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A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors

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A Four-Way Conversation:
Lila & Jamie Downs, Paul Cohen, John McLaughlin


[This conversation took place on Monday morning, August 27, 2001, at a Friendly’s restaurant in Fort Washington, PA, where Lila Downs, the Oaxacan singer, and her husband/artistic director Paul Cohen went with us for breakfast and an interview, following the close of the Philadelphia Folk Festival’s 40th Anniversary Celebration. The coincidence of Jamie’s last name with Lila’s led to discussion about their perhaps shared family background, at some distance in the past, and Paul’s Philadelphia background led to discussion with me concerning old friends at Haverford College and perhaps Temple University, since I had taught in Philadelphia some years before. But this soon turned into discussion of the Oaxacan artists we had seen in our visit there last February, with Jamie’s fine arts background (BFA, Kutztown, 1971) coming into play, as well as, of course, Lila and Paul’s appearance at the just-concluded Philly Folk Festival, where they had shared the stage with Arlo Guthrie and Xavier, his family-based band, as well as workshops with Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody’s grand-daughter, and Tao Rodriguez Seeger, Pete Seeger’s grandson. Other areas of discussion included the music Lila and Paul are currently putting together for an upcoming movie with Antonio Banderas, on the artist-widow of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and a survey of their current concept-album, Border/La Linea (Narada World Records), with a suggestion of the parallels between the weeping mother of Mexican folklore, featured on the album, and Kathleen Ni Hoolihan, the Old Woman of Ireland who begins in age and ugliness and grows into youth and beauty as she calls her children to sacrifice. A lot of ground was covered, in other words, and we hope this brief introduction will help keep you on track as you follow this breakfast conversation between four people who began as strangers and ended, we hope, as friends. We begin with the tape running as the waitress serves us our breakfast, and Jamie explaining to Lila and Paul the background of The Digital Folk Life in our tabloid newsprint "magapaper," The Folk Life, of the 1970s.]



Jamie: We’d tape our interviews with people, and transcribe the whole thing pretty much verbatim for our magazine, which was tabloid newsprint, so that we had plenty of room for the interviews, and that’s how they’d go up, unless of course our interviewees had some things in there they’d rather not see up there.


Mountains in Oaxaca
John: And so that’s what we’re now putting up on our website – we didn’t know what else to do with them… [Lila laughs] So: you come from the state of Oaxaca, not the city, but the mountains around it?

Lila:
Yes. It’s a mountainous area, with a lot of pine trees, and cool weather. And then I grew up also in Minnesota, in St Paul, actually.



John:
St Paul? No kidding. Two weeks ago we were visiting my grandson – and his parents, of course -- in St Paul.

Lila:
Really?

John: Yeah, my son-in-law teaches in the biology department of Macalaster College, and he took us to an Irish festival while we were there. We missed Eileen Ivers, because Benjamin had a two-year-olds’ party to go to, so we had to go to the party -- we knew we couldn’t escape Eileen at Philly [Lila laughs], so we went to Benjamin’s party. So you grew up in St Paul?

Lila:
Yes, that’s where I grew up, and, yeah, spent a long time there. We’re going to play in November in Minneapolis. I went to the University of Minneapolis in St Paul, majored in anthropology and music there. Because my father taught art and cinematography there.

John:
How did your father come down to Oaxaca?

Lila:
He was working on a documentary movie that followed the blue-winged teal – that’s a duck that migrates from Canada – and he went thro Mexico City, and then they went to a club, and he saw my Mom. She was singing.

John:
That’s enough. That says it right there. [Lila laughs] What was her professional name?

Lila: Anita Sanchez. Her real name was Anastasia, but she went by Anita.

John:
Was that a Russian background in the family?

Lila:
No. No, that’s just an old name that people used to use.

John:
I’m just curious about the family. You mentioned yesterday onstage your grandmother’s…Indian? background. What was that – Mixtecan?

Lila: Yes, Mixtecan. My mother always spoke in Mixtecan in the family. My mother didn’t teach it to me, because she was ashamed. In Mexico we also have much shame of our Indian roots, of our Indian-ness, of our color of skin? Because these things have centuries from, you know, the Spanish, to feel ashamed about these things. But now, with the Zapatista movement and everything, I think we’re finally coming out [Laughs] – you know, things are changing. Well, I went thro a very difficult time, because I identified more with my father’s…Anglo background? I used to bleach my hair – when I was living in Minnesota, I used to be blonde! [Laughs]



Zapatista Caravan in Oaxaca February 26, 2001


John:
Of course, if he was Irish, he might not have liked being called "Anglo"! [Laughter]

Lila:
Right! That’s true. [Laughs] So I went right thro all those things. I dropped out of school, I followed around the Grateful Dead, I went to the Rainbow Gatherings. I think I needed to get in touch with the roots of humanity, of being just your basic who you are, who you come out as, and living on the streets taught me a lot about who you are. And then I go back to my grandmother’s tradition. I remember the things she would tell me about, like the snake that comes from the sky, and brings the rain, and there’s another snake underground, that brings the water. And these things I also found in the codices.

John:
The Mixtec codices?

Lila:
Right. Yeah. And I wrote poems about these things, together with my mother, interpreting the language, which is a poetic, beautiful language. And we did that Tree of Life album – is there a tree of life in the other traditions?

John:
There is in the Norse mythologies, yeah. Yggdrasil, I think the name is. The Tree of Life. Yeah. I used to run a radio program – may run it again – called, "Roots and Wings – I have only two things to give my children, roots and wings" [from a poster in the birthing room where our son Stirling was born].

Lila:
That’s beautiful.

John:
Thank you. Your father just came down to Mexico, or did he go back and forth with you?

Lila:
We would go back and forth, because he was teaching in Minnesota, and my mother had an auto parts store in Mexico. And I would stay with her for a year, and then come back to Minneapolis for another year. And I met Paul in my mother’s store.

Paul:
I met Lila because I had a clogged carburetor one day and my car stalled out in front of her mother’s store. And she was singing in the background…. [Laughter]

John:
I like that! That’s a John Jackson story in there! [Laughter]

Paul:
No, really! She was working in her mother’s store, she was selling car parts, and we would meet, and go down the block, and she was singing jazz standards….

John:
But her guitar was hanging among the pipes, the car parts? There’s a great John Jackson story in here, with you as Chris Strachwitz! [Laughter]

Lila:
He used to come and watch me, and talk with the mechanics –

John:
But he had no interest in the mechanics, right?

Lila: No, not too much! Everybody knows that! [Laughing]


Basilica de la Soledad
Jamie: You studied opera in Oaxaca, didn’t you?

Lila: Yes, I did.

Jamie: Where? In that place just west of the Zocalo?

Lila:
Yes, right next to the Soledad – if you go to the Church called the Soledad, it’s right across that plaza. The "School of the Beautiful Arts," is what it’s called.


John: How early did you know you were going to be a musician?

Lila: I… used to sing when I was really young, and I loved to fiddle with records and, you know, sing along to the music. But when I went to college, I was a voice major, and I was studying opera as well, and my days were busy with theory and piano and choir and all these things. And then I suddenly thought, "I think I’m missing out on a big part of life." I wanted to know more about the world.

John:
But it’s a great jazz voice you’ve got there. What is that, three octaves?

Lila:
Yes – that happened later on.

John: We’ve got a friend, Janet Lawson, who scat-sings like that.

Lila: Wow. Well, I studied jazz later on, when we came to Philadelphia. We lived here for a year. I was working part-time, and also studying jazz.

John: You didn’t meet Paul here, you met him in Oaxaca – what, eight years ago?

Lila:
Yeah, you know, I guess it was, eight years ago. He was playing in a salsa club.

John:
Was this before or after he was a circus clown?



Lila with Tao Rodriguez
at Philadelphia Folk Festival
Lila: After.

John:
Not during?

Lila: [laughs] Not during, no!

Paul:
It was my last trip as a clown, actually.

Lila:
He was still juggling.

John: Juggling, David Gillies style? Did you see him this weekend?

Paul: Well, I know him from ‘way back.

John:
Were you in the Give and Take Jugglers at one point?

Paul:
No. I was doing my own thing. It was comic – well, it’s all comic. I was in circuses in Europe, I travelled quite a bit. One season we went to Oaxaca, and I started playing more music.


John:
Was your first instrument the saxophone?

Paul: The tenor saxophone. Then after that the piano. And other things, by ear.

John:
How did the band come together? – it’s a very tight band, in the show and on the new album.

Lila: Yes. We had a big meeting with the band last night, didn’t we?

Paul:
The band that you saw yesterday recorded on the record, but we added two new people, a pianist and a guitar player.

Lila: It happened slowly, tho, because the harp player, Celso Duarte, started to play with us about three years ago.

John:
That’s a beautiful harp. Is that Mexican made?

Lila:
It’s Paraguayan, actually. But it has a chromatic system of tuning, made by the Japanese. He goes to Japan a lot, with his family. He comes from a family of harp players. And he learned both techniques, from Paraguay and also from Mexico. And his father’s a kind of legendary harp player.

John: To me, in that concert in Oaxaca, my jaw was on the floor. I didn’t know what I was listening to, with the harp and the saxophone crossing one another [Lila laughs]. That’s just a great sound. Did that develop early, or is that a recent sound?

Lila: The combination? Well, you’ve always been playing that horn, Paul, starting out with jazz standards, and then the Oaxacan music, with the guitar, and then the harp.

Paul:
It was Lila’s idea to add more, folksier, instruments to the band, so there was the jazz, and then the Mayan, and the salsa, and then more folk. We had a drum kit, and we moved that out because we wanted more folk percussion, other patterns.

Lila:
Yes, it sounded too much like rock or jazz, and that’s not what we wanted.

Paul:
Yes, and whatever worked, that’s what we kept. And Lila’s voice, of course, it does… whatever it wants!

Jamie:
You can hear all three traditions in your voice, there’s opera, there’s jazz, there’s folk. At that concert in Oaxaca, we were sitting ‘way up in the rear balcony, and everyone around us was singing along with all of your songs – they knew all the words and music.

Lila: [Laughs] That’s wonderful!

John:
That concert in Oaxaca, February 24th? It was a benefit for "La Casa De Las Mujeres," a scholarship concert for the young women in the school. What was fascinating for me was that the scholarship money wasn’t just for books and tuition and uniforms. It was to replace the money that the family can’t have because the child can’t work.


Children of Political Prisoners
Sell Baskets in Zocalo, Oaxaca City

Lila:
Right. That’s a big problem, because everybody starts working, and then they drop out. And also they don’t adapt to the urban way of life very well, because they come from rural communities.

John:
Where the assumption is that everyone in the family supports the family.

Lila:
And also there’s tutors who talk with the girls and give them suggestions, since they know about the different backgrounds.


John:
I was at a conference at MIT a couple of years ago, called, "Junior Summit." And MIT had recruited kids from around the world – sent them video-cameras and computers, to record what it was like being a child, and wound up with an email discussion list, from which the kids elected about 75 kids from around the world to come to MIT and tell people at MIT what it was like being a child around the world. While they were there, all of the young delegates went to the Admissions Office and filled out applications to go to MIT! [Laughter] But they also said that you can’t abolish child labor around the world. They were quite clear about it. Can’t be done. Maybe you could have a child union. Run by children, with adult advice…[Laughter] Those children wouldn’t take too much advice…! Woody Guthrie does seem to have a strong effect in Mexico. A strong identification. I noticed in the concerts this weekend, you did not only the medley of "Pastures of Plenty" with "This Land Is Your Land," and your poem, "Land," which is on your Border CD, but also "Deportees," which is not on that CD. Very slowly. When I listened to the love-songs on the CD, I thought they were…sad? Jamie said they were tender.

Lila:
H’m. Yes. Melancholy? I think there’s a constant tragic sense in Mexican souls. I think it’s this constant, melancholic sadness, mourning for the past. There’s a mourning for a time which, in my mind, is before the Europeans came. The verses in "La Llorona," "The Crying Woman," refer to that. It says, "Yesterday, I was a marvel. Today, I am not even a shadow." People can interpret it about anything, it can be about love, too. But I think it’s about that sadness, that "sentimiento" from the rancheros.

Paul:
They are, they’re very sad songs, and they’re very passive too. For example, the story about "Corazoncito Tirano," it’s a lament by the woman – or the guy, whoever – mostly it’s the guy who goes north, for work.

John:
About the other one having gone "al otro lado," across the border?

Paul:
What do the words say – it’s very pretty –

Lila:
"Without the water, there is no ocean; the sun, without light, is no sun. And I, without you, am nothing."

John:
And the reason is that you have gone "to the other side"?

Lila:
There’s another verse, "What far off lands are you stepping on, what far-off stars are looking out for you?"

John:
Different constellations.

Lila: "Is your way good or bad?"

John:
And I can’t know because you have left me?

Lila:
That’s it.

John: Some of that seems to me to carry that Woody Guthrie sense, of the lonesome traveler. This recent album, would you be willing to talk about the songs on it?

Lila:
Certainly.

John:
And it’s sitting right here, my goodness [Laughter] It seems to me that it’s arranged as a set, with Woody in the middle, and the others leading up to that and then away from there, with "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps" as being – perhaps – something else.

Paul: We put that at the end, because that was one of those record company requests, because it’s going to be on the sound-track of a new movie that’s about to be released, and there’s another sound track for another movie that’s going to come out, and they thought this would be helpful. It didn’t fit in with the concept that we had, so we thought, "Bonus track," and put it on at the end and went from there.
It was written by Osvaldo Farres and Joe Davis, and it’s been recorded about 200 times.


John:
Yes, I thought I remembered hearing it in Tampico in 1957. I was there on St Valentine’s Day – El Cumpleano de Amor…Ah well….

Paul:
Very possibly. It’s an old popular song. Well, they needed it for the movie, so we did it – didn’t sleep for about four days, and got it all done.

John: I like it, because it reminds me of the music at the Zocalo in Oaxaca.
Who’s doing the movie?

Las Marimbas de los Hermanos Carreon
on the Zocallo in Oaxaca


Paul: It’s by Hector Elizondo? He’s been in a number of movies.

Lila:
It’s directed by a woman, Maria Ripoll. She’s a Spanish movie director, and she’s done a number of things in Hollywood.

Paul:
It’s based on a story that came out a number of years ago. It’s about food. [Laughter]. Something Mexicans like to talk about.

John:
I dunno, there’s a chapter in Carlos Fuentes’ The Crystal Frontier, about a Mexican gourmand, in Los Angles I think, who’s very scornful about American food. He says there’s six cuisines in the world -- French, Mexican, Chinese… Scottish….

Lila:
Really?

John:
I was kidding about that last one. [Laughter] A cuisine based on a dare. Let me ask you about these songs. What about this first one?

Lisa:
The first one is based on a poem from Chiapas. It says, "My heart reminds me of the time that has passed, and I will cry for the time that is going right now – "el tiempo que pasa" – "The time that is passing is my death that is going…" I admire and respect this poem so much, because I think the metaphors that are being used have much to do with our Indian identity. And she doesn’t have to do it in a literal or narrative sense, it’s just rich in a universal way. And so the way that she speaks of death in this song, it’s so rich and peaceful. I always feel such deep peace when I sing this song. It doesn’t happen with every song – I mean, I try, and wish it could happen more and more for everything. But this is an arrangement that the band came up with, because we found this piece five or six years ago, and began performing it in Oaxaca, and it sounded quite different, and it’s quite evolved, and I think it sounds like something that’s very different. To me.

John:
Is there a reason why it led off the CD?

Lila: I guess – we didn’t really think it was going to be, at the beginning, did we, Paul? I think we finished recording all of the pieces, and then as we worked on it that one evolved, didn’t it?

Paul:
I think we thought, with the Border, let’s not start with the political stuff. We did some more, less political stuff, before we got to "Corazoncito Tirano," and so on.

John:
So you regarded the CD as a "set," then?

Lila:
Yes, we do. That’s something where Paul really has a major influence, because that’s how he works. We’ve been doing shows, like Philadelphia, and it’s about making people happy, that’s what music is about. It’s supposed to move you, and if it doesn’t do that…[Laughs]

John:
We did an interview with Liam Clancy some years ago, and the thing we talked about was being a "performer," with a set, as opposed to being a "musician," just a musician who plays tunes? Having a set, with openers and closers and carrying people along?

Paul:
Well, that’s the principle, from our first record, which has really a lot of weird things on it, boleros, Oaxacan music, this and that, five-part harmonies, and we didn’t think about it much, and then we thought, "Let’s try to do something that’s a little more conceptual." With a centre – Woody -- and pieces that work around it.

John:
OK. So given that, how does the second tune work here?

Lila:
It’s a rhythm that’s played on a tortoise shell. The tortoise shell used to be played in pre-Hispanic times, pre-Columbian times, and it’s played to this day – it’s a very ceremonial rhythm, and it talks about something that Mexicans are very obsessed with, and many Latin-Americans, we’re obsessed with beauty – isn’t all of humanity? [Laughs] --and so this piece says, "I am the ugly one, and when people tell you, you know, what are you doing with that ugly man, tell them I’m the one who loves you," you know, and – and that’s what matters, right? [Laughter] It’s funny, because we are so obsessed with it, I feel more in the Latin culture. And yet it’s one of the favorite pieces, in all of Mexico. It’s one of the pieces that comes from the Zapotecan culture in Oaxaca, yet everyone in the country pretty much knows what it says. So… It’s an unusual piece. The next piece is my impression about the Europeans coming to this country and how that worked, how the native community perceived the Europeans to be gods, and then now the other movement is that Indian people are coming up to the North to work, and there’s a different kind of rejection, of the workers who are working in the restaurants and doing domestic work in the US, and also our own shame towards our Indian-ness that I spoke of before. You – you really aspire to be like the Europeans, but you also really enjoy having your Mexican tortilla and tacos, so it’s a contradiction, you’re always saying – in Mexico City especially, there’s a very anti-Yanqui kind of a feeling, and yet they adopt certain things that are OK. A double standard. So I kind of poke fun at that in this song.

And in the next song – "El Corazoncito Tirano" – there’s that music playing. "La Nina" is dedicated to the Mixtec servants in Mexico. My mother, when she was very young, she was 14, and my grandmother married her by force, and I think she lived with the man for six months, and she ran away, and she went to the city, and she looked for a domestic job, anything she could get, and she was a nanny, and along the way she became an independent person, a very strong woman, and very thoughtful, thinking about all the women who go thro that experience. There are so many, so many in Mexico, you have no idea.

John:
Working in the maquiladoras, near the border.

Lila:
Exactly.

John: Difficult for men, in a macho culture, to accept that the women have a job and they don’t.

Lila:
Right. Exactly. And that’s why they leave, because they can’t put up with that. I grew up in a rural community too, and when my father died, I was 16, people stopped talking to me – there was no man in the family any more! That’s just to that level. Just imagine if you have a child or you get pregnant or anything like that. So this is to be respectful towards women, to say, "It’s OK, you can go and work. So, the next piece is a piece that we performed in the concert, a "Cumbia Maya," in the Mayan language, and it’s one of many funny songs that the people sing in the Yucatan, and I’ve heard many of them.

John:
I see you put on the comic voice here.

Lila:
Right! [Laughs] I do that because, in the native communities, the high, nasal range is the "gusto," what people like to hear, and I learned that when I was working in the native communities, and so I like to respect that, and I like to play with my voice too, and so I get to develop…

John:
Your basic instrument?

Lila:
Right! [Laughs] Many times animals and sexuality are very closely intertwined, on this culture. And next the "Pastures of Plenty," of course, is where we wanted to remind everyone that everyone has been immigrants, you know, we’ve all come over, we’ve travelled all over.

John:
The combination of that, which you did in concert but not on this CD, with "Deportee," was very moving. I noticed in Oaxaca that the crowd was especially, ah, up for "Pastures of Plenty." The audience in the back of the hall, up in the balcony, which knew your music, also knew this one, they were on their feet, they just seemed to know Woody Guthrie. Your poem in between, "Land," sounds to me like an interrogation by "la migra" [The immigration authorities] – "When did you come to America?" Strong combination. Was that intended to be the capstone of your set here? It’s in the middle, of course.

Lila:
I guess it was. It was important to get something in English, because hat’s important up here in the US, for people who are receptive to these things, I think. It may open their hearts.

John:
In Oaxaca, your voice was really powerful in delivering these pieces. You really used your voice a lot. Whereas on the CD it seems quieter. Was that so that you can sit down with it in your living-room and you can listen to it?

Lila:
I was recording this, and I was singing it strongly and I thought, "Wait a minute, this is a little too much." At that point, I wanted it to be a little less powerful, and that’s why I did that.

Paul:
It was preaching.

John:
I know the live audience in Oaxaca didn’t mind the preaching [Laughter] Another problem, perhaps, is how you get away from that strong a centre for a set. How did you get to the next one?

Lila
: "La Linea"?

Paul: That’s a really strong piece in Spanish, about the border thing. Very strong. Well, it’s a new piece, it’s the newest one we wrote.

Lila:
Right before we went into the studio.

John:
It was recorded in March, 2001. So you must have written it right around the time of that concert in Oaxaca?

Lila:
Right. Right. It was very new. Very new.

John:
And where did you go from there? [I’m looking at the CD upside down, it’s facing Lila and Paul.]

Lila:
In Mexico, during Christmas, we venerate El Nino Dios, Little Jesus.


Navidad Wreath on Door in Oaxaca
John: Little Baby Jesus?

Lila: Baby Jesus, right. Baby Jesus has a quality that makes him like ah, I see it as the beginning of life, all over again, the way that we do in the pre-Hispanic stories that we have, and so I say that he is growing feathers, like the religious deity that came from the Serpent, and I thought, when I was reading all this information on the Net, about the women who are dying in Sur Juarez, and then I saw the migrant workers, dying at the border, and I’m reading all this, and I’m thinking, "Oh, so negative," and I know I have to write something positive that gives us faith in something – the border is like home to me, when I go to the border I love it, I feel like I’m home, I share a lot with people who live on the border, and I wanted to write something that was, that had to do with the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the water, of the ocean, and also that was reality.


John:
The artwork on the CD is remarkable. Who’s responsible for the art direction?

Lila:
You mean…?

John:
Well, for example, right there is a picture of the streets, of crowded highways, and also a young man with an incredible head-dress, a great head-dress. It’s an amazing picture.

Paul:
Yes, we got that picture for that spot.

John:
It’s not a compilation, a composite?

Paul: No, we got him up on that pedestrian bridge.

Lila:
Yes, we met him and we asked him if we could take a picture of him.

John:
Is there a reason why he was in that head-dress in the city?

Lila:
Yes, he’s a dancer. Yes, they dance like that on the streets in Mexico City.

Paul: We had another picture of him, but because all this copyright stuff is, you know, very real, Narada said, "You can’t use this picture because you didn’t get permission from the kid." So that day I thought, "Oh man, what a drag." So I went out, and I was on the street, looking for some office supplies, and I saw a couple of dancers on the street, and I said, OK, "Would you come and sign a paper, would you come and be a model,"and so they did.

John: That’s good on Narada’s part, that they’re that careful.

Paul:
Oh, they’re a very good company, we’re very lucky to be with them.

John: That’s excellent. We were at a pow-wow in New Jersey, a couple of years ago, and there were dancers from all over, including Mexican dancers, and there was this young dancer, wearing long feathers, just leaping and dancing. Jamie had some pictures of this leaping and dancing, the deer dance.

Lila:
Where was this pow-wow?

John:
In New Jersey. We’d thought it would be confined to North American dancers, but no, it was Mexican – Aztec? Mayan? -- as well.

Jamie:
It was in Budd Lake. Right on Route 80.


Meso-America Dancer at Bud Lake Pow Wow

Deer Dance, Bud Lake Pow Wow


John:
And they drew dancers from all over. And you capture that sense of the history in this piece we’re talking about now.

Lila: And it’s influenced by that beat that they dance to. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Zocalo in Mexico City – that’s where they dance all the time. There’s different dance groups that also live a spiritual life in that centre, and they’re you know, kind of a community. Many people in Mexico criticize them because they say, "Well, how do you know that these are the rhythms that were played in our pre-Hispanic past?" Nobody knows for sure, because all of that was destroyed, but it had a lot to do with our religion, so I think – exactly, same people, why would it change? [Laughs]

John:
There’s no reason to change.


Pre-Hispanic Dancer
at Tamayo Museum in Oaxaca


Jamie:
I thought the choreography that we saw in Oaxaca seemed very deliberate.

John:
And where do you go on the CD from there?

Lila:
We go to "Acteal," which was about a massacre which happened in Chiapas.

John:
Was that about two years ago – forty-something people were killed? Lined up on the highway and just gunned them down?

Lila: No, this was in a church, and they were all women and children. It was really sad, because it was a war between these two communities over territory. They’d been having this trouble ‘way back in time, and it got complicated because of politics. And they came in and they just massacred these women and children, and everybody was just – I remember the next day, the streets in Mexico City were just quiet. The people were still very afraid to do anything, because our government was still the PRI, it was still PRI-controlled.

Jamie:
This was leading up to Fox, wasn’t it?

Lila: Yes. Well, a lot of the liberals don’t like him at all, because they think he’s very close to the US, he’s Coca-Cola, he likes the US, he likes George Bush.

Paul:
But compared to George Bush, this political machine that was there for 80 years, that’s something. And then maybe next time the other party will win. Fox is a pretty independent guy, his party is much more conservative than he is. He’s more like a freethinking kind of guy. I don’t know about his politics, but he seems to have a good heart.

John:
OK. Let me ask you, what’s the one that comes after "Acteal"?

Lila:
Oh, that’s "La Martiniana." That’s the one that says, ""Little girl, when I die, don’t come cry over my grave, but if you sing to me, my life, I will always live, I will never die." And that’s a beautiful idea, a beautiful message.

John:
But a little sad.

Lila:
Well, yes, a little melancholic, but beautiful at the same time.

Jamie:
Very uplifting.

Lila:
Yes, uplifting at the same time as sad. I mean, singing is such a beautiful force in my life, but also song, life, it’s such a beautiful thing, you can change it with song.

Jamie:
I mean, you’re talking about conquering death, it’s very powerful.

Lila:
That’s right.

John:
OK… Where are we now on the CD?

Lila:
The next song is from the coast of Oaxaca –


John:
Ah – "Soy Pescador" – "I am a fisherman"!

Lila:
That’s right. Groups of African-Mexicans, who have been living there since the turn of the century – when was the California Goldrush?

John:
1849.

Lila:
That’s right – that’s when they came up.

Jamie: We saw those fishermen – in Puerto Escondido.

Living on the Beach at Laguna Manialtepec
near Afro-mexican Villiage


Lila:
Did you? Well, that’s them. They came up to California, but then they just stayed in Mexico. And then the next one is "La Llorona." And it talks about how the Virgin has the same qualities as this ghost, who represents Death, at the same time.

John:
I’m thinking – in terms of your own background – of the Old Woman of Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan? She starts as an old woman, but as she calls on the children, and the young men, to enroll in the war, and as they are sacrificed in the war, she grows young and beautiful. It’s strange – almost a vampire. Living on the blood of the young men.

Lila:
Oh, that’s strange….

John: Perhaps Llorona is crying out of some kind of guilt?

Lila: That’s interesting…. I think that’s true.

John: She’s lost her children, of course.

Lila:
She kills her own children, you know. Are you familiar with that novel, that Toni Morrison novel, called, "Beloved"?

John:
I’m afraid I’m not.

Lila: It’s the same kind of a story, where a black woman kills her two children. She doesn’t want them to be slaves, and nobody ever understands her, they think she’s crazy. She does have her pride….

John: Has the old Woman of Mexico lost her children to immigration?

Lila: You mean, is that way of looking at it…? Yes, possibly….

John:
Because Ireland has lost millions of people, over the past hundred years, to immigration.

Lila:
Right, right….

John
: So in that mourning sense. Apart from being a figure to scare the children – "Don’t go too far from home or she’ll get you"?

Lila:
Oh. Right, yes.

John:
Is that the reason why "La Llorona" is the climax of your concept album?

Lila: Oh yes. She’s important at the border. And in the Chicano community, in the Latino community that comes thro, and crosses the border.

John:
Probably in other communities she’s different – in California – from the Rio Grande versions.

Lila:
Yes. She is. She’s very different…. That’s interesting….

Paul:
Lila also sings this song, we’ll be singing it in this "Frida" movie that we’re doing for Miramax next year, with a director from New York, her name is Julia Taymor; she’s worked with "The Lion King" on Broadway. Very interesting. It’s with commercial people like Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas.

John:
How terrible, you might even make money. [Laughter] Who’s this – "Frida"?

Lila:
Frida Kahlo. That was married to Diego Rivera. They were in the Communist party, they were strong Communist members, followers of Trotsky, actually lived very close to where we now live, and her life is very interesting. Hopefully, her story will come out, and her story will be known by the world, and I think that’s important.

Paul:
Do you know Frida Kahlo, do you know her images?

John:
Jamie does, I’m sure.

Jamie:
Well, I was a fine arts major, so.

Lila:
Ah – very interesting!


Jamie:
In fact, when we were in Oaxaca, I was doing some painting, in the month we were down there, and my painting has always been abstract, but I couldn’t do any abstract painting there, I said, "I can’t paint about Mexico, I don’t know anything about Mexico, so I was doing very literal paintings, and I did a painting of a little girl, everyone who looks at it says, "Oh, it looks like her!" Now, it doesn’t, but you know –

Lila: Yes, but when you know Mexico, everybody looks like that, right? There are hundreds of women who look like that, because we wear our traditional clothing, and braids, but you know, everyone needs to know that, right?

Little Girl in Oaxaca City


John:
My hunch about Mexico is, "I think I got it, I think I got it – I don’t got it!"

Lila:
[Laughs] But I think, you know, the visual thing, it’s very European, very psychological, it’s not exactly a Mexican thing in the arts of Mexico. Right?

Paul:
And usually in the Diego paintings, there’s a kind of musical narrative. Even the later guys, like Tamayo, are more like spiritual.

Jamie:
Right. Right. We were in Oaxaca, we were there when Morales died, right afterwards, and we that show, the retrospective, and it was a beautiful show.

Paul:
Yes – that roomful of pillars? Did you get to see that?

Lila:
No, I never did.

Jamie:
It really was beautiful. He gave a lot back. I thought about your concert, and it seemed very important.

Lila:
Right. It’s a big responsibility we have. For one another.

John:
It seems to be assumed, or expected, that one gives back to the community. Is that your sense?

Lila: Yes, in my Indian sense, and also in Minnesota, which is curious, because it doesn’t come there from the Mexican background, where it does seem as if it’s everyone for themselves, which may be the cause of a lot of problems, which may be another story, but in Minnesota, you do things together as a community, you pick up after yourself. You don’t rely on this hierarchy to do things for you.

John:
Is it Lutheran? [Laughs]

Lila:
It is, I do believe that it is. [Laughs]

John:
We were listening to Garrison Keillor on the way over, perhaps a re-broadcast, News from Lake Woebegon, about Lutheran churchwomen.

Jamie:
We have friends who lived in Minnesota, and he’s black and she’s white, and this was a while ago, and they just loved it there, they say it was one of their favorite places to live, and they said the people there were so helpful, one day he was having trouble wiring a two-way switch, and the next day all these people showed up to help – I mean, where else would people do that for you?

Lila: That’s Minnesota for you [Laughs]

John:
What’s your next project? Apart from the film, "Frida"?

Lila: We’re hoping to continue to do something in the line of interest that we have had, collect pieces from Southern Mexico, and also do our own compositions in English and in Spanish. I’m writing a piece that talks about marijuana, but in Spanish, right now, it’s done in the traditional form of the "Chilena," so it’s not going to be a pop or a pop-influenced piece. What else are we doing? We’re doing some "huapangos" – and also you know, lately I’ve been interested in looking back to my Scottish side, and I want to investigate and see what it is that we do, I mean it’s been a while since we –

Paul:
Yeah, we wanted the band to wear kilts, but they got a little rebellious [Laughter]

Jamie:
They should go to Scotland and have your brother Bill show them around.

Lila:
Right! [Laughs] Right!

John:
My brother’s very big on Scotland. Our friends go over there, and he shows them around.

Lila: I’d love to do that sometime.

John: What is the Scottish background in your family, again?

Lila: Well, my father’s name came thro from there – "Allen," right – and I don’t know which side it came thro, the mother’s or the father’s side – and then there’s Downs, and I remember seeing a book one time that dated back -- I don’t know what happened to the book, but I really want to look into it.

John: I always thought of Downs as strictly Irish, but who knows, there’s such a lot of travel back and forth from Scotland to Ireland and back.

Lila: Really? But that would be a good thing to really investigate.

John:
Are there any festivals – or recordings – coming thro? After you get thro with this exploration into the Scots-Irish?

Lila:
Definitely. Because I’d like to come more to the US.

Jamie: I just think the uillean pipes would go well with the band.

John: Or the Northumbrian small-pipes. Not the great Highland bagpipes [Laughter] How would you feel about that, Paul – playing the Northumbrian small-pipes?

Lila: [Laughing] Yeah, Paul – how about that? [Giggling]

Paul:
Yes, it’s just what I was thinking of! [Laughter] Well, we gotta be thinking of going. We’ve gotta get the van and all that?

John:
Well, thanks very much for your time.

Lila: Thank you.

John:
It’s been really pleasant for us. Will you be back up in the US soon, do you think?

Lila:
we’re coming back in November, to Philadelphia actually – playing at the Museum of Art.

Paul:
The one where Rocky went up the steps?

John: Jamie’s first job when we were married was as an accountant, at the Museum of Art.

Jamie:
They hire you if you have an art degree there – I mean, I count on my fingers, but they hired me as the Museum Shop accountant! [Laughter]

Paul:
Did you study art in Philadelphia?

Jamie:
No, in Kutztown. And he was teaching at La Salle, which is why we moved to Philadelphia.

Lila: What were you teaching there?

John: I was a medievalist. So I was teaching mostly tech writing. [Laughter]

Jamie:
Not at La Salle you weren’t. You were teaching a lot of good stuff at La Salle.

John: Good school. So will you be playing for La Casa de Mujeres next February?

Lila:
Yeah. Yeah, we will.

John:
So we might see you there again, I hope.

Paul:
It’s an annual thing that we’re going to be doing.

Jamie: We’ve got a grandchild being born around February 9th, and we plan to go to Oaxaca for three months this year, but we wanna be here when the grandchild is born?

Lila:
Aww…!

John:
But it would be nice to see you in Oaxaca. So we’ll see….

[And the usual bustle of getting up from the table and all that. OK, we could trim a couple of things here. But are these sweet kids or what – quite apart from the extraordinary talent and intelligence on display here? We really enjoyed talking with them, and hope you did too. I think that’s pretty much the gist and general flavor of it all, and a good beginning to the "New Series" of interviews from The Digital Folk Life, to supplement the "Old Series" from the original magazine, The Folk Life. Thank you, Lila and Paul, for your courtesy and patience, and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.

For further information about Lila Downs and Paul Cohen, please go to their website, or check with Narada Records, for tour information, reviews of their recordings, and further background. (There is an excellent review of Tree of Life by Michael Stone on www.rootsworld.com.)]










Diane and Stan of RealOaxaca.Com
at their usual spot on the zocallo