved across the continent and beyond. And that's where Lila Downs is now, after almost 20 years of stylistically ambitious albums, countless concerts that essentially become love fests between her and the audiences and the hard work that makes all of that possible.

From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras, and this week we're going to talk to Lila Downs. She has a fantastic new album out. She's about to embark on yet another tour, and she's very excited to talk to us about the ideas and concepts behind the album. Lila Downs, welcome again to ALT.LATINO.

DOWNS: Thank you so much.

CONTRERAS: Joining me this week for the interview is ALT.LATINO contributor Marisa Arbona-Ruiz. Marisa, welcome back to ALT.LATINO.

MARISA ARBONA-RUIZ, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CONTRERAS: OK, we're listening to a track from the new album, which is called "Al Chile," and this track is called "Son Del Chile Frito."


DOWNS: (Singing) ...Caldo istmeño. Sí que pica el chiltepín, pero sin chile no sé vivir. Sí que pica el chiltepín, pero sin chile no se vivir. Yo tengo. Yo tengo de guajillo o del poblano, jalapeño pa'l taco, del serrano o del chipotle, chile frito. No sacudan tanto el chile, que se riega la semilla. Yo tengo. Yo tengo ganas de comer taco de chile con cerveza, con su sal y su cebolla asadito en el carbón. Yo tengo. Yo tengo ganas de serranito con una machucadita, con su chile costeñito tatemado de comal. Con chile o sin chile. ¡Ay! Con chile verde bien rebanado, chile chilhuacle, puro sabor y de morita y de habanero. Ese provoca mucho sudor. Con chile verde bien rebanado, chile chihuacle, puro sabor de morita y de habanero, ese provoca mucho sudor. Chile verde. Ningún chile le embona.

CONTRERAS: OK, Lila Downs, let's start with the concept behind the title "Al Chile."

DOWNS: To say al chile really means give it to me, give me the truth or, you know, give it to me like it is (laughter). And then also, the food is so permeated by the spice that it has become part of our character. I think it - I think if you study chile, you'd understand more about Mexicans.


CONTRERAS: Really? In what way?

DOWNS: Well, we have such a variety of dishes that stem from the chile. And when I think about it, actually, you know, talking to grandmas or tías and also cooks - recently, I've been in touch with a lot of cooks who have been inspired by music, not only our music but different kinds of music, and talking about the different sauces and how you can put things on the oven and just brown them by roasting them or with charcoal or all these different flavors that you can create in food and then take away the spice sometimes, if you need to, depending on who you're serving the dish to, which is, I think, part of our personality.


CONTRERAS: Culture, a cultural trait.


DOWNS: It is. It is.

ARBONA-RUIZ: And it's just like the music, too.

DOWNS: Yeah. For me, music is about a sense, and it's a sense of remembering and connecting to the past and also to the present because it's about communicating emotion. And so this album - it communicates emotion through something that is very festive. Not the whole album, of course, is festive. Some of the tracks are quite melancholic, like this song called "Dear Someone" that I sang with Norah Jones, who was a, you know, very important guest on our album. And she invited us to come here in Brooklyn and record with her. And she did a beautiful version of a Gillian Welch song called "Dear Someone" that I translated also to Spanish, and we did the version in Spanish together.

CONTRERAS: Wow, very multicultural - I love that.

DOWNS: It is. It was a beautiful experience because I think it means a lot to her. She had a Mexican American friend who died in her college years in Texas.


DOWNS: And she said she was a ranchera singer, and she played a little tune that she had - a recording of hers. And she said it was like her homage to this friend past.


CONTRERAS: Let's hear that song. This is called "Dear Someone" by Lila Downs featuring Norah Jones.


LILA DOWNS AND NORAH JONES: (Singing) I want to go all over the world and start living free. I know that there's somebody who is waiting for me. I'll build a boat, steady and true. As soon as it's done, I'm going to sail along in a dream of my dear someone. One little star, smiling tonight knows where you are. Stay, little star, steady and bright to guide me afar. Rush, little wind, over the deep for now I've begun. Hurry and take me straight into the arms of my dear someone. Hurry and take me into the arms of my dear someone. Hurry and take me into the arms of my dear someone.

CONTRERAS: One thing I noticed on the record - it's produced by Camilo Lara.

DOWNS: That's right.

CONTRERAS: So - and he's been on the show a number of times with the Mexican Institute of Sound and just being the badass that he is in Mexican music and Latin music in general. Tell us how that came together and what it was like and why you chose Camilo for this album.

DOWNS: Yeah. You know, I met Camilo, like, 20 years ago, or maybe even more, and he was one of the guys who - I remember, he gave me recordings, or a cassette tape in those days...


DOWNS: ...Of Sheila Chandra and Totó la Momposina because I didn't know about those singers. And so he's a great, you know, connector of different worlds in music. And of course, he's been producing these cumbia albums with all kinds of different artists lately. And so we started the project. I thought - I said to Paul, my husband and co-worker and co-writer, composer, you know, I would love to invite Camilo and see, you know, if we come up with something that is something, like, urban but with banda, was really the original idea. You know, I wanted to do something with the different bandas, maybe from different parts of the country and Mexico.

And so I mentioned it to him, and we started getting on it. And he started mentioning these vintage bands that still are playing around the city and all over the country, actually, and one of them is Conjunto Costa Azul de Rigo Tovar, And the other one is Sonora Tropicana. And so I was like, oh, of course, I love their sound. And then - but then when we thought of them, I thought, cumbia. It has to be cumbia. And also, Camilo, of course, is cumbia man.


DOWNS: And I've loved cumbia since I started, you know, this crazy idea of being a singer-songwriter (laughter). We continued to kind of focus on the album being more of a dance album, and we did not forget the bandas. We went to Oaxaca and recorded a banda from Oaxaca City, friends who come from different places in the state, and then also banda of Zapotec children in Juchitán de Zaragoza. They recorded "La Llorona," and their version of "La Llorona" is very unique.


CONTRERAS: Let's play that song so people can get a crystal-clear idea of what we're talking about when we talk about traditional banda music from Mexico.


DOWNS: (Singing) Salías del templo un día, Llorona, cuando al pasar yo te vi. Salías del templo un día, Llorona, cuando al pasar yo te vi. Hermoso huipil llevabas, Llorona, que la Virgen te creí. Hermoso huipil llevabas, Llorona, que la Virgen te creí. (Singing in non-English language).

CONTRERAS: Tubas, trumpets, bass drum, snare.

DOWNS: Actually, it's curious because the banda from this region does not have a tuba. They have what is a baritone saxophone. And the reason some of them say that they don't have a tuba is because it's a very windy region. So the wind affects either the tuba person...


DOWNS: ...Or the tuba itself.

CONTRERAS: El tubero.

DOWNS: El tubero, el tubero.

ARBONA-RUIZ: I can just imagine it blowing somebody away.


DOWNS: (Singing) ...El río. Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona, porque me muero de frío. Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona, porque me muero de frío. (Vocalizing).

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO, and that was the classic song "La Llorona" from Lila Downs on her new album, "Al Chile." Marisa?

ARBONA-RUIZ: Your mother's from Oaxaca. And nowadays, you spend, like, half the year there and half in the U.S.

DOWNS: Yeah.

ARBONA-RUIZ: Yeah. So - and I love that this album has so much sabor mexicana, you know? It's just - and I understand you had more than 180 musicians on it.

DOWNS: I know. Yeah, Camilo said to me, you know, can you believe that this is the amount of people I'm paying...


DOWNS: ...You know, and it wasn't all at once. So it's kind of like it just kept building and building. And - but it was a very - ¿cómo se dice? - like, a very convivio. It was a very - convevio (ph) dicen algunos (laughter), where everybody gets together. It's very social, and people exchange ideas and, of course, the music. And people were so loving to each other. And it makes me think of how important la guetza - like, the Guelaguetza is really a representation of this, where people come together and exchange culture and traditions and their great knowledge about their textiles or their particular things that they produce in their region.

And so this album, I can say, really was about the festivity of exchange and cooperation. And that is a beautiful and very important quality that I think we have in the - in humanity, of course. But in the south of Mexico, it's a magical occurrence when you see this happen. You know, people get together, and everybody brings different things to the fiesta, especially Mezcal.



DOWNS: Yeah.

ARBONA-RUIZ: I wanted to ask you if you had gone out on the road and just picked bands up along the way or just kind of grew organically?

DOWNS: It did. Yeah. I mean, I did have this kind of master plan, originally. I wanted to go to maybe Sinaloa, although it's kind of, you know - I have - we have a lot of friends there in the bandas, and I wanted to go also to Guerrero. But, you know, the reality is that Mexico is incredibly dangerous in these places. And so you don't want to, you know, put anyone at risk.


DOWNS: So for now, it was great that it worked out the way it did. And like you say, I mean, it worked organically. It just - sometimes, you just can't push things when they don't want to happen. Things have been coming together for this album, I should say, in a very magical way.

ARBONA-RUIZ: I wanted to talk about one of my favorite songs on your album, which is "Clandestino"...

DOWNS: Yeah.

ARBONA-RUIZ: ...Written by Manu Chao...

DOWNS: Yeah.

ARBONA-RUIZ: ...One of alternative rock en español's pioneers, and I think this song was written about 20 years ago.

DOWNS: Yeah - '98, right?



ARBONA-RUIZ: You really bring it to life with your cumbia. So tell us about that approach and what inspired you to include this song.

DOWNS: You know, whenever we sing a song as women, it just takes another meaning - and especially when we come from cultures that are kind of man-oriented.


ARBONA-RUIZ: Yes. We know that well.


DOWNS: So we take something, and we, you know, kind of - it changes the perspective. And I thought that that was pretty fascinating, including for me, because I started singing it and I actually recorded it saying clandestino, and now I'm singing it clandestina. And yeah. So it's - you know how these things - they just kind of direct you, and art does that. Fascinating. And then, of course, this - I was invited to go and sing with a group of singer-songwriters. First, it was with Joan Baez, and then we went on another tour that I think, actually, one of you saw - or you both saw, I think, right?


DOWNS: The Lantern Tour...

ARBONA-RUIZ: That was so beautiful.

DOWNS: ...With Jackson Browne. And so it made me aware - more aware of this situation with the detention centers and the children from Latin American countries. I think that's something that I feel we should still talk about. I'm very concerned when we are punishing children. We should be concerned about this.

CONTRERAS: It's almost like Manu Chao was prophetic in writing the lyrics of this song. Like you said, like, it's amazing to think that it's, you know, 1998. This is "Clandestino" written by Manu Chao. This is Lila Downs.


DOWNS: (Singing) Sola voy con mi pena, sola va mi condena. Correr es mi destino, para burlar la ley. Perdida en el corazón de la grande Babilón. Me dicen clandestino, por no llevar papel. Pa' una ciudad del norte, yo me fui a trabajar. Mi vida la dejé entre Tijuana y Bagdad. Soy una raya en el mar, fantasma en la ciudad. Mi vida va prohibida, dice la autoridad. Un salto al grupo cual, la misteriosa. Sonora Tropical. Sola voy con mi pena, sola va mi condena. Correr es mi destino, por no llevar papel. Perdida en el corazón de la grande Babilón. Me dicen clandestino, yo soy la quiebra ley. Peruano.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Hondureño.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Mexicana.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestina.

DOWNS: (Singing) Marihuana.

CORO: (Singing) Ilegal.

DOWNS: Si no peleamos por los niños, ¿qué será de nosotros?

(Singing) Sola voy con mi pena, sola va mi condena. Correr es mi destino, para burlar la ley. Perdida en el corazón de la grande Babilón. Me dicen clandestino, yo soy la quiebra ley. Venezolano.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Colombiano.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Sonorence.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Corderiza.

CORO: (Singing) Ilegal.

DOWNS: (Singing) Chapaneca.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestina.

DOWNS: (Singing) Guerrerence.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Nicaragüense.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Salvadoreño ilegal. Boliviano.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Oaxaqueña.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestina.

DOWNS: (Singing) Ecuatoriano.

CORO: (Singing) Clandestino.

DOWNS: (Singing) Tapatía ilegal.

In the United States of America, detention Centers. Los centros de detención.

CONTRERAS: It struck me that it's almost a new move for you to play something by an artist like Manu Chao because you've drawn heavily on the classical composers, Mexican composers, Latin American composers, as well as your own music. Manu Chao's of a different generation, let's say.

DOWNS: Yeah. Yeah.

CONTRERAS: What drew you to that particular song?

DOWNS: Well, I think it's a great song.


ARBONA-RUIZ: I think it's also because you - you're a bit of a chingona.


ARBONA-RUIZ: And he is - Manu Chao was, you know, a bit rebellious, too. He was an outspoken activist...

DOWNS: Yeah.

ARBONA-RUIZ: ...The son of, I guess, refugees from Spain into France. And I think, on that wavelength, you relate very well.

DOWNS: Yeah. Yeah.


DOWNS: Yeah. He wanted to hear the version. So we sent it out.



CONTRERAS: And speaking of composers, you know, you have a handful of original songs on the album. Can you tell us about some of the songs that you chose and some of the composers behind those songs? 'Cause I see a variety of names - some I know, and some I don't know.

DOWNS: Yeah. Well, Gepe is someone who is new to me and was actually suggested by someone at Sony. And, you know, I love that about, you know, working with labels. They have this connection to all these artists. And so that is really wonderful. They said, I think that you would enjoy what Gepe does. So I listened, and I liked it. And we invited him to sing on this song by Descemer Bueno, a Cuban composer. It's called "Sé Feliz." And also, of course, we were able to record "El Campanero," a classic Aniceto Molina piece, and it's also kind of a tribute to him. He's one of the great cumbia composers in Colombia. And we also did "Los Caminos De La Vida," which was a classic Colombian piece, as well, very well-known - La Tropa Vallenata is the name of that band. And then "La San Marqueña" is a classic song from the coastal region of Guerrero and Oaxaca.

And I think that the reason the costa style was very important on this album is because when I went to Guerrero, we went to Acapulco to do a concert there. People were telling us about these banda formations that are, you know, saxophone, clarinet and trumpet and a snare drum. And they go out, and they go get the la novia. They go get the bride. And they bring her with the little music down the street to the casa del novio, at the groom's house. And I thought, oh, that is so beautiful. And I said, what are these little bandas called? They said, son las bandas del chile frito. And I thought, chile - my goodness. Then I - then now that I have been reading about the chile in Guerrero, there are different traditions that celebrate chile because it's the crop of that city or village.

And so they decorate la Virgen with all these chiles around her. They make these beautiful flowers, but they're made out of big, you know, beautiful green chiles. And I thought, my goodness. And this is still going on, right? We - sometimes, we think that these traditions have somehow been forgotten, and they have not. And so basically, I want to show people the beauty of this and, in our concerts, show examples and videos of these images.

CONTRERAS: Which song are we going to play for that?

DOWNS: "Caminos De La Vida" (ph), which is also in Mixtec.


DOWNS: (Speaking in Mixtec).

(Singing) ¡Epa! Los caminos de la vida no son como pensaba, como los imaginaba, no son como yo creía. Los caminos de la vida, son muy difícil de andarlos, difícil de caminarlos. Yo no encuentro la salida. Porque mi viejita ya está cansa de trabajar en la vida y pa' mí. Y ahora con gusto me toca ayudarla y por mi vieja luchar hasta el fin. Por ella lucharé hasta que me muera, y por ella no me voy a morir. Tampoco que se muera mi viejita, pero qué va si el destino es así.

(Singing in Mixtec).

CONTRERAS: I'm always curious about where - like, when you as an artist, you're hearing this song play back. And obviously, you have a relationship with the song. I'm wondering what goes through your mind when you hear it? Do you remember recording it? Do you remember the instance of hearing the song for the first time? Like, what is going through your mind as you listen to this?

DOWNS: Yeah, really good question. I remember the first time that I heard this song, I became very emotional. It's one of those amazing songs that just makes you think about your whole life. Right? El camino, or the path of life is what it is. And the lyric is kind of depressing, actually, because it says the path of life isn't what I thought it would be. And there's a bit of regret in that - right? - in that little phrase. So you have the opportunity, I guess, to think whether you do regret or feel sorry for yourself, in a way (laughter).

CONTRERAS: Right, right.

DOWNS: But the element of the mother is so important in the song. It's kind of a Mother's Day kind of song because it's about giving back to those people who nurture you in your life.


DOWNS: (Singing) No son como yo pensaba, como los imaginaba, no son como yo creía. Los caminos de la vida son muy difícil de andarlos, difícil de caminarlos. Yo no encuentro la salida. Conjunto Costa Azul y Banda La Misteriosa.

CONTRERAS: You're listening to ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras, and I'm in the studio with ALT.LATINO contributor Marisa Arbona-Ruiz, and we're talking to Lila Downs about her new album. It's called "Al Chile." It's a musical rumination on all things chile.

ARBONA-RUIZ: Do you have a favorite chile?


DOWNS: Ah, caray.

ARBONA-RUIZ: You write about several chiles in your song.

CONTRERAS: Careful, guys. This is a family hour, OK?


DOWNS: Te digo. Yeah, well, este - as you experimented right now, it's true. El chile reactions are very different in men and in women.


DOWNS: And it does cause a lot of laughing on the women's side (laughter). Yeah, of course. I mean, we eat such a variety in Mexico of chile morita, chile mulato, esta chile chipotle, of course, which we know more here in the U.S., chile este jalapeño, chile serrano, which is the smaller, thinner green chili. We have, of course, different styles of cooking them, you know? Like, we have a mole in my region - a Mixtec mole that you just boil everything. You boil the garlic, the onion, the thyme, the pepper. And the chili peppers that you use are the chile costeño. They're the very hot ones. But for some reason, when you boil them, they kind of lose a little bit of their spice.

And then you grind it all, and you season it with some kind of a bouillon that you have prepared before, either vegetarian or with chicken. And it's delicious.

CONTRERAS: OK, now I'm hungry.


CONTRERAS: Lila Downs, thank you so much for coming in to talk about the record.

DOWNS: Thank you for having me. "Al Chile."

CONTRERAS: Yeah, there you go.


CONTRERAS: You're always welcome back here on ALT.LATINO, and we look forward to hearing this record and seeing you out on tour and catching up to you the next time.

ARBONA-RUIZ: Yes, thank you. It's always wonderful to see you and hear you and watch you perform.

DOWNS: Thank you so much. Les mando un abrazo. Thank you so much.

CONTRERAS: Igualmente.


CONTRERAS: And since we've been talking about chile and mole and all that, we need something to wash it down. How about this track - "Dos Botellas De Mezcal." I'm Felix Contreras. This has been ALT.LATINO. Thank you so much for listening.


DOWNS: (Singing) Cuando me muera, cómo te agradecería que pusieras en mi tumba dos botellas de mezcal. Porque sé que de morirme de una cruda, sabes bien que es culpa tuya, por no poderte olvidar. Todas las noches cuando agarro la botella, yo te miro dentro de ella, y pongo a platicar. Al rato siento que me abrazas y me aprietas cual si fuera cosa cierta. Te amo, te amo y no es verdad. Cuando al fin vuelvo de mis locos pensamientos, empiezan mis sufrimientos porque te busco y no estás. De mis ojos, empieza a brotar el llanto, porque yo te quiero tanto, y no te puedo olvidar.

Todas las noches, cuando agarro la botella, yo te miro dentro de ella, y me pongo a platicar. Al rato siento que me abrazas y me aprietas, cual si fuera cosa cierta. Te amo, te amo y no es verdad. Cuando al fin vuelvo de mis locos pensamientos, empiezan mis sufrimientos porque te busco y no estás. De mis ojos empieza a brotar el llanto porque yo te quiero tanto y no te puedo olvidar.

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